Once upon a cheese-filled time, the several thousand cheesemakers of the Middle Ages toiled in the caves of Somerset, wandered the hills of Gloucester and slogged away in the monasteries of Wensleydale.
Then cheese all but disappeared in the early 20th century. Milk shortages and the Industrial Revolution put paid to those traditional cheese-making practices we once held so dear. And while a few cave dwellers in Somerset kept things going, cheese production in the UK dropped off.
Stepping back in time
But while mass-produced cheddar has become synonymous with British cheese the world over, there’s a groundswell of artisanal cheesemongers reawakening those centuries-old recipes and making spectacular cheese, well and truly putting the UK back on the global cheese map.
Alongside the national move to buy local and fresh and make do and mend, the British cheese industry is thriving. People like to buy their cheese from local producers. They like to step into cold, gloriously stinky cheese-fridge shops and have a chat about their cheese experiences and share stories. They enjoy provenance and the idea of having a cheese from a local farmer – just like they enjoy guzzling wine as they overlook the vineyard.
Explosion in cheese exports
And this rekindled love of artisanal cheese goes to the top. The relatively new Academy of Cheese is spearheading a cheese revolution, and HRH the Prince of Wales is patron of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association. Specialist cheesemongers and affineurs (people who age and purvey cheese) no longer need to stumble along in the dark in their mission to perfect their cheese. They share, they cooperate, they evolve. And the £6-billion industry keeps going from strength to strength … pun intended.
We are a small island, though, and much as we love cheese, we can’t eat it all. Instead, many of the smaller, more traditional cheese makers are selling to overseas markets that appreciate our cheese as much as we do. Cheesemongers now export more than 700 varieties of cottage-industry cheese all over the world, to Asia, the Middle East, the US – even the French buy our stiltons, bries, blues and real cave-aged cheddar.
Evolution of cheese
Our entrepreneurial spirit has also responded to the vegan revolution, with cheese makers now also creating plant-based cheese for this huge new market. Most supermarkets carry a good stock of animal-free cheeses that use tofu, nut milks, aquafaba (chickpea liquid) and even potatoes that amply stand in for their dairy cheese cousins.
The kick-back against sugar has also opened a space for cheese to step in. Cheese wedding cakes and cheese birthday cakes are now very much a thing. Instead of a sugar-loaded sponge, cheese wedding cake purveyors stack rounds of soft cheese, hard cheese, blue cheese and goats’ cheese and decorate them with grapes or tuck freshly picked flowers between the layers.