There is no historic East Anglian cheese today, but in the time when we were less connected as a country the transport for long distances of something as bulky and low value as cheese was not an option for most people. Local farms produced cheese for the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside. Then there was, therefore, a Norfolk cheese, but apparently it was so hard as to be almost uneatable. All English cheese is hard, though not as hard as that; French cheese is mostly soft, and there are far more French cheeses than English ones. President de Gaulle famously said ‘How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?’ I think there may be even more.
Cheese-making requires the addition of rennet which curdles the milk, and this is an enzyme produced in the stomachs of calves. The production of rennet necessarily requires sending young cows to the abattoir, and this means that although milk is acceptable to many vegetarians, most cheese is not. With modern techniques it is possible to produce a vegetarian version of rennet, but its use is not common.
Cheddar is by far the commonest cheese in England, hence its unofficial name of ‘Mousetrap’. It was originally produced in the caves of the Cheddar Gorge, but it escaped from the West of England long ago. During the Second World War it was virtually the only cheese produced across the land in the austerity conditions of the time. In the 1970s it proved impossible to restrict the use of the name under the ‘protected designation of origin’ legislation produced by the Common Market (EU). Stilton cheese has a bizarre status under this law; it must come from one of the three counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire, but the village of Stilton in Huntingdonshire, where this flavoursome cheese originated, is prohibited from producing ‘Stilton’. Perhaps once we leave the European Union we can change this ridiculous arrangement. Stilton comes in two varieties, White and Blue, and both are delicious. Blue Stilton is the best of British cheeses, and I understand that it is one of the two British foods appreciated by the French; the other being roast beef which is even known as rostbif.
Red Leicester is similar in flavour to Cheddar in my opinion, but has slightly more ‘bite’ and so I prefer it. The artisan product is far superior to the mass-produced Red Leicester, but since the excellent cheese shop in Oulton Broad closed some 25 years ago I have had difficulty in finding a supplier. Normally Cheshire cheese is very white and crumbly; it has a distinct but nor a particularly interesting flavour in my book, although I am sure Cestrians would disagree. There is also a Blue Cheshire which is more attractive. Caerphilly should not appear in this list of English cheeses, but it is no longer produced in Wales; most Caerphilly now comes from Somerset. It is quicker to mature than Cheddar, and this may be the reason the flavour less subtle.
Shropshire Blue is less a dominant cheese than Blue Stilton, and this makes it more acceptable as an alternative for those who find Stilton rather too strong. Double and Single Gloucester cheese have names whose origins are lost in the mists of the past, but as you would expect Single Gloucester is the less fully flavoured of the two, and less likely to appear on supermarket shelves. Wensleydale cheese was originally produced by the monks of the North Yorkshire monastery of that name, but nowadays it is (like all the old varieties) mostly mass-produced in huge slabs. In every case the artisan version of a cheese is far superior, but (it must be acknowledged) it is also much more expensive.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH CHEESE