British cheese revolution that would leave the French gasp beyond fromage
British cheese had millennia of tradition on the islands’ soil and in the milkmen’s craft, but all that diversity and skill got almost wiped out post WWII. Rejuvenated over the past three decades, today the breadth of transformed dairy products is at least as fascinating as that of the French regional savoir-faire. Ned Palmer, the expert author of A Cheese Monger’s Compendium of British & Irish Cheese, alerts that while it is impossible to count precisely “there are probably more than 1,500 individual cheeses in Britain and Ireland” (about 700 are named in the UK) made today. Open your nose and the palate to a marvellous assortment of geographical, microbial, artisanal servings that will certainly impress even the most demanding foodie.
I invite you to argue with me that next to the French, the cheese made on the British islands (count in Scotland and North Ireland because of the cheese style making connections are much tighter than their political union) is the most sophisticated expression of human creativity in food making without superfluous tech gadgets today. Some very distinct cheeses are only made by one person or a dairy farmhouse in such tiny batches that only a few fine restaurants around the country get a slice. The wide variety is due to specific microorganisms on each farm, the breed of the animal, its diet and seasonal diversity and of course the choice of added cultures. The distinct microflora is expressed most loudly in raw, unpasteurised cheeses. The refined skills, local specificity and climate, all contributed to a vast compendium of fermented fresh or aged dairy products.
The refined skills, local specificity and climate, all contributed to a vast compendium of fermented fresh or aged dairy products in Britain as in France, Italy and Spain.
Most cheeses allegedly came to existence by accident. Countless tales of how the bread mould transferred to leftover cheese marbled it bluish are the folk witnesses of that lucky mistake. In the second millennium AD, chemistry and food science as well as better temperature control and more precise inoculation by chosen cultures allow for more consistency. A bit like “natural” wine versus more consistent rest of the wines.
Like most foreigners’ encounter, I had a first gasp, literally, at the breadth of British cheese in Britain. Beyond the average cheddar sold in supermarkets I got to sniff some intense Stilton and it’s raw, unpasteurised brother Stichelton. Both marbled blue by their common family roots (cultures in cheese are a bit like genes in humans) as I discovered at that great mother and affinneur of British artisan cheese diversity in London – Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden. Except for good cheddar and perhaps Stilton you might struggle to find any other examples of the British mastery of cheese abroad, so it is well worth stopping by any of these during your next trip to London.
There are quite a few British cheese experts nowadays, some publishing enlightening compendiums on the subject. I was most enlightened on the subject by Ned Palmer, author of two learned books:
A Cheese Monger’s Compendium of British & Irish Cheese
History of British Cheese
If you seek more detailed knowledge about British cheese, then these two volumes will sate your curiosity. I won’t enter the inexhaustible territory of some hard to get cheese even in Britain, but I can start to whet your appetite and expand your palate to new flavours with my favourite cheese shops in London. I chose the best mongers offering a wide choice from British cheese as well as advise you individually according to your preferences and occasion. Do not bring the Stinking Bishop to any party, please!
While I hope to spare you of some social embarrassment, I also would like to lift up your scores in terms of impression as a host or a gift bearer.
Bellow, I mention some award-winning cheeses available at these specific stores, some only seasonally available rarities, but also those familiar names made with greatest skill by some cheese makers in Britain and Ireland.
These London cheese mongers know best:
Neal’s Yard Dairy originally in London’s Covent Garden and now also in three other locations (Borough market, Islington, Bermondsey) is a must go for Stichelton, an unpasteurised blue cheese specialty unique to the UK that strayed quite recently (in 2006 when two leading British cheese makers joined forces) from the pasteurised Stilton recipe. There are only five Stilton producers, another British niche.
Personally, I prefer the goat’s blue Harbourne Blue and Beenleigh Blue (sheep’s) to either of the more famous British blues. Here you will be offered to taste almost any cheese, but a few creamy moulds that are impossible to slice without reeking the “pâte” as the French call the interior of semi-soft and soft fromage. Finding rare specimens is a joy at this four decades old cheese monger, artisan producers’ pioneer that selects, matures and sells (except for young, fresh cheese, the ‘Dairy’ as it is often referred to between the locals, ages all of the cheeses available there for sale) British cheese including England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The ewe’s milk (young sheep) round soft sweet Welsh Brefu Bach was just magic with oatcakes (another superb British invention, as I prefer to serve cheese with crackers, crisp breads and oat biscuits) and an opulent Battârd-Montrachet (still, the French make much better wine) to sip on. Made in Bethesda with an old school thistle stamen coagulant from unpasteurised ewe’s milk of animals grazed at old lays, as Ned palmer writes “fields with richly multicultural population of grasses. Herbs and legumes” which shows in the complex floral, nutty even a hint of caramel and vanilla on the palate.
The well-aged golden dry sheep’s Corra Linn has very hay summer deep taste of Scottish meadows. For Camembert and Vacherin Mont d’Or lovers, the ultra creamy Tunworth and Little Rollright for baking will surpass the bar of wow. The raw cheese selection here is splendid. Try the raw cow’s milk Baron Bigod if you like the French Brie de Meaux. Sinodun Hill will please unpasteurised Loire goat’s cheese lovers. If you are curious about more of these local meets its continental match, the Neal’s Yard Dairy blog published an insightful post on this.
