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British Cheeses (L-R Blue Stilton, Caerphilly, Red Leicester, Cheddar, Stinking Bishop. All pics: Wikipedia)
British Cheeses (L-R Blue Stilton, Caerphilly, Red Leicester, Cheddar, Stinking Bishop. All pics: Wikipedia)
British Cheeses (L-R Blue Stilton, Caerphilly, Red Leicester, Cheddar, Stinking Bishop. All pics: Wikipedia)

Before we start, we should mention the scale of the undertaking. There are over 700 different cheeses made in the U.K. which is a lot of ground to cover. And the recipes vary from ancient and traditional to brand new and unorthodox. You’ve seen the Monty Python Cheese Shop sketch?

Talking about British cheese is a lot like this but without the bouzouki player.

So let’s just deal with the big guns, the ones that put British cheese on the map (and bearing in mind they’re all named after their places of origin, it literally is a map).

Cheddar is the most popular cheese in the U.K. and the second most popular cheese in the U.S.A. (behind mozzarella) and it comes from the village of Cheddar in Somerset. That is a remarkable achievement for such a tiny place, although cheddar has just become the generic term for that type of hard cheese, rather than a statement of where it was made. For the real thing, made in the right place, you want West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, and preferably so strong it’ll feel like your cheeks have been pierced.

Also, cheddar and cheese are rap slang for money. That is a wonderful thing if you’re familiar with the Somerset accent at all: “Oi’m aall abawt that cheddarrr” etc

Then there’s Gloucester (pronounced “gloster”) in Gloucestershire, just a short hop up the country from Somerset and the home of Gloucester cattle, whose milk make Single Gloucester and Double Gloucester. This is a very efficient use of words. Both cheeses are hard, with Single Gloucester being crumblier and Double Gloucester being stronger in flavor (and therefore more popular outside the U.K. The cheese’s cream coloring comes from a flower called Lady’s Bedstraw (or galium verum). And if you add chives and spring onions during the cheesemaking process, you’ve got Cotswold Cheese.

Stilton in Huntingdonshire is also the home of two cheeses that carry its name, and both protected by the European Commission so that the generic name horror of cheddar cheese can’t be revisited upon them. Therefore, if you’re eating something called Stilton—White or Blue—it’ll have been made using milk and techniques local to Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. Blue Stilton is the more popular, being both strong and pungent, and has attained legendary status thanks to the village’s convenience for stagecoach travelers on the route from London to the North of England.

Daniel Defoe wrote about it in 1794, in the notes for A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, saying, “We pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”

Brilliantly, there is a cheese that fuses layers of Double Gloucester and Stilton, and that’s called Stilchester (or Huntsman cheese).

And while we’re heading north, Cheshire cheese is one of the oldest recorded named cheeses in British history, with references going back as far as the late 1500s. This is largely because Cheshire has been one of the best known and most productive dairy regions in England for centuries. It’s another hard cheese, originally aged and built to withstand rough handling and long journeys. Modern Cheshire cheese is less rugged and fresher, and very crumbly indeed. And over in Wales, there’s Caerphilly, a similarly light, crumbly cheese. It is slightly sour of taste, but very mild compared to some of the cheeses above.

The one you’ll have no trouble recognizing is Red Leicester (pronounced “lester”), because it looks exactly like cheddar, only orange. Originally colored with carrot juice, Red Leicester is now given a deep orange hue by adding anneto, which is the same ingredient that colors American cheeses. The interesting thing about this is that the cheese was named Red during a period when there was no commonly-used word for orange. There was red, and there was yellow, and in between there was a yellowy red.

And if this all seems a little tame, why not try Stinking Bishop? This is the washed-rind cheese (they do it with cider made from the Stinking Bishop pear) that brought Wallace back from the dead in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. It’s an incredibly pungent soft cheese, giving off the kind of stench that will lead neighbours to hammer on your door in the middle of the night to see if someone has died, and it is utterly delicious (in small doses). In larger portions it’s enough to cause the bones in your head to melt.

For more information, consult the website of the (brilliantly named) British Cheese Board.

See more:
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By Fraser McAlpine