Whey to go: how British cheese is taking on the continent

23rd April 2018

Cheese has always been amazing. But British cheese is now comfortably competing with some of the great wedges of the continent. Hugh Thomas discovers the British cheesemakers and cheeses to watch (and devour).

Founder and producer of the Cornish Gouda Company, Giel Spierlings on his small family dairy farm in Cornwall. At 19, Giel setup the company to successfully diversify the family farm by producing hand crafted artisan cheese.

60 years ago, Britain was making one type of cheese. Now, the country’s producing between 700 and 900. Based on the latest figures from the British Cheese Board (best pun ever), that’s at least 300 more than France. And 250 more than Switzerland.

Numbers are remarkable enough, but it’s not as if Britain has spread itself thin on the cheese front either. A medium-hard Alpine style by Lynher Dairies ­– ‘Cornish Kern’ ­– was named best cheese in the world in November last year. It’s far from being the first British cheese to win the accolade.

So, how have we ended up with perhaps the most flourishing cheese culture in the world? Particularly when, in the 1940s-1950s, Britain’s diverse cheese industry almost ceased to exist?

A taste of British cheese history

Cheese in Britain, like many things, was rationed during and just after the Second World War. As such, the government, who pretty much controlled food output, was looking for a cheese not only easy to keep and transport, but one that reflected the nation’s sovereignty. Of course, they went for cheddar. Quickly it became so that if you were a cheesemaker, or dairy farmer, producing any cheese other than cheddar, those controlling the demand (i.e. government) wouldn’t distribute it, and you’d simply go out of business.

The feeling has stuck with most of us pretty much ever since ­– cheddar was the ‘only’ cheese. Despite our growing love for cheese in all its forms now, and although it was far from the case before the war, it’s a legacy we’re still yet to properly overcome. ‘Britain is not approaching the levels of pre-Second World War cheesemakers,’ says Chris Slocombe, operations director at Longman’s Cheese.

Stacey Hedges and Charlotte Spruce of Hampshire Cheeses make the award-winning Tunworth cheese: “our own, very British, Camembert – a soft, white-rinded cheese wonderfully reminiscent of its French cousin.”

Still, things are far better than anyone alive remembers them to be. As milk prices fall, farmers have to evolve or perish, looking for a way to add value to what they do.

‘Things started with the resurrection of British recipes at the turn of the century,’ says Chris. ‘And then, the more adventurous moved on to making continental-style cheeses. Hence award-winning Tunworth, a classic continental style Camembert; Baronet – an English-produced Reblochon; Cornish Gouda; and Jamie Montgomery’s Ogleshield raclette.’

Which can only lead us on to the question…

Is British cheese a cut above their indigenous equivalents?

In many cases, not quite. Partly because bacteria in the atmosphere is different wherever you are in the world – so much so it would be impossible to make a British carbon copy of the best Morbier to come out of the Franche-Comté region.

But there are a few whispers that some British cheeses are better than their foreign counterparts. ‘Old Winchester always draws great plaudits, and is a great alternative to parmesan,’ says Chris. ‘English [artisanally] produced feta and halloumi are on par with any of the continentals, and Cornish Gouda – particularly when aged ­– is exquisite.’ As to the last point, The Cheese Merchant’s George Lang agrees. ‘I can honestly say it’s the best Gouda I have ever tried. In my view, we are giving the continent a serious run for their money.’

Baron Bigod is a creamy, white bloomy-rind cheese handmade on the award-winning Fen Farm Dairy of Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore. It’s the only traditional raw milk Brie-de-Meaux style cheese produced in the UK and one of only a handful of its type in the world to be made by the farmer on the farm and can genuinely be called a true farmhouse Brie.

George might not be wrong. Last year, The Food Assembly observed there are probably no artisanal makers of brie in France. But look to the likes of Baron Bigod, and it’s not too hard to find one in the UK. Love it or hate it, George thinks it’s the British climate and the resulting lushness of the grass, which helps British cheese have the potential to compete with almost anything from anywhere in the world. ‘Not only do cows graze directly on this grass, but it makes ideal silage for the winter months,’ he says. ‘Allowing for a naturally nutritious diet for the cows all year round.’

Sounds promising, though without the right public discernment it’ll only carry us so far. For George, the biggest progress needs to take place with our culture. ‘A large proportion of people think we only produce what you find on a supermarket shelf. But I’m happy to say the tide is turning. The British are starting to look at where their food comes from and to embrace cheese as part of our food experience.’

Wiltshire-produced De Luca Mozzarella burrata at Hix Oyster and Chop House.

If at all, cheese made on a small scale looks some way off of making it to the supermarket shelf. But then, if they could cope with the demand, they wouldn’t be the size they are. Chris says the trouble with our best producers of mozzarella, feta and halloumi – though they may be equal to what’s found abroad – is that ‘none can produce on a large enough scale’ so we’re ‘forced to look abroad’ when we want quantity.

The future for British cheese?

It might be a while before the likes of Little Wallop, Gallybagger, Stinking Bishop, Ticklemore, and Black Eyed Susan become household names. More likely is that British interpretations of Comté, Morbier, Appenzeller, and Burrata will be found on the average Briton’s shopping list of tomorrow. As long as we don’t mind breaking away from cheddar, there can’t be much wrong with that. ‘You can invariably find a cheese which is similar to the one you loved in that family holiday in France last summer,’ says George. ‘There are some true gems to be found.’

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