With Brexit leading to calls for us to ‘Buy British,’ what alternatives to our favourite continental cheese varieties are available to us in the UK? We taste ten UK-made cheeses with European ancestry and explore the history and role of continental-inspired cheeses in modern British cheesemaking.
Try if you like: Camembert
Tasting notes: Characterised by truffley, garlicky and vegetal flavours, it has a creamy and unctuous paste.
Background: Tunworth is Hampshire’s answer to Camembert. It is made entirely by hand, from cutting the curds to carefully ladling them into moulds for draining overnight. The traditional Normandy recipe for Camembert stipulates that some of the cream be skimmed off before cheesemaking and used to make the butter for which that region of France is famed. No fat is removed prior to making Tunworth, however – which is why the resulting cheese is particularly fudgy and rich.
2. Baron Bigod
Try if you like: Brie de Meaux
Tasting notes: Silky under the rind and crumbly at the core, this cheese is full of vegetal, mushroomy flavours.
Background: Made in small batches to a Brie de Meaux recipe passed on by a French cheesemaker, Baron Bigod it is the only traditional raw milk Brie-style cheese currently being produced in the UK. Cheesemaker Jonny uses the very freshest of raw milk from his own herd of Montbéliarde cows who graze as much as possible on the lush biodiverse pastures of Stow Fen in Suffolk. He chose this special French breed of cow to make Baron Bigod as Montbéliarde's rich, high-protein milk is ideal for making this style of mould-ripened cheese.
3. St Jude
Try if you like: St Marcellin
Tasting notes: A true luxury cheese whose light, mousse-like paste is packed full of rich, buttery flavours.
Background: A soft, wrinkly little cow’s milk cheese made at Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk using the same high-protein milk that goes into Baron Bigod but made by cheesemaker Julie. Inspired by a St Marcellin recipe, the make is long, slow, and gentle, with everything done by hand and timing judged by sense and feel.
4. St Cera
Try if you like: Époisses
Tasting notes: Nutty, farmyardy flavours and a loose texture - this a cheese for those who like it strong.
Background: St Cera is the washed rind sister cheese of St Jude. A collaboration between cheesemaker Julie Cheyney and Neal’s Yard Dairy, the young cheeses that arrive with us are put in small wooden boxes, washed in a salt brine, and matured in a way that encourages breakdown and the development of deeper flavours. This cheese is subject to availability and as they often develop a melting centre that may require a spoon (or a piece of crusty bread,) this cheese is only available in our retail shops.
Try if you like: Raclette
Tasting notes: A gentle yet complex washed-rind cheese, with a sweet and milky aroma and warm, savoury flavour reminiscent of chicken broth.
Background: Used extensively by our restaurant customers for it’s fantastic melting qualities (due in part to the Jersey milk – see this video to learn more,) Ogleshield is perfect for a raclette night at home, sliced and melted over boiled potatoes alongside charcuterie and gherkins.
Try if you like: Vacherin Mont d’Or
Tasting notes: The texture is soft and glossy, and the flavour milky, with substantial woody notes and a hint of peanut.
Background: David Jowett's approach to making this washed rind cheese was inspired by the famous Vacherin Mont d'Or, made in the Jura mountains in eastern France. He makes this cheese on Manor Farm in Chedworth using milk from the farm's mixed herd of traditional British breeds, including the Dairy Shorthorn. They feed on pastures planted with plentiful clover and herbal leys, lending their milk an aromatic richness. Like Vacherin Mont D’Or, it is an ideal cheese for baking into an indulgent centrepiece.
7. St James
Try if you like: Taleggio
Tasting notes: Often milky fresh and tangy in the centre moving into deep, malty flavours towards the rind, but texture and flavour vary greatly throughout the season.
Background: St James is strongly influenced by seasonality. Cheesemaker Martin Gott uses the raw milk from his own herd of Lacaune ewes and propagates his own starter cultures to make this washed rind cheese (rather than the usual way of buying them in,) allowing the milk and the land upon which the animals graze to shine through in the final cheese.
Try if you like: Comté
Tasting notes: West Country Cheddar meets Comté in this cheese, which typically boasts a smooth, densely creamy texture and flavours that can range from rich, savoury and brothy to long, sweet and almost pineapple-like.
