While I tend to be partial to the softer buttery cheese of Italy and France, I am English and so feel obliged to explore so of my harder crumblier native varieties. It is like wine. I tend to like Shiraz and Sauvignon Blancs but force myself to try out Malbecs and Reislings and often find myself happily surprised.
And so it is with Cheshire cheese. I had never tasted it before, often thinking it was some form of cheddar. Wrong. Cheshire is a joy all unto itself and a cheese with one of the more interesting histories too.
Manufacture of Cheshire cheese was mentioned in the Doomsday Book in 1086 and there is some evidence it was eaten during the Roman occupation more than five hundred years before that. There is a legend in the region that a cheese maker was put to death by the Romans for refusing the offer up the recipe although it is probably more likely it was the Romans that bought the recipe with them to their garrison in Chester.
Traditionally, the cheese is made from cow’s milk and was produced in the area along what is now the Welsh-English border around Cheshire and Clywd. The salty springs that flow beneath the county of Cheshire, and which water the area’s pastures, are said to be the source the distinctive salty taste.
By the 18th century, Cheshire cheese had become the most poplar cheese in England. Cattle disease had decimated cow stocks in East Anglia and Suffolk Cheese, which had been the most popular cheese in London was replaced by hard Cheshire cheese shipped in by boat from the Northwest. In 1758, the Royal Navy began to order the cheese to be stocked aboard ships for its crews. By 1823 some 10,000 tons of the cheese was produced each year.
As the cheese became popular, a number of producers on the Welsh side of the border began to produce “Cheshire” cheese much to the chagrin of the English cheese makers. The English insisted that the Welsh producers add annatto to their cheese in order to dye it red and thus distinguish it from the genuine article. The ploy backfired as Red Cheshire immediately became more popular and the English were forced to begin produced both red and the traditional white.
Cheshire Cheeses was aged to a sufficient level of hardness to withstand the rigours of transport to London for trading purposes. When rail transportation was introduced in the early 19th century, the fresher, crumbly cheese that we associate with the Cheshire cheese of today – became more popular.
There is also a third, rarer, variety — a blue cheese version is typically called Shropshire Cheese or Cheshire Blue although its base is identical and it is pierced at production and allowed to grow blue mold.
Traditionally the cheese is made milk of Friesian cows. Milk from the evening milking is allowed to stand until the morning, when it is mixed with the morning’s milk and a starter culture is added. The curds are then torn into small pieces, passed through a mill and then pressed in moulds for up to two days. The cheese is then bandaged in lard and kept anywhere from four to eight weeks to ripen. The final product will be kept to age from four to 15 months, allowing the flavours to increase with age.
Both red and white tend to be semi-hard and crumbly. This version from Belton Cheese is pretty crumbly but it isn’t dry or chalky at all. Taste is initially a little salty with a sweet nutty finish and a slight tangy bite. The aroma is a pleasant one of straw.
Cheshire is a great cheese plate cheese and goes into a number of recipes including Welsh Rarebit. In terms of wine, something that stands up the saltiness would be good. A German Rhinegau or Canadian Riesling is a good choice. If you prefer red, then a medium-bodied Bordeaux would do the trick…or a plain ole California Cab that isn’t too fruit forward. You could of course go for what would be traditional in that neck of the woods — a nice brown ale.