Preserving the British Crumblies: A Handful of Artisans are Keepers of England's Remaining Territorial Cheeses
Graham Kirkham tells the story of sampling his Lancashire cheese at a local food show.
“Some reprobates were going through the show, trying to eat as much free stuff as possible. They came and grabbed some of my cheese and walked straight off,” recalls the British cheesemaker. “It wasn’t until they had taken about ten steps that they suddenly turned around and I could see that they had really tasted it. That is what Lancashire is like. It is a slow release and gradually builds up layers of flavor; it takes until you are ten steps away.”
Despite such subtle charm, Kirkham’s Lancashire and others like it in the tiny class of crumbly British territorials are cheeses that are most threatened by modern life. They have been diminished by two world wars, the misguided interventions of the British government, the debasing effect of industrial production, and the rise of the commodity supermarket cheese. And now, adding to this list of challenges is the culture of modern communications. In a world where shouting gets attention, subtlety suffers. Switch on the television to any cable news channel and you will see the consequences in political Punch-and-Judy shows populated by screaming banality; in this environment there is no room for complex ideas expressed at a quieter dynamic range.
So it is too on the cheese counter. A fluffy, milky wheel of young Kirkham’s Lancashire will never assault your senses with its aggressive intensity. There are no flashy rinds or lewd textures. As Graham notes, these cheeses “do not smack you straight in the mouth.” Indeed, few cheeses can be more easily ruined, flavorwise, by being served straight from the refrigerator. Yet at their best “the crumblies” are stunning in the transparency with which they express the character of the milk from which they are made. These are primal cheeses, thoroughly sophisticated by virtue of their apparent simplicity.
A History of Change
There is an important distinction to be drawn between the cheeses from the gently undulating plains of the North West of England and those from the North East. The tradition of dairying and cheesemaking on the Vale of Cheshire in the North West is an ancient one, dating back to at least the Romans. The rich pastures make for productive cows, and cheese production has always been geared toward sales in London and beyond. Indeed, the 1790s were the heyday of Cheshire cheese; during this time the cheese reached as far as the dining tables of Nelson’s navy. As a consequence of this need to travel to market, the cheeses are substantial (50 pounds for a full-size wheel of Appleby’s Cheshire, for example) and generally clothbound.
In contrast are the cheeses of smallholders in the remote valleys (the Dales) of the North East of England and Wales. These include Wensleydale, Swaledale, Cotherstone, and Caerphilly, which have their origin as subsistence cheeses. Pragmatic responses to the need to preserve excess milk, they were made in farmhouse kitchens and might have been eaten at any age, from very young to desiccated and aged. Generally, they develop a natural mold rind and are not clothbound. Whereas Cheshire and its kind have always been made from cow’s milk, the Dales cheeses began after the Norman Conquest as monastic ewe’s milk cheeses, in all probability resembling nothing more than modern Roquefort. Cows replaced sheep in the 17th century, but for another 200 years, the Dales were known primarily for their pungent brine-washed cheeses with natural bluing. Farmstead Wensleydale was softer than Stilton and could be spread with a knife.
In the middle of the 20th century, the British cheese industry, faced with the traumas of wartime and economic depression, collectively abandoned such soft cheeses in favor of something quicker, easier, and more consistent to produce; hence the arrival of the crumbly new hard-acid profile, cheeses of friable texture and blandly acidic flavor, a batch of which industrial creameries could blast through in a matter of hours rather than an entire day. Where there is a rare continuity of tradition in making the territorials, it has been passed down by some remarkable cheese matriarchs. Women such as the late Lucy Appleby (whose husband would joke that he married her because she was the best cheesemaker at her dairy school) or Graham Kirkham’s mother, Ruth, are the vital conservationists who kept their cheese styles alive in an era otherwise dominated by bland industrial simulacra. Likewise, the redoubtable nonagenarian Mrs. Longstaff of Harkerside above Reeth in Swaledale, keeper of the traditional recipe for the eponymous cheese of her Dale, mentored modern cheesemakers Mandy and David Reed, of the Swaledale Cheese Company, when they set out to restart the production of this crumbly territorial, native to North Yorkshire.
The key difference that has been preserved by these women is the length of the make. All the best cheeses are made with the addition of just a little starter, which makes for a very slow acidification of the milk, compared with their factory counterparts (acidification is crucial to a cheese’s character).
