However, it was during the Roman occupation of Britain that cheesemaking truly flourished. The Romans, known for their advanced agricultural practices, brought with them improved cheesemaking techniques and a variety of cheese styles. They introduced the use of rennet, a key ingredient in cheese production, which enabled the creation of more complex and longer-lasting cheeses.
Roman cheesemaking in Britain was influenced by the Mediterranean styles, such as hard cheeses made from sheep's milk. These cheeses were prized for their durability, allowing them to be transported and stored over long distances.
With the decline of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the Middle Ages, cheesemaking in Britain shifted to monastic communities. Monks played a pivotal role in preserving and advancing the art of cheesemaking. They recognized the nutritional value of cheese and used surplus milk from their own herds to produce cheese for sustenance and trade.
Prominent monastic orders, such as the Cistercians and Benedictines, established their own dairy farms and developed cheesemaking techniques that varied across regions. For instance, in Cheshire, the monks focused on producing crumbly, white cheeses, while in Lancashire, a buttery and rich cheese variety emerged.
The Middle Ages also witnessed the rise of dairy farming in the British countryside. The abundance of lush pastures and grazing lands allowed for the rearing of dairy animals, including cows, sheep, and goats. The quality of the milk derived from these animals became the foundation for the exceptional British cheeses we know today.
As centuries passed, cheesemaking techniques evolved and became more refined. The introduction of new technologies, such as the use of cheese presses and improved hygiene practices, further enhanced the quality and consistency of British cheeses.
Today, British cheesemakers honour the traditions and techniques passed down through generations. They combine ancient wisdom with modern innovations, ensuring that the legacy of British cheese lives on. From the crumbly Cheddars of Somerset to the creamy Stilton's of the Midlands, each bite of British cheese carries a taste of history, connecting us to a time when cheesemaking was an art form and a vital part of everyday life.
As we continue our journey through the history of British cheese, we will explore the regional variations, delve into the iconic Cheddar cheese, and uncover the rise of British blue cheeses. Join us as we savour the rich flavours and remarkable stories behind these beloved culinary treasures.
Cheddar: We cannot embark on a discussion of regional British cheese without mentioning Cheddar. Originating from the village of Cheddar in Somerset, this iconic cheese has become synonymous with British cheesemaking. Cheddar cheese is known for its crumbly yet creamy texture and a full-bodied flavor that ranges from mild and buttery to sharp and tangy. Other regions in England, such as Devon and Dorset, also produce exceptional Cheddar cheeses with their unique flavor profiles.
Stilton: Named after the village of Stilton in the Midlands, Stilton is one of Britain's most famous blue cheeses. Made from pasteurized cow's milk, it has a crumbly yet buttery texture and distinct blue veins. Stilton offers a rich, mellow, and slightly tangy flavor with underlying notes of earthiness. It is traditionally produced in just six dairies located in three counties: Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire.
Lancashire: Hailing from the county of Lancashire, this crumbly, white cheese has been a staple of British cheesemaking for centuries. It comes in two distinct styles: creamy and young or crumbly and matured. Lancashire cheese has a mild, buttery flavor that becomes more complex and tangy with age. It pairs wonderfully with crusty bread and is a versatile ingredient in many traditional British dishes.
Wensleydale: Originally made by Cistercian monks in North Yorkshire, Wensleydale cheese is known for its creamy, crumbly texture and subtle sweetness. It has a clean, milky flavor with hints of honey and a gentle acidity. Wensleydale is often enjoyed on its own or paired with fruits, making it a popular choice for cheeseboards and desserts.
Red Leicester: This vibrant, orange-hued cheese takes its name from the city of Leicester in the East Midlands. Red Leicester has a firm and slightly crumbly texture with a nutty, caramel-like flavor. It is traditionally colored with annatto, a natural food dye derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, giving it its distinctive appearance. Red Leicester adds a delightful pop of color and flavor to sandwiches and melts beautifully in dishes.
Caerphilly: Originating from Wales, Caerphilly cheese is a crumbly and tangy cheese with a fresh, lemony taste. It has a moist texture and is often coated with a light, natural rind. Caerphilly cheese is versatile and can be enjoyed at various stages of maturity, from young and mild to aged and more complex. It pairs well with a crisp apple or a slice of crusty bread.