British cheese is one of the major success stories of recent years, winning awards across the globe, and the recent weather is set to further enhance this year’s bounty, as Nick Hammond reports.

Some of the most innovative and flavourful cheeses these islands have ever produced are being lovingly crafted by artisan cheese-makers the length and breadth of the nation. And a wet winter and a warm summer with perfectly timed rain showers means we’re now enjoying some superb autumn samples.
It’s been a vintage season for Oliver Hudson, who grew up in rural Bedfordshire with a dream of making his own cheese.

‘It sounds a bit odd, but I always had a hanker-ing to try it,’ he says from his farm in Odell. ‘I volunteered to go milking at a local farm, took milk home and experimented in my kitchen. I carried on with my education, eventually reading physics at Cambridge, but cheese was always in the back of my mind. And then I bought three cows.’

With support from friends, family and the Corporate Agriculture team at Barclays, Oliver’s obsession began to take shape. Although he had no hands-on experience with livestock and relied heavily on the goodwill of local farmers in the early days, he persevered and learned from his mistakes. Now, Oliver’s heralded Wodehill Blue (07834 829739; www.wodehill.co.uk) is sold in farm shops and delicatessens countrywide milk from the farm’s pedigree Jersey cows goes into this unpasteurised semi-soft cheese.

The number of British cheesemakers has doubled in the past 20 years, with more than 700 now producing cheese from cow, goat, sheep and even buffalo milk. But it wasn’t always this way. ‘Traditional cheesemaking stopped with the beginning of the Second World War,’ says Nigel White,

Secretary of the British Cheese Board. ‘Farmhouse cheesemaking ceased virtually overnight and a lot of traditional recipes were lost. After the war, along came the Milk Marketing Board and farmers were able to simply milk their cows and sell the results. Between the 1970s and 1990s, there was an era that
I call the “Bland Cheese Period”. Many people were content to buy cheap, mild Cheddar. However, in the early 1990s, as milk prices started to plummet, we began to lose our dairy herds. It was a desperate situation and farmers needed to find some added value cheese came to the rescue.’

Some farmers simply sold their milk to this new breed of country entrepreneur. Others turned disused farm buildings into cheese barns and dared to make their own. The results have been nothing short of astounding. ‘My family has farmed in Kent since the 1500s,’ says Robin Betts from the Winterdale Cheese Barn at Platt House Farm near Sevenoaks (www.winterdale.co.uk). ‘My grandfather started this dairy farm back in the 1950s, but milk prices weren’t enough to keep the farm going.  Then, we hit upon cheese.’

On paper, the cheesemaking process is simple; cows, sheep or goats turn pasture into milk, which the cheesemaker splits into curds and whey using acid. The curds are brought back together in a solid mass and you have myriad options, depending how hard or soft you like your cheese. Simple on paper, somewhat different in practice. ‘It was a lot harder than we thought,’ laughs Robin. ‘The milk is different every day, depending on the weather, what the cows have been grazing on, even what time of day you milk them. That’s why each batch is subtly different. The trick is to try to maintain consistency of quality while allowing for subtle variations in taste. A cheese will taste different at different times of the year.’

Robin’s Winterdale Shaw has gone on to win Gold at the World Cheese Awards and is now much appreciated by cheese lovers. Once made and pressed, it’s wrapped in muslin and matured for 10 months in a specially dug chalk cave on the North Downs before being brought to market.

‘The UK was on the brink of losing something irreplaceable,’ agrees Stacey Hedges, an Australian chef who came to these shores harbouring a secret longing to try making cheese. Marrying (our Editor) and settling down in the Hampshire countryside finally gave her the opportunity and she now produces Tunworth, one of the UK’s finest artisan cheeses.

Tunworth has been described by Raymond Blanc as the ‘best Camembert in the world’ and is the end result of many early days of kitchen experimentation. ‘It was trial and error to begin with,’ says Stacey, who now jointly owns Hampshire Cheeses (07880 738470; www.hampshirecheeses.co.uk) with Charlotte Spruce. ‘Since we produced a cheese we could really market, things have grown and grown. You can’t stand still in this business there are always new challenges to face, such as creating our
new cheese, the Winslade, which is wrapped in a spruce-bark band.’

Bronwen Percival is a buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy (www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk) and visits cheesemakers to taste and evaluate current production. ‘As well as making sure people stay close to the land and its traditions, cheesemaking can be incredibly satisfying,’ she says. ‘You’re creating something unique and delicious and, although nobody is going to become a millionaire doing it, it has meant people can take their futures into their own hands.’

Sam and Rachel Holden were enjoying the trappings of a London lifestyle when cheese came calling. ‘My father first suggested the idea to keep our farm at Bwlchwernen Fawr, Ceredigion, in business,’ says Sam. ‘The country life appealed to us and we headed west. It was a very steep learning curve. We couldn’t have done it without the help of other “cheese people”. At shows and farmer’s markets,
we were always meeting people, tasting their cheeses, gleaning new nuggets of advice.’

The Holdens’ prize-winner is the Hafod (01570 493283; www.hafodcheese.co.uk) an organic hard cheese with a nutlike, buttery tang, which is made from the rich milk of the farm’s Ayrshire herd. ‘We make a small batch every other day this is not a big business,’ Sam explains. ‘Each cheese is pressed for two days, covered in cloth and matured for up to 18 months. It’s a labour of love, but it enables us to have a fantastic quality of life.’

Sparkenhoe Red Leicester (01455 213863; www.leicestershirecheese.co.uk) is made from milk produced by David and Jo Clarke’s herd of pedigree Holstein Friesians and uses annatto, a South American bushplant, to produce the traditional orange hue. ‘Someone in the pub suggested we make a Red Leicester when we were bandying the cheese idea around,’ laughs Jo. ‘My immediate reaction was “No way, it’s disgusting”, but we discovered that a delicious version was made on a nearby farm decades ago and the idea took hold.’

That was back in 2005. Since then, traditional Leicestershire cheesemaking has changed life at Sparkenhoe Farm. ‘It’s saved our way of life,’ says Jo, simply. ‘And it’s saved our farm. It’s kept us in cows, as we like to say. We owe cheese an awful lot.’