Can British cheese be just as good as French?

“A journalist without a pen is like a cheesemonger without a knife,” says my Parisian friend when I arrive pen-less at Neal’s Yard Dairy in Central London. I was too excited and preoccupied with my discovery that there are 700 British cheeses in the country.

That’s 100 more than France, I tell him. It starts our little experiment nicely – we arranged this trip to Neal’s Yard Dairy to prove to the Parisian that British cheeses are, in fact, better than French ones. (But I had no idea that it was actually true! I was bluffing really).

Cheese-making in Britain doesn’t get the attention it deserves. “Really, 700 cheeses in Britain?” the Parisien ponders. He double checks this fact with our guide and assistant manager Adam Verlander of Neal’s Yard Dairy. Adam confirms it’s true. UK 1 point, France 0.

Neal’s Yard Dairy is packed with people; we wait for the crowds to disperse. Most people are from out of town, some Italian, some French, Japanese tourists in a group. It certainly beats the drab and unsociable cheese fridge at the supermarket.

The first tasting is Sparkenhoe Red Leicester Cheese, it’s a young cheese, around 5-6 months old. Leicester cheese had been made on the Sparkenhoe Farm since the mid-eighteenth century, but production was discontinued there in 1875. It was revived by Dave and Jo Clarke, and today is the only raw milk farmhouse Leicester cheese actually made in Leicestershire.

“During the war, the production of cheese (other than cheddar) was banned because the government wanted cheese to last a long time. Cheddar was easy to transport, and became the ‘cheese of England’ at that time so that it could feed everyone. Back then if you were not making cheddar you had to stop and sell your cows,” explains Adam.

In 2015, pickle makers Branston surveyed 2,000 people to find out which cheese was the most popular in Britain. Can you guess what it was? Cheddar! Well, it’s quite bloody obvious since it’s still the most widely produced cheese in the country; the first cheese we are introduced to as a child.

It’s funny to think that rationing is the main reason cheddar has become the king of British cheese. To give cheddar its due, it is versatile. It can go from mild, medium, strong or extra strong to vintage and you’ll find this full range of flavours on the average supermarket shelf. Still, most British people don’t know there are hundreds of other cheese varieties in this country – we’ve a lot tasting to do folks!

So, back to our cheese ceremony, we learn that Dave Clarke’s Sparkenhoe Leicester cheese is made with raw milk, and it’s cloth-bound, which is the traditional way of making cheese. Adam tells us it’s the only cheese made like this in the country – wow.

The Parisian is impressed. What is the purpose of this cloth around the cheese he asks? French cheese-makers don’t use this technique.

“Cloth bound is a British cheese tradition – you’ll see cloth around cheese in Leicester, Cheshire, Gloucester, Lancashire. Historically influenced by the textile industry, they used the cloth so they could build taller cheeses; the cloth holds everything together so it doesn’t collapse. It also creates a natural barrier so the cheese doesn’t lose too much moisture but at the same time it allows the cheese to breathe.”

“Why is the cheese red?’ asks the Parisian. Good question, I’ve never questioned why cheese is red. He has never seen anything like it in Paris.

“The colour comes from anato. It’s a seed that comes from South America, it has a vivid colour but doesn’t have any flavour. No one really knows for sure why but historians think it has to do with marketing. How do you make your cheese stand out from everyone else’s?

If you dye it a different colour people recognise it, they know what to look for, they know what to ask for,” says Adam.

In fact, British cheese is gaining a reputation. Neal’s Yard Dairy has seen overseas demand grow rapidly in recent years and today sends hundreds of tonnes of product made by small artisan producers to destinations including Spain, Belgium, Hong Kong, and the US.

Adam tells the Parisian to check out the Fromagerie Beaufils in Paris. The business has been selling British cheese from Neal’s Yard for three years, including Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, and has seen sales soar. The Parisian is amazed that there is a demand of British cheeses in Paris. On further research I find that there’s even some French TV reports covering it as a trend – the rise of ‘fromage Anglais’.

I ask about the difference between these artisan cheeses and supermarket cheese. Adam takes a big breath and speaks emphatically, this is something he feels strongly about:

“All factory-made supermarket cheese tastes exactly the same and what they are all after is the acidic bite that scratches the roof of your mouth. It’s mass produced on a huge scale, but we’re not interested in those cheeses. We’re interested in smaller producers, who make it on the farm, with unpasteurized milk, and so on,” says Adam.

Last year, British people spent more than £344m on cheese, and most of that money goes to factory made cheeses rather than the artisan cheese-makers who are keeping cheese-making traditions alive.

The most sold British supermarket cheese is Cathedral City made by Dairy Crest Group plc, a leading British dairy products company.

With most things in life, it seems the general rule is you get what you pay for. And this cheese tasting at Neal’s Yard is definitely opening my eyes to the value and craft of traditional cheese-making – which is something we should try to preserve and support.

Back to Neal’s Yard, a beautiful goat cheese called Tymsboro from Somerset is presented. Cheese-maker Mary Holbrook, who used to be an archaeologist, started making cheese in the mid 70’s with just 2 goats. At the time goat’s cheese was rare in this country.

The cheese we taste is only two days old and is very fresh. It’s charcoal-coated, and has a melt-in-the-mouth texture which is a little bit goaty on the palate. She uses milk from her own herd at Sleight Farm near Bath. Unlike many herds of goats, hers live out of doors in summer, on a varied diet.

“Mary Holdbrook is something of a legend. With this cheese, you can taste the animal, this is the freshest and youngest cheese that she makes. This one sells out, people go crazy for this cheese. She only makes a little bit every week.”

But today, as evidