A Pattern of British Cheesemaking

In the third in our series on Women In Cheese, Jennifer Kast looks at how the recipes of the Territorial British cheeses fit in to the everyday working life of women cheesemakers.

Lucy Appleby, Appleby's Cheshire

Throughout my years of association with Neal’s Yard Dairy, I have had many opportunities to visit British cheesemakers. In my youth, I enjoyed the novelty of seeing something new – a new industry in a new country. Before coming to the UK in 1992, my experience of artisan food production was limited to a small wild-fruits jam making business in northern Michigan and my grandfather’s butcher shop in Germany.

When I arrived in London, I was focused on learning about cheese: its flavours, manufacture and maturation processes. I viewed my visits to British cheesemakers as opportunities to taste unique things, see new processes, and engage with a products that were completely foreign to me. I visited cheesemakers from Orkney to Somerset, always seeing each cheesemaker as a singular producer.

At no time did I consider the historical social patterns that were playing out before me. This notion of Territorials as uniquely organised to accommodate family life was reinforced when reading through old Cheshire cheesemaking logs from the Appleby family. Dotted throughout the first decade of logs (1950s) were reminders of family – notes about children being ill, their Christmas concerts, children’s drawings along the margins, etc.

Modern cheesemaking logs are scientific affairs, listing acidities, temperatures and process times. The push for consistency necessitates hewing to regularised parameters. As I read through the old Cheshire logs, I saw the family markings as clear examples of the role fluidity which is a hallmark of the origins of British Territorial cheesemaking – that cheesemaking was the work of women who inhabited many roles on their farms.

Territorial recipes reflects the fact that these cheeses were originally and for most of their production history made by women on farms. Had I read through the Appleby’s logs 25 years ago, I would have interpreted those familial notations as a reflection of a discrete family arrangement - a peculiarity of the Appleby family. I would not have seen them as an exemplar of the broader organisational structure of British cheesemaking. The young me saw what many people continue to see – an interesting coincidence that so many British Territorial cheeses are made (or used to be made) by women: Mrs Appleby, Mrs Keen, Mrs Montgomery, Mrs Kirkham, Mrs Duckett, Mrs Cross, Mrs Smart, etc. The older me has come to see those individuals as a pattern of production run by women – repeated time and again. Looking at it more holistically I’ve understood the important, crucial aspect of gender role organisation that helped form the nature of Britain’s iconic cheeses: Cheddar, Stilton, Cheshire, Lancashire, Cotherstone, etc.

Lucy Appleby, like so many Territorial makers before and after her, had active and concomitant roles as mother, household organiser, and cheesemaker. She was very much an individual cheesemaker, but she was also an archetype of British farmhouse territorial cheese production - her cheesemaking logs reflect that.

Later, when I began making cheese in my kitchen I started to think differently about the producers I had visited, reflecting on their integration of cheesemaking and family life. Indeed, in making my own Wensleydale, Stilton and Cheshire cheeses I realised just how perfectly suited the British Territorial cheeses are for the rhythm of the family day. They forgive time pressures, being robust enough to put a process on hold while household work is attended.

Having made Alpine style cheeses professionally for many years, I knew those required fastidious timing. Leave a Gruyere style cheese in the whey too long and it no longer is Gruyere. Leave a Stilton curd under the whey for an extra 30 minutes and it becomes a Stilton with a different character. Territorials retain their essence, even when the process to make them is altered.