Background: When creator Simon Jones returned from agricultural college determined to try his hand at cheesemaking he enlisted the help of renowned Welsh cheesemaker Dougal Campbell, who learned his craft in the Swiss Alps, to develop a recipe. The result – Lincolnshire Poacher - incorporates the hallmarks of hard mountain cheeses into a traditional Cheddar. Scalding the curds (heating to about 41º) to expel more whey and wrapping the formed cheese in plasticote rather than the softer clothbinding technique to mature both nod towards the influence of cooked and pressed mountain cheeses.
9. Sinodun Hill
Try if you like: Loire Valley goat’s cheeses
Tasting notes: The texture is light and mousse-like, flavours are gently citric and are complemented by the slightly nutty edge provided by the rind
Background: Sinodun Hill, with its distinctive truncated pyramid shape, is similar in style to a Pouligny-Saint-Pierre cheese of the Loire Valley. It is made in Oxfordshire from the unpasteurised milk from cheesemakers Fraser and Rachel’s own herd of purebred Anglo Nubian goats
10. Beenleigh Blue
Try if you like: Roquefort
Tasting notes: Flavours can vary between lightly floral and lemony sweet, to richer, more robust flavours as the cheese matures.
Background: Beenleigh Blue was the first blue cheese created by pioneering cheesemaker Robin Congdon of the ‘New Wave’ cheesemakers, who utilised similar techniques to those used to make Roquefort. He sought to recreate the make and maturing conditions of Roquefort as much as possible, but the resulting cheese (now made by Ben Harris) is quite different in taste. Moist yet crumbly in texture with delicate blue veining, the cheeses are matured wrapped in foil to prevent the development of a rind.
How did continental cheeses become (and remain) the reference point of quality for many British customers?
Many conversations in our shops begin with the customer asking, “Do you have a British version of [insert name of well-known French cheese?]”. This is a perfectly logical question in a cheese shop today, as the UK is now home to over 700 named cheese varieties, many of which were inspired by European classics. As specialists in British and Irish cheeses, we are well-equipped to help those seeking classic continental styles of cheese, like Camembert, Brie, or Comté, to find a similar style of cheese made closer to home with the added interest of expressing the flavours and textures unique to their British terroir.
These conversations with our customers reflect the historical tastes and buying patterns of cheese in Britain. Artisan cheesemaking declined throughout Britain towards the end of the 19th century, as competition from cheaper imported cheese and a rising demand for liquid milk reshaped the dairy industry. The few cheesemakers who persisted in their craft were further encouraged to switch to liquid milk production with the creation of the Milk Marketing Board in 1933. The MMB was founded to stabilise milk prices and guarantee farmers a market for their milk. However, in guaranteeing them a price for their liquid milk, this made the labour-intensive and less profitable alternative of using their milk for cheesemaking significantly less appealing. Combined with the impact of competition from factory cheeses which were much less costly to make, this period marked the loss of a great deal of traditional British cheesemaking knowledge.
While Britain was slowly losing its cheese heritage, our neighbours across the
In the context of post-war Britain, most British cheeses on supermarket shelves were rectangular blocks of generic ‘territorial’ cheeses bearing names such as Lancashire, Cheshire, or Cheddar. As these cheese styles, historically referred to by their region of origin, did not hold a PDO, their names were not protected and could be applied to cheeses made in different areas, using different milk and to differing standards. In contrast, the presence of an official PDO or AOC stamp on a cheese in a supermarket was and continues to be a recognised signpost of quality and authenticity, one that consumers can interpret without having to know about its production method or how it would traditionally taste. In response, British consumers became more familiar and more trusting of protected continental cheeses such as Gruyère or Brie de Meaux and wary of the sometimes-varying quality of British choices.
In the resurgence of artisan British cheesemaking, the fact that very few of our historical cheeses are protected by PDO status has in turn created a fertile creative landscape for cheesemakers to adapt existing recipes and experiment with techniques they have learned from other cheesemakers the world over. And while there are many modern British cheeses that have taken inspiration from existing recipes, it is important to note that these artisan cheeses are not simply copies or British ‘versions’ of these well-known styles, and never could be. As a living product that is continually influenced by its surroundings, artisan cheeses have the potential to express a particular landscape in the most fundamental way. Beginning at the farming level, there are an infinite number of variables that act upon the milk to result in different flavours, textures, and forms in the finished cheese. So while techniques may have been adapted from the continent, these artisan cheeses made in the UK reflect the unique choices made by individual cheesemakers and the wonderful milk imbued with the flavours of diverse pastures of the British Isles.