The heroes of British cheese

The heroes of British cheese

by Nancy Anne Harbord 04 April 2016

Britain had a long and varied history of cheesemaking before industrialisation and two World Wars almost eliminated farmhouse production altogether. Nancy Anne Harbord pays homage to the historical figures that established artisan cheese in Britain and those who brought it back from the brink.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Although archaeological evidence suggests that some cheese was made in Iron Age Britain, it was refined and developed by the Romans, who introduced new knowledge and methods via their stronghold in Chester. The powerful monasteries, established by Cistercian monks following the Norman conquest in the eleventh century, also made a considerable contribution to this field; although forbidden to eat cheese themselves, they made and sold it for profit. Jervaulx Abbey, which was founded in Lower Wensleydale in 1156, produced a soft, blue cheese similar to Roquefort which developed over many years into the Wensleydale cheese that is popular today. The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s sent this craft into serious decline, but local farming families continued the practice over the next 300 years, with modern methods developing as demand grew from the establishment of larger towns.

This varied, regional production declined with industrialisation, but until the beginning of the twentieth century, the various regions of Britain produced thousands of farmhouse cheeses in numerous territorial styles; as late as World War Two, there were still more than 500 farms making cheddar alone. But when the government took control of milk supply in the 1930s, making the production of any cheese other than ‘Government Cheddar’ illegal, cheapness, efficiency and uniformity became the sole considerations and the farmhouse industries of Britain were all but lost.

Britain now produces over 700 types of cheese – a far cry from the 1940s, when the only cheese available was a bland variety called 'Government Cheddar'
There were hard fought battles between producers and regulators which helped shape the cheese industry today

Historic pioneers

James Aldridge was a perfectionist and paid great attention to detail; he could walk into a maturing room and know exactly what treatment each cheese needed. He taught me everything I know.

James McCall, James' Cheeses

Patrick Rance

After taking over a village shop in Berkshire in 1953, Patrick Rance grew over the years into Britain’s leading cheesemonger and refiner – an expert on British regional cheese – seeking out forgotten farmhouse cheeses and saving many from extinction. His detailed, impeccably researched tome, The Great British Cheese Book, was published in 1982. He campaigned relentlessly and, with little recompense, managed to bring remarkable specialist cheeses to as many people as possible, battling both the Milk Marketing Board and modern regulatory ignorance. Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy and Andy Swinscoe of Yorkshire’s Courtyard Dairy both cite Patrick Rance as an enormous influence on the thriving industry we have today.

James Aldridge

James Aldridge and his partner Pat opened a shop in south London in the 1970s – another cheesemonger who fought tirelessly to save small farmhouse cheeses, particularly unpasteurised cheddar. The revival of specialist cheeses in the 1980s and 1990s owes much to this remarkable character who pioneered modern affinage (cheese ageing and maturation) in Britain, particularly washed-rind cheeses; a number of which he developed in his shop, before passing the knowledge to other cheesemakers to continue. His research and analysis of the technical details of artisan cheesemaking and hygiene – information that he happily gave away for free – helped train and inspire many of today’s cheesemakers and affineurs.

For me the two key people in British cheese who really helped save it and re-invigorate it were Patrick Rance and James Aldridge.  People often forget about them as they're not around anymore, but in the early 1980s and 1990s they were key and really helped put small farmhouse cheese back on the map.

Andy Swinscoe, The Courtyard Dairy

Randolph Hodgson

Randolph Hodgson, who took over Neal’s Yard Dairy soon after it was established in the late 1970s, is widely recognised as central to the development of Britain’s artisan cheese industry, visiting cheesemakers every few weeks and fighting the corner of the country’s smallest and most vulnerable producers. Like James Aldridge, he took on the uninformed but powerful food hygiene regulators who were heavily pressurising traditional producers to pasteurise their milk and replace their natural aging rooms with plastic and steel. He reportedly offered to buy Mrs Kirkham’s entire Lancashire cheese output in a (successful) effort to stop her pasteurising. Keen to encourage people to share their knowledge, he established the Specialist Cheesemakers Association in 1990 to tackle the many threats to artisan production, lobby Whitehall for more informed regulation and bring solitary artisans together in a network of support. The association now represents nearly 200 farmhouse producers.

After failing to persuade Stilton makers to allow raw milk to be used in their cheese, he established Stichelton Dairy, together with Joe Schneider, reviving traditional ‘Stilton’. Neal’s Yard Dairy is now one of the world’s great cheese shops, stocking around seventy farmhouse cheeses that are refined and matured in their cavernous Bermondsey aging rooms, with a success built on quality and service rather than turnover and growth. In 2007, he received an OBE for his contribution to the British cheese industry.

The kings of blue cheese

Humphrey Errington’s ethos and the way his cheese captured the unique nature of his land and farm got me interested in farmhouse cheese – how different they can be and how they reflect where they are made.

Andy Swinscoe, The Courtyard Dairy

Randolph Hodgson’s knowledge and sheer skill at helping and nurturing English cheesemakers make him the ‘king of British artisan cheese’ as far as I am concerned. He literally grew it up from the doldrums – a true legend!

Patricia Michelson, La Fromagerie

Farmhouse cheese production had ceased in Scotland by the 1970s, a situation that prevailed until Humphrey Errington’s sterling efforts bore fruit. Determined to make his gorgeous blue sheep’s milk cheeses, based on old recipes and regional research, he fought Clydesdale Council at great personal expense, winning the right for him – and the others that followed ­­– to craft unpasteurised Scottish cheese. Robin Congdon, too, contributed to the success of artisan sheep’s milk blues in the UK, pioneering their production south of the border.

Honourable mentions

There are so many more who deserve a place in this roll call. Mary Holbrook – the godmother of British goat cheese – whose cheeses were crafted with painstaking research and years of experimentation. Families like the Applebys and Montgomerys, who maintained traditional methods of producing Britain’s famous territorial cheeses when they were all but forgotten. The countless other small producers and cheese refiners, continuing their great work, while yet others have passed away.

I’ll leave the last word to Andy Swinscoe, the energetic young cheesemonger who is building his Yorkshire Dales business on the shoulders of these dedicated artisans. ‘If people continue to talk about and champion farm-made cheese then I think it will continue to grow – do your research and try and find 'proper' artisan cheese. It helps keep small farms viable, has a fascinating story – and tastes great too!’