Look for British Isles In The Aisles
Perhaps because of the common language and the approachable names and flavors, cheeses from the British Isles are well received by Americans. While the variety of styles tends to be limited compared with continental cheese powerhouses like France and Italy, the quality and flavor of British cheeses, particularly those from Neal’s Yard Dairy, a renowned London-based consolidator and affineur, rank among the world’s greatest.
Cheese is primarily a product of its regional climate and geography which influences what types of animals will thrive, what they eat and, in turn, the quality of the milk they produce. Because of its unique geography, most of Britain, Ireland and Wales are prime pastureland, receiving copious amounts of rain which produce particularly bountiful pastureland.
The temperate climate provides an ideal home to dairy cows and sheep. Dairy goats, with their well-known distaste for rain, are less prevalent here than in other cheese-centric regions. The finest and most famous farmstead versions of cheeses from the region rely on the rich, delicious milk from pasture grazed cows. As in the U.S., dairy sheep are increasing in popularity but account for only a small percentage of actual cheeses produced.
The history of cheese in the British Isles dates back thousands of years. Many cheese recipes and techniques were refined during the time of the Roman conquest. By the 11th Century, much of the cheesemaking in Britain was performed at the monasteries which documented the recipes.
For the next 800 years, cheesemaking flourished throughout the countryside. With the advent of rail travel, it became more profitable to ship fresh milk to the large cities, creating a dip in the number of traditional cheeses produced. In the 20th Century, many of the remaining traditional cheese styles were lost during wartime efforts to feed the population with “National Cheese.”
It is hard to fathom modern British cheese without the influence of Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy, established in 1979 to produce yogurt and fresh cheese. In short order, Hodgson was sourcing and selling artisanal cheeses from throughout the region. This attention and eventual acclaim created the foundation for a renaissance of traditional cheesemaking in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Cheddar, perhaps the most well-known cheese in the world, originated in the temperate southwest counties of Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Traditional Farmhouse Cheddar comes primarily from Somerset.
Traditional cheddar recipes include a process called cheddaring, in which drained curds are cut and stacked on top of one another to press out moisture and compact the curd. This results in a tight, dense texture and produces a cheese capable of extended aging. Farmstead cheddars are wrapped in muslin and rubbed with lard, a technique that protects the interior of the cheese and allows it to breathe. The two most famous and exemplary Farmhouse Cheddars are made by the Montgomery and Keen families. Both exhibit complex rich, sweet, nutty and beefy flavors that characterize the recipe and pair well with Pinot Noir and Syrah.
While not as well known, Cheshire is perhaps Britain’s oldest cheese, made since at least the 1100’s. Today, much of the Cheshire produced is a bland, commodity-style cheese.
To get a true sense of the deliciousness of this cheese, seek out the version made by the Appleby Family of Shropshire. It is the last remaining true farmstead version of Cheshire and a treasure to be savored. The interior is firm, crumbly and more moist than cheddar. The unique color, similar to cantaloupe, comes from the addition of annatto, a coloring agent from the annatto tree. Enjoy with a lighter style Pinot Noir or Gamay.
To taste the more savory, washed rind side of cheese from the British Isles, look no further than the delicious specimen Ardrahan from the Burns family of County Cork, Ireland. The family has been in dairy since the 1920s, and in the mid-80s turned their attention to cheesemaking. The mild, damp climate is ideal for producing washed rind cheeses, and Ardrahan was born.
The aroma is pungent, to be expected with orange-hued washed rind cheeses. Of course, the golden rule is that these cheeses don’t taste as assertive as they smell. The interior paste is sticky and moist with a delicious slightly smoky and savory lactic tang. The cheese is very versatile paired with a variety of wines, from Chardonnay to Pinot Gris on the light side and Pinot Noir to Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon on the red side.
While it’s no secret I’m a big fan of the blues, I usually don’t zero in on more than one or two at a time. However, when looking at the British Isles, I can’t limit myself and must celebrate a trio of remarkable cheeses, each unique and special in its own way.
Stilton is undoubtedly the most famous regional blue, made with locally sourced milk by just six dairies in three counties in the north of England. It has historic roots tracing back to the early 18th century and ranks among the world’s finest blue cheeses. The cheese has a buttery, rich texture and mellow, savory flavor. My favorite Stilton comes from the Colston Bassett dairy but all Stilton must meet strict quality controls. Look for cut-to-order pieces for optimum flavor and freshness.
A close cousin of Stilton is Blue Shropshire, a more recent recipe created in the 1930’s by a Stilton cheesemaker. The recipe resembles a cross between Stilton and Cheshire. The paste of the cheese is colored with the same colorant that gives Cheshire its orange hue. The contrast of the bright orange paste with the veins of blue is striking on a cheese platter. Today, the cheese is made by several of the Stilton dairies and has no connection with the county of Shropshire reflected in the name.
From the Emerald Isle hails the final blue in the trio. The Grubb family from County Cork produces an exceptionally creamy specimen called Cashel Blue, made with the milk of local dairy cows. Wheels are produced and aged for three weeks. Selections from Neal’s Yard are expertly aged for an additional three months, resulting in a rich, creamy, buttery cheese that is sure to please even those who are not fully-converted blue lovers.
Pairing wine with blue cheese is easy if you look to varietals with more than a hint of residual sweetness. Classic pairings include Port, Sauternes and Late Harvest types which introduce a sweet counterpoint to the creamy, savory notes of the blue.
Whichever way your cheese penchant swings, there are some mighty fine selections available from Britain and Ireland. While not as prominent in the cheese case, savoring selections from traditional producers ensures a supply of these historic gems will be around for us to enjoy into the future.
Christine Hyatt is a Cheese Educator and food writer. To learn more about cheese, visit her website www.cheese-chick.com.