Cheese 116, Cheshire

behold, the ambiguous old-timey label!

What do you think of when you hear the word, “Cheshire,” is it cheese?  No, of course not, it’s a grinning cat.  But why does the Cheshire cat grin? It’s because of the large number of dairy farms in Cheshire.  The cats in Cheshire all grin because they are dreaming of milk and cream. No word of a lie!  One of them just became famous.

Of course, there is more to Cheshire than just happy cats.  Cheshire is also one of Britain’s oldest and most beloved cheeses, second only to the behemoth, Cheddar, and unfortunately, often mistaken for a crumblier, mellower version, which it isn’t. Cheshire is really its own cheese.  It’s hard to determine the origin of Cheshire cheese. A cheese very much like this has been made for a very long time by a lot of people, but it at least started with the Romans who brought cheese-making into what is now Cheshire (then called Chestershire).  Camden’s Brittania first published in 1586 refers to cheese making in Cheshire: ” … the grasse and fodder there is of that goodness and vertue that the cheeses bee made heere in great number of a most pleasing and delicate taste, such as all England againe affordeth not the like; no, though the best dairy women otherwise and skilfullest in cheesemaking be had from hence.”  Really, I’m not sure what the hell he is saying here, but I think it means that this Cheshire rocked, even back then. Nice.

Cheshire was a big deal back in the day, it replaced Suffolk cheese which had been the big wheel (snicker) up until 1650‘s when the dreaded cattle disease hit Suffolk and damaged the milk supply. Cheshire was the most popular cheese on the market in the late 18th century due to the fact that in 1758 the British Navy ordered that ships be stocked with Cheshire and Gloucester cheeses. By 1823, Cheshire cheese production was estimated at 10,000 tonnes per year; in around 1870, it was estimated as 12,000 tons per year. Cheshire dominated as it was hard, strong, and could be shipped great distances and not be bothered in the least.

Alas, like so many British cheeses, the second world war almost did poor Cheshire cheese in.  All the milk supply was basically pooled to make so-called  Government Cheddar, all Cheshire production stopped.  It’s basically limped along ever since, never to return to its former glory as other, sexier cheeses became available.  Poor Cheshire cheese.

Cheshire today comes in three varieties, white, red (just like white, dyed with annatto) and a blue (not so popular, almost extinct). Cheshire Cheese is sold at different ages and like all cheese, as it matures, its taste and texture will develop. Originally the cattle who’s milk made Cheshire were grazed on salt marshes.  The salt content caused the cheese to ripen slowly and gave it a crumbly texture (terroir!) These days that saltiness and crumbly texture are a calculated creation by a cheese laboratory, but that’s the back story.

I wasn’t able to discern much about my specific example of Cheshire, Coombe Castle Cheshire, other than this company with it’s de regeur old-timey label has  been exporting specialty cheeses from the British Highlands and Islands to more than 40 countries for about 30 years. Whether Coombe castle is the maker or simply the distributor is unclear, they don’t share much about the cheese on their website, which is unfortunate. I suspect they are only a distributor as this cheese is not protected by any DOP or AOC designation, really anyone can make a cheese and call it Cheshire.

I can see why people mistake Cheshire for Cheddar.  It’s English, it’s either white or orange, it comes in blocks with no rinds.  My little block of Cheshire is benign and placid.  It’s made of pasteurized cow’s milk, it’s ever so slightly moist to the touch and has a very faint cheese smell, nothing offensive in the least.  When I cut it, it crumbled!  I’m so pleased.  I like to think that this is a result of the salt marsh terroir that the cattle grazed upon, but I fear that’s simply a romantic notion on my part.

Here goes…

It’s bitter!  It’s salty!  It’s astringent?  Why do people eat cheese like this?  They must just feel nostalgic for it, that’s the only explanation I have.  Sorry Cheshire, you are kind of a nasty cheese.  My mouth just puckers right up tasting you.  This cheese does crumble, that’s true, but who cares?  This one is definitely not my slice of cheese, although I will love you still if it is yours.