Until David and Jo Clarke decided to revive the practice in 2005, Red Leicester in its raw milk, clothbound form had been extinct for 50 years.
This may seem surprising, as Red Leicester is ubiquitous in supermarket fridges, up and down the country, to say it was extinct until 2005 seems an error. This waxy block of cheese though, does not really resemble to the large round kilos of Red Leicester being produced in the Sparkenhoe Hundred, all those years ago, simply carrying the colour and basking in the popularity of a name. But why is it "red" Leicester, and how did it come to be, that this once great raw milk cheese had not been produced for 50 years?
Below is an extract from Trevor Hickman's "Historic Cheeses: Leicestershire, Stilton and Stichelton", which looks at the history of this cheese, and its rise and then subsequent fall in popularity.
“Colouring of the pressed cheese was essential, and this was done using a vegetable rennet obtained from Lady’s Bedstraw. The yellow flowers, the stalks and leaves provided the rennet, while the roots, when boiled, provided a red dye. It was this plant which provided the deep orange red-cheese that has famously been the cheese of Leicestershire.
After the Battle of Waterloo, when the Duke of Wellington finally beat Napoleon and the French army, Great Britain entered a golden age. World trade expanded and Great Britain certainly ‘ruled the waves’! One of Britain’s allies in the Peninsular War was Portugal, after Wellington drove the French army out of Portugal. A friendly arrangement through trade between the two countries developed. Part of the Portuguese empire was the vast country of Brazil, and imports into England from South America expanded via Portuguese trading systems that were ratified in 1826. Dyed cloth was one of the many goods imported, and one of the red dyes in use was annatto. It was imported into England in cake form and was then ground down and used as a bright deep orange-red dye. Unlike some of the other vegetable dyes it was non-poisonous, and it was used, alongside animal rennet, in the production of Leicester cheese.
In 1837 Queen Victoria came to the throne at the head of a large Empire, and as the great leaps forward in industrial expansion commenced, the production of cheese as a reliable food for the working masses was essential. A large proportion of the farmers in the Sparkenhoe Hundred raised cows, produced milk and converted this into cheese throughout the year. Nationally, identifying speciality cheese was essential for the agents and factors involved with the selling of these highly marketable varieties. At the time Cheddar cheese was the main speciality cheese of England, produced throughout the UK (and in the US) with a rich orange colour. In order to compete with Cheddar, the cheese factors dominating the Leicester cheese trade decided they needed a distinctive Leicester cheese.
In the 1840s the use of a rennet using annatto combined with the rumen of an unweaned calf became widespread. Many traditional farmers around Hinckley continued to use Lady’s Bedstraw as the coagulating agent, but the large scale producers of Leicester cheese used annatto and animal rennet. Until the outbreak of World War One in 1914 there were two varieties of cheese in the Midlands. Leicestershire cheese and Leicester cheese, with the Leicestershire cheese lighter in colour. The red-coloured Leicester cheese was produced in Derbyshire and Warwickshire and spread down into Somerset and through other counties, and was eventually produced as a red-dyed cheese in the US and the British colonies. It was a different pressed cheese to those that were produced in south-west Leicestershire. After World War Two this red-coloured cheese was marketed as Red Leicester and its popularity soared.
After World War One all the cheese producers of pressed cheese, including the small farmers, used annatto as the colouring agent. However, during World War Two annatto was banned as a colouring agent because it was a non-essential but expensive import, and all pressed cheeses that were produced were yellow in colour, similar to Cheddar cheese. As they were no longer producing unique cheese, this spelled the end for cheese-producing farms in the Sparkenhoe Hundred. One farmer who survived was Robert Shepherd, who began farming in Bagworth Farm Park in 1922 and was producing Leicester cheese until the outbreak of World War Two. During and after the conflict he then marketed milk and produced a small amount of pressed cheese. In 1948 he started producing Red Leicester cheese, but he and his family could not compete with the mass production dairies and national bureaucracy, and his farm ceased cheese production in 1956.
After World War Two a few of the dairy farmers who were marketing cheese made a few pressed cheeses from their surplus milk and this cheese was sold locally. However, it gained little or no support and by 1960 no pressed cheese was produced by farmers in west Leicestershire because of the restrictions imposed on their dairies by the Milk Marketing Board.”
So, this is how until 2005, Red Leicester in its traditional, raw milk clothbound form had not existed. Naming their cheese for the region that once was the heart of this cheese production, Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, the Clarkes have restored a great British territorial to our food landscape.