Depending on the season and stage of ageing, you may come across the best summer milk or more fresh spring young cheese.
Hamish Johnston Fine Cheeses is another friendly store that offers a taste of almost anything before you buy (again except for the ultra-runny, messy pieces that only hold together before cut). South of the river Thames, just near to Hamish Johnston caters to regular residents in the neighbourhood. Not purely British, but also French, Greek, Italian and Spanish cheeses mingle with the local greats. From reserve goat (Gat in Old English) Rachel, the ashy pyramids of Tor next to Loire Valley’s Valencay, Golden Cross and Ragstone, snowy white coats of Penicillium candidum logs to ashy Geotrichum yeasty Spaniard Monte Enebro, Sharpham’s golden pate dressed as a perfectly round Camembert de Normandie. Also made form raw cow’s milk Binham Blue’s friendly mildness may persuade Roquefort enemies to enjoy blue cheese for once.
Paxton & Whitfield in St. James’s is the longest established cheese monger in the British capital and one of the oldest in England. The veteran of London cheese shops does not just offer local selections but also other mostly European cheeses. A great Cheddar selection, with the king of them the Montgomery Cheddar sunshine wheels proudly on display. Shropshire Blue is one of these confusing misnamed mysteries. The blue-veined rich russet cow’s cheese originated in Scotland, and made now in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire or Derbyshire. Here, I also discover lesser known stunners such as Ashcombe, a centre cut by veined wood ash, semi-hard texture with pink crust made form pasteurised cow’s milk inspired by the French Alpine Morbier.
A surprise took us by heart recently, as our dearly missed British Cheese Shop founder moved back from Zurich to London post Brexit and with him along with the political complexities, the diversity of imports dropped in our Swiss home. Some of his favourites he introduced our palates to, a rarity is the award-winning creamy cow’s blue, with a rich deep yellow pate and rustic rind, the Barkham Blue by Sandy and Andy Rose in Berkshire is also sold at Paxton & Whitfield.
The Fine Cheese Company, originally from Bath, has an expanding store with a few tables for eating in or out on the inner terrace in the posh Belgravia. Their branded oatcakes and crackers are my personal favourite and now also being exported to the EU, Switzerland, the US and probably to more savvy markets open to cheese revelry. The late founder of the Fine Cheese Co. Ann-Marie Dyas was one of the pioneers supporting the British cheese quality since the 80s. My quarantine days during the pandemic lockdown in London were made more pleasant after ordering a fine box with my cheese selection, crackers and accompaniments like slow-baked Dottato figs. It was so beautifully packaged that I felt like a birthday girl. Tomme d’Adrienne from Wiltshire, a cake of a goat cheese ruffled with ash rind and a spire of summer truffle running through its midriff. Our beloved Wigmore, the Loire goat’s log-like Ragstone, and two wax-coated unusual cheddars; one made of goat milk and the other oak-smoked. The cafe is inspired by cheese but not all plates contain it, so one can have a proper lunch or aperitif hour with a glass of wine there.
La Fromagerie is not pure British cheese purveyor but includes fine picks from most of Europe, but also incredible selections from Oregon across the Pond. Still, the pricing is most competitive and their cave of perfectly stored cheeses is a sensory pleasure to experience. The Michelin-star restaurant Hide Above and their more casual ground-level Hide get their cheese trolley from La Fromagerie.
Akin to a coffee shop, over a decade ago when coffee in London literally sucked, meetings with my friends while studying in London took place at its Marylebone base for decadent dairy indulgences. For lunch or supper with some wine at hand, perfect pairings were matched with an ease for us, tipsy bon vivants. La Fromagerie offers much of the established British cheeses you find at the above stores. I recommend Baron Bigot, the Brie style with its wrinkled golden brown specked furry white coat to higher fat level with the creamiest part in the soft pâte (the French call l’âme de fromage – the soul of the cheese, divine!). Winslade is just much more complex tasting than Camembert, the spruce bark that envelops it certainly adds earthy pine notes. Ticklemore, the semi-soft fresh tasting goat’s from Devon, shaped like a fluffy flying saucer landing in the midst of snowy winter, is nowadays made at the same estate as the Sharpham winery. Its zesty bright taste is perfect for summer with salads and white wine.
The creamy Tunworth that easily knocks down the French Jura’s Vacherin Mont d’Or even before it is baked to a liquified perfection in the oven is a must try. Packed in round wooden boxes, this is also the favourite of one of the best British chefs Simon Rogan, who shares a recipe in his cookbook Roganic.
There are also the newish London Cheesemongers on Chelsea’s happening Pavilion Road. While they have the smallest selection when compared with all of the above, they pick the cream from the British islands’ fields plus some from Neil’s Yard Dairy, so if that is more convenient for you, stop by.
Whether traditional or more open to experimentation, most serious foodies adore the diversity of milky transformations made by savvy humans in search of steady supply of food for millennia. In the UK now you can find exactly that, no need to take the train to Paris to indulge in cheese plates. Contrary to your belief perhaps, the contemporary reductionist approach to cheese trolleys at even the greatest gastronomic institutions in the French capital has rather disappointed us recently when dining there. Most great restaurants in and outside London now offer a broad selection of purely British cheese boards. Cheers to that.