Buy British: Let’s get historic English cheese back on the menu this Christmas!

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An English Heritage volunteer puts the finishing touches to a tower of historic English cheeses in the kitchen of Audley End House, Essex.

English Heritage has called for the return of historic cheese to the Christmas dining table as the charity reveals its ultimate English cheese board with delectable suggestions from medieval monks’ cheese to pre-Second World War Wensleydale.

The charity is also encouraging the public to support local cheese makers this Christmas, many hard hit during the pandemic, who are keeping history alive through the traditions of cheese making.

As a nation of cheese-lovers, it will come as no surprise that British consumers have spent a mammoth £3,471,752,400 on cheese over the past year.

But as the foreign cheeses we’ve come to know and love, such as Brie, Manchego and Gorgonzola, may be in short supply this festive season, English Heritage is revealing the ultimate cheese board inspired by the past to ensure the nation does not feel their absence this Christmas.

From fresh Neolithic soft cheese to hard and enduring Roman sheep’s cheese, England’s long history of being at the forefront of cheese-making is a reminder to buy local and support regional artisans who keep the traditional methods alive.

Dr Michael Carter, English Heritage Historian and cheese lover, said: 

“Throughout the ages it’s clear that cheese has been a popular and coveted commodity, usually enjoyed at times of feasting and celebration. From our Neolithic predecessors feasting at winter solstice at Stonehenge to the medieval faithful making offerings of cheese to an esteemed saint, England was and still is a nation of cheese lovers. I hope that our ultimate historic cheese board will inspire you to continue these ancient traditions and keep history alive by trying something a little different, but all the more traditional, this Christmas.”

England has a long history of cheese-making, from our Neolithic predecessors feasting at Stonehenge, through to the medieval faithful making offerings of cheese to esteemed saints.

English Heritage’s Ultimate Historic Cheese Board:

Neolithic Cheese (soft fresh goat or cow’s milk cheese)

Where? At Durrington Walls in Salisbury, a settlement which would have been occupied in the late Neolithic (about 2500 BC) at the same time as the large sarsen stones were erected at Stonehenge, evidence of cheese making and large-scale feasting have been discovered. Using a technique called lipid analysis on recovered pots from the period, scientists were able to identify the fats that had been cooked in the pots were from dairy. As many Neolithic adults would have been lactose intolerant, the knowledge required to transform milk into edible cheese could have led to this food stuff taking on a symbolic significance.

What to buy today? Perroche from Neal’s Yard Creamery (goats milk)

Roman Cheese (a hard sheep’s milk cheese)

Where? At both Corbridge Roman Town on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland and Wroxeter Roman City in Shropshire, evidence of cheese making has been discovered during excavations where shallow perforated dishes were found. These dishes would have been used to produce a soft fresh cheese which would have needed to be eaten within a few days of being produced and would not keep. However, it was hard cheese which was more prevalent, with Roman legionaries receiving an ounce of cheese a day in their ration – for a full strength legion of 5,000 men that’s =/- 140kg a day!

What to buy today? Spenwood from Village Maid

Medieval Cheese (a washed-rind cheese)

Where? There’s no doubt that monks at medieval monasteries were making their own cheeses and the 1395 accounts for Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire record they purchased rennet costing 18d for its manufacture. For monks, a small portion of cheese could be eaten with the main, midday meal, but its consumption was forbidden during Lent and monks also abstained from it on Fridays. However, they also purchased cheese in great amounts and the accounts of the cellarers (the senior monk in charge of the monastery’s provisions) of Battle Abbey in East Sussex record regular payments for cheese between 1275 and the early 16th century. In 1512-13 they bought cheese and other dairy produce in the town of Battle to make a ‘second pottage’ – a kind of cheesy soup. They also paid a woman whose job it was to carry cheese from their estates at Marley, not far from Battle, to the monastery. The early 19th-century dairy in the grounds of Battle Abbey can still be seen today.

As well as being eaten, cheese was also used as a commodity. The monks of Binham Priory in Norfolk paid part of the tithes due for the parish church at Wells on the Norfolk coast in cheese. At Muchelney Abbey in Somerset, a dairy where cheese was made and stored was built just before the abbey’s suppression in 1538 and survives to this day. The room above, which has original medieval features and may have been used by a senior monk such as the cellarer or kitchener was put to more mundane purposes after the suppression when the abbey’s surviving structures were used as a farmhouse. In the early 20th-century it was called the ‘cheese room’, probably because large round truckles of cheese were stored there. Unfortunately, the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1540 meant that monks’ cheese across the country saw a halt in production.

Washed-rind cheese specifically was probably invented in Northern France in the early middle ages by monastic cheesemakers. Given how well connected the monasteries were, it’s highly likely they were made in England too, until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, and washed-rinds disappeared from the English cheeseboard for the next 400 years.

What to buy today? Little Rollright (named after the Neolithic and Bronze Age Rollright Stones) from King Stone Dairy

Georgian cheese (Stilton)

Where? An early printed reference to Stilton cheese came from William Stukeley, the English antiquarian known for pioneering the scholarly investigation of Stonehenge, in a letter dated October 1722, and in 1724 Daniel Defoe wrote in ‘A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain’, “We pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.” The development of the first proper roads since the Roman period allowed local cheese like Stilton to become national cheeses.

What to buy today? Stilton from Colston Bassett Dairy

Victorian Cheese (Cheddar)

Where? Country estates which had their own dairies such as Audley End in Essex would have originally produced cheese for their owners, while Boscobel House, a commercial dairy farm in Shropshire with a complete set of Victorian cheese making equipment on display, was profitably selling its cheese. But as better cheese from Cheshire and Somerset began to be shipped across the country, these smaller producers fell into decline and cheese produced locally would probably have been fed to servants and labourers rather than to the family. The kind of Cheddar eaten today is descended from late 19th-century cheddar making, which was a reaction to the economic pressures of factory imports from America, and the need to make better, consistent cheese to an economy of scale.

However, leading from the front at Osborne, Queen Victoria’s home on the Isle of Wight, Victoria and Prince Albert ensured that their children were equipped with what they saw as vital life skills to make them better rulers, one of which included learning the workings of a dairy. At the Swiss Cottage, an Alpine-style chalet set away from the main house, the royal children were able to ‘play house’ in their very own dairy which had a tiled interior, stone floor and drainage system, and there they learned to make butter, cream and cheese.

What to buy today? Somerset Artisanal Cheddar

Pre-Second World War Cheese (Wensleydale)

Where? Before the Second World War, Wensleydale was considered a gourmet cheese which could go toe to toe with Stilton. However, as a result of the government’s controls on cheese making during the war, Wensleydale became hard and lost some of its flavour as it was made easily portionable for rationing and more affordable for the wartime economy. It was known to the makers as ‘austerity Wensleydale’ and would have been eaten all around the county as rations, perhaps even in the Dover Castle Secret Wartime Tunnels where the evacuation of Dunkirk was masterminded.

What to buy today? Wensleydale from Whin Yeats Dairy (based on pre-war recipes)

Advice on modern cheese equivalents kindly provided by Ned Palmer, cheese expert and author of A Cheesemonger’s History of The British Isles.

English Heritage cares for over 400 historic buildings, monuments and sites – from world-famous prehistoric sites to grand medieval castles, from Roman forts on the edge of the empire to a Cold War bunker. Through these, we bring the story of England to life for over 10 million people each year. Registered charity no. 1140351. www.english-heritage.org.uk

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