What we mean when we say “seasonal cheese”

Ah, spring. Flowers are blooming. Birds are chirping. And here at Neal’s Yard Dairy, we’re welcoming a fresh crop of seasonal cheeses 

Moussy, bright Brefu Bach. Complex, punchy St James. We’ve waited for them all winter. By May, they’re finally back.  

If you’re new (or even not-so-new) to the world of artisan cheese, you might be wondering what it means for cheese to be seasonal. Can cheese be “seasonal” in the same way as asparagus or strawberries?  

In a way, yes. It all comes back to milk.  

Milk is a seasonal food 

Cheese comes from milk, and milk comes from animals. Left to their own devices, animals live with the rhythm of the seasons. In spring, calves, lambs, and kids are born; their mothers begin producing milk. By summer, there’s plenty of milk to go around. Then autumn comes and the milk dries up. 

For centuries, that cycle determined when cheesemakers, well, made cheese. “If you go back a couple hundred years, all production is seasonal production,” says Bronwen Percival, our Technical Director.  

It makes sense when you think about the massive caloric requirements of a milk-producing animal. Seasonal milking is an efficient solution. "Feed them lots during the summer with that plentiful grass growing from the ground. Then take them inside in winter and feed them much less because they're not being milked," Bronwen says.  

Sheep graze in Suffolk. Photo courtesy of Emily Tydeman

There's just one problem: our demand for milk isn’t seasonal. Most modern farmers work hard to meet that demand. “You can control when the rams are put on the ewes and you can have lambing at various different times of the year,” explains cheesemaker Emily Tydeman of Broughton Hall Farm. “You probably whip the little lambs off the ewes quite early ... Then you start milking from day one.” It’s quite the departure from nature, but it ensures milk supply year-round.  

“That wasn't what I wanted at all,” she says. “I wanted to mirror the natural rhythm of the lambing process, of the weaning process.” Emily is one of a small but committed group of British cheesemakers who have decided to do things differently. They work seasonally. That means their cheeses are only available for a few short months a year.  

Spotlight on a seasonal cheese: Pyghtle 

Emily’s flagship cheese, Pyghtle, changes from batch to batch. It can be soft and fudgy or light and moussy. At times, its flavour is bright and tangy – at other times, a savoury, sheepy funk is front and center. Emily’s choices in the make room (and our choices in the maturation arches) contribute to those variations. So does the milk. 

A snapshot of Pyghtle.

Emily describes meeting her first milk supplier as “serendipitous.” A young couple living and working just down the road, they prioritised the same things she did: animal welfare and harmony with nature. Their flock begins producing milk in April and stops around September. 

“Every single time we pick up milk, it's completely different,” says Emily. “You can smell the difference before you've even started making the cheese.” Those differences come from a wide variety of factors, from the surfaces sheep have been lounging on to the moisture content of the grass they're grazing on. After a few weeks of fermentation, that interesting, variable milk evolves into complex, delicious cheese.  

How cheese changes with the seasons 

At this point, you may have gathered that there’s more to seasonal cheese than simple availability. It’s true that Pyghtle reaches our counter in spring and leaves it in autumn. But it’s also true that the spring Pyghtle will taste quite different from the autumn Pyghtle. We call this difference “seasonality.” 

It would be great if we could make a neat, general statement about how cheese tastes in spring, summer, and autumn. The truth is, there are too many factors to say for sure. “It depends on what the cheesemaker is doing and what the person looking after the animals is doing,” says Emi Kinoshita, our Soft Cheese Specialist.  

Ewes and lambs stay together at the farms that supply milk for Pyghtle. Photo courtesy of Emily Tydeman.

The cheesemaker could move production to a cooler room as temperatures climb, allowing different microorganisms to flourish. The herd manager could let the animals graze a field rich with wild garlic, flavouring the milk. A thousand daily decisions – all influenced by the changing seasons – will affect the final product. 

There is one seasonal change you can usually count on: more fat. “As you get into the end of the lactation the milk yields start going down, and the milk starts getting richer," explains Bronwen. “Those end of season cheeses can often be, to my mind, some of the best because they have this extra richness and voluptuousness that is very delicious.” 

That said, seasonality isn’t just for seasonal cheeses. The flavour and texture of just about any cheese will be influenced by the seasons. When you notice one batch of Westcombe Cheddar tastes different from the last one you tried, it could be in part because temperatures changed, the herd grazed on different plants, or any number of other seasonal fluctuations. 

Seasonal cheeses to try 

The best way to experience seasonal cheese is to taste it at the beginning, middle, and end of its time with us. Here is a list of excellent examples to try: 

Taste them. Taste them again. And imagine how the sun, soil, and rain influenced each bite.