In a cheese such as Lancashire or Cotherstone, acidification happens overnight. And within the working lifetime of Joan Cross at Cotherstone, the curd was acidified entirely through the action of its own native lactic acid bacteria. The restrained use of starter is also a characteristic of Stilton, that most famous of British territorials. Apart from the addition of mold cultures and the distinctive rind, Stilton and Lancashire are, as Graham Kirkham attests, “so similar that it is crazy.” Where Wensleydale was a blue cheese that became white, Stilton could equally well be regarded as a crumbly territorial that turned blue. Cheese consultant Dr. Jemima Cordle even points out that the modern habit of piercing Stilton to encourage the growth of the blue molds was originally considered “a doubtful practice.”
Not only does an extended slow acidification allow for the greatest expression of the native lactic acid bacteria within the milk, it also makes for more complex metabolic products from the resident bacteria and therefore interesting flavor development. In addition, a gentle pace gives more time to remove moisture before the acidity rises, which prevents demineralization and gives a mellow, luscious texture. The best crumblies crumble, but they also have a mouth-filling succulence.
And if quality is so directly associated with the length of the make, it should not be a surprise that the wives of dairy farmers have consistently been responsible for the greatest examples of these cheeses. With such simple recipes, immaculate raw milk is more necessary than ever for the production of interesting cheese. Doing this safely demands such a close link between farmer and cheesemaker that farmhouse production is all but essential. Such protracted makes, where much of the time will be spent simply waiting for the whey to drain and the cheese to reach the desired acidity, do not fit well within the shift structure an employee would demand. These are cheeses designed to work around the daily chores of running a farming household; they are as much an expression of a lifestyle as of a place.
Unpasteurized cow’s milk, animal rennet
While the Caerphilly curd is salted at milling, the cheese also spends some time in a brine bath. The distinctive chamois-leather-like natural rind gives the cheese much of its character; the paste at the center of the cheese is firm, chalky, and lactic, while under the rind the cheese breaks down to a sensual, mushroomy complexity.
Unpasteurized cow’s milk, vegetarian rennet
In 1914 there were over two thousand farms producing Cheshire. Now the Appleby family makes the only remaining unpasteurized clothbound version. Appleby’s Cheshire has a lovely delicate orange color from the traditional use of annatto, a flavorless coloring derived from the South American achiote tree. There is a juicy, refreshing acidity to the cheese, which becomes more savory and complex with extended aging.
Pasteurized cow’s milk, vegetarian rennet
This is the closest that British cheesemaking has to a living fossil and an archetypal Dales-style cheese. Having learned from her mother, Joan Cross has now been making Cotherstone for over 30 years. Locally it is eaten as a fresh cheese, at two to three weeks old, but away from the immediate vicinity of County Durham, it is most likely encountered as an aged cheese, at which point it develops a delicate natural rind. Even then, the cheese is dominated by the fresh citric flavors of soured milk.
Unpasteurized cow’s milk, animal rennet
Graham Kirkham describes his cheeses as “fluffy monsters,” which is an apt description of the texture of his lemony, buttery Lancashire. Uniquely, Lancashire is made from curd produced on three separate days, which is blended at the milling and salting stage. The older curd develops more acidity, which allows for sophisticated blending in much the same manner as one might assemble the blend for a non-vintage Champagne. Kirkham’s Lancashire is bound in cloth, then sealed with butter.
Sparkenhoe Red Leicester
Unpasteurized cow’s milk, animal rennet
Although they have been producing cheese only since 2005, the clothbound Leicester (pronounced “lester”) cheese David and Jo Clarke make at Sparkenhoe Farm is the first raw milk farmhouse Red Leicester to be made since 1956. Colored a deep orange with annatto, the cheese has flavors that tend toward the nutty, autumnal, and mellow.
Pasteurized ewe’s milk, vegetarian rennet
This is a fascinating attempt by Mandy Reed and her late husband David of the Swaledale Cheese Company in Richmond, North Yorkshire, to re-create the original ewe’s milk cheeses of the Yorkshire Dales. In keeping with 19th-century practice, no salt is added to the curds; the cheese is instead brined. By six to eight weeks, mold has grown to form a natural rind and the cheese has a gentle, open texture and mild lactic flavor.
Pasteurized cow’s milk, animal rennet
Sadly, there is no farmhouse Wensleydale in production. However, the Wensleydale Creamery in the town of Hawes makes this clothbound cheese in a deliberate attempt to approximate the cheese that existed before the 1930s, after which the hard, crumbly acid style began to dominate. Using one-third the dose of starter of a typical commercial cheese, the make takes 50 percent longer. It is a cheese that combines buttery succulence with a sour cream tang.
Written by Francis Percival
Photography by Keiko Oikawa