“Give me leave to add further, that the grass of this country has a peculiar good quality, so that they make great store of cheese, more agreeable and better relish’d than those of any other parts of the kingdom, even when they procure the same dairy women to make them.” William Camden, Britannia, 1586.
The ‘country’ that so impressed Camden with its lush pasture and cheesemaking prowess was of course the county of Cheshire. A century after the publication of Britannia, Cheshire had cemented its status as the most popular cheese in London to the extent that today one can still find pubs which bear its name. At one time, Cheshire was the standard product of Shropshire, Cheshire, Northeast Wales and most of the Midlands.
Today, however, the Appleby family is one of a few remaining regular producers of raw milk, farmhouse Cheshire. Historically, cheesemaking has tended to take place on marginal land less suited to arable farming, so it is unusual that the rich grassland of the Northwest gave rise to such a vibrant cheesemaking culture. Despite this, Cheshire cheese was relatively unknown outside of the region until the 17th century. Until then, the principal purpose of these cheeses was to feed farmers and their families, although a portion did make their way to local markets.
This all changed in 1650 with the arrival in London of 20 tonnes of Cheshire. Previously, London had acquired the majority of its cheese and butter from Suffolk, but outbreaks of cattle disease and flooding encouraged traders and consumers to look elsewhere.
By 1717, at least 2600 tons of Cheshire made its way to the capital annually from ports in Liverpool and Chester. Cheshire had become Britain’s first long-distance, commercial cheese, heralded for its crumbly texture and delicious flavour. If the 18th century marked the high-water mark of farmhouse Cheshire cheese production, its descent into obscurity began in the late 19th century.
The dramatic growth in consumption of liquid milk, as well as the new railway networks that facilitated its transportation, allowed many farmers to forego the expensive and time-consuming business of cheesemaking. Agricultural depression also precipitated a dramatic fall in the price of cheese. In spite of these momentous changes, there were still around 2000 farms producing Cheshire in 1914.
The advent of the First World War, however, was to have a catastrophic impact. Many cheesemakers were either unwilling or unable to return to their farms once the fighting had ceased, and by 1939 there were only around 400 farms producing Cheshire.
The Second World War had equally profound consequences. The rationing program sought to intensify the production of a narrow range of durable cheeses, and grading standards were introduced that forced many Cheshire producers to make a more stable cheese in keeping with government requirements. By the end of the war, only 44 farmhouse Cheshire cheesemakers remained. In view of such challenging market conditions, the story of the Appleby family is quite remarkable.
Lance and Lucy Appleby began making cheese at Hawkstone Abbey Farm, Shropshire in 1950 and for three generations the Applebys have maintained a commitment to producing clothbound Cheshire of the highest quality. Resisting pressure from the Milk Marketing Board, a body established in 1933 to regulate the UK milk trade, they created their own market for their cheese, establishing links with cheese sellers in London, including Neal’s Yard Dairy.
Today, the third generation, Paul and Sarah Appleby, continue the production. Neal’s Yard Dairy has been working with the Appleby family for nearly 40 years, and we still visit the farm every month to select cheeses for our customers in the UK and overseas. Not only are the Applebys protecting an important historic cheese, they are also producing one of the most delicious cheeses in the country. Why not drop into one of our shops and ask a cheesemonger for a taste?