For many years restaurant cheese boards were dominated by cheese from
Now, with the resurgence of cheese-making throughout the UK and Ireland – whether because dairy farmers are acting shrewdly and seeing cheese as a means of using up their surplus of milk or more romantically wanting to create a unique, high quality, truly artisan product– scores of cheese boards are now over-flowing with a rich variety of British cheese that many argue are equal to their European counterparts.
In the past 10 years the number of British cheeses has doubled. There are now more than 450 different cheeses to choose from, including 97 goats’ milk cheeses, 39 different blue and 183 cheeses made from unpasteurised milk.
When putting together a British cheese board, it is important to become acquainted with the different types that are now widely available – both the well-established, traditional cheeses and the wide selection of modern cheeses. To achieve a well-balanced cheese board, select one cheese from each category.
Whilst most traditional British cheeses are made on a large scale by major producers, the keen chef and restaurateur should be able to seek out traditional cheese makers who are making more interesting versions of these cheeses (see list of suppliers below).
Hard territorials – these are perhaps the best known British cheeses, of which Cheddar heads the list that includes Double Gloucester, Leicester and Derby. These cheeses are hard and dense, with a low moisture content, and may be waxed or oiled. The curds are cut finely then heated in large vats before the whey is drained off. The finished cheeses can be ripened for many months depending on the desired strength. A vintage Cheddar, for instance, could be ripened for up to two years, by which time it will be as powerful as any cheese in the world.
Crumblies – also known as semi-hard cheeses, these include the likes of
Blues – the most famous of these strong, distinctive cheeses is Blue Stilton, often dubbed the “king of British Cheese”. Other varieties include Shropshire Blue and Yorkshire Blue. These cheeses are veined with intricate blue marbleing created by the introduction of blue moulds, such as Penicillin Roquefort.
Not all of the modern cheeses that are now available are actually new in concept as some have been made by generations of the same family. What is new, though, is that many more are now widely available for sale and are increasingly appearing on cheese boards around the country.
The majority of cheeses in this section are made by artisan cheese makers who are generally more interested in demanding flavour and character from a cheese, whereas a mass market producer tends to be more interested in price, shelf life and uniformity of flavour. In order to achieve a good flavour and character, these cheeses tend to be handmade on the farm, on a small scale using traditional methods, often using unpasteurised milk.
Fresh cheeses – these are usually only one to 15 days old when eaten and have therefore had no time to develop a rind. They tend to be mild and light in flavour, with a creamy, moist texture. Some are wrapped in chestnut leaves, rolled in ash or covered in herbs. Examples include Caboc from the Scottish Highlands and Wealden Round, which is flavoured with herbs and spring onions, and comes from Neal’s Yard Creamery in Herefordshire.
Soft white cheeses – these cheeses are characterised by their fuzzy white rind. They are neither cooked nor pressed. The curds are drained in moulds, ensuring the cheeses remain soft and almost runny. A rind is formed by the addition of Penicillin candidum after 10-16 days. A further maturing period of 2-6 weeks is needed before the cheeses are ripe. Examples include Bonchester (a Camembert style cow’s cheese made near the Scottish borders), Cooleeney (an unpasteurised cows’ cheese from County Tipperary) and Ragstone goats’ cheese from Herefordshire.
Semi-soft cheeses – these are made from a moist curd and are sometimes lightly pressed. They are generally matured for two to three months. Some have a supple, rubbery texture and are sweet to taste. Occasionally the rind will be very thin, whilst other cheeses develop a thick, leathery rind with a greyish mould. They include Wigmore (an unpasteurised sheep’s cheese from Berkshire), Croghan, (an unpasteurised goats’ cheese from County Wexford) and Wester Lawrenceton sweet-milk cows’ cheese from Moray.
Rind-washed cheeses – these are semi-soft cheeses which are rubbed or washed with brine, cider, perry or wine in order to maintain their internal moisture. The washing also encourages the development of a sticky, orange rind and a strong aroma and flavour. Examples include Stinking Bishop, a cows’ milk cheese washed in perry from Gloucestershire, Milleens, a cows’ cheese from County Cork, and Orla, an unpasteurised sheep’s cheese, also from County Cork
Hard – made in a similar way to the hard territorials, but made by a new breed of cheese makers. They include Berkswell (an unpasteurised sheep’s cheese from the West Midlands), Malvern (an unpasteurised sheep’s cheese from Worcestershire) and Llanboidy (an unpasteurised cows’ cheese from Dyfed).
Blue – made in a similar vein to the traditional blues. The more recent additions to this genre include Norbury Blue, made in Surrey, and Dorset Blue Vinny.
Flavoured cheeses – some cheeses have added herbs, spices or fruits to create a product which serious cheese lovers tend to turn their noses up these. However, they are growing in popularity and it is worth including one or two such cheeses on the cheese board for added interest. Flavoured hard, semi-soft and soft cheeses are all available. Examples include Stilton with apricots, Devon Garland (semi-hard cows’ cheese flavoured with a band of herbs running through the centre) and Cheddar with ale and mustard.
Interesting local cheeses can be tracked down at farmers’ markets. Good cheesemongers,
such as those listed below, should be able to track down any of the cheeses mentioned here and will advise on storage and service of the cheese.
The Cheese Hamlet
706 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, Manchester. Tel: 0161 434 4781
The Cheese Hamlet
30 Highbury Park, London N5. Tel: 020 7359 7440
51 Elizabeth Street, London SW1. Tel: 020 7823 5623
Neal’s Yard Diary
6 Park Street, Borough Market, London SE1. Tel: 020 7645 3550
Paxton & Whitfield
93 Jermyn Street, London SW1. Tel: 020 7930 0259
42 Station Road, Teddington. Tel: 020 8977 6868
Valvona & Crolla
19 Elm Road, Edinburgh. Tel: 0131 556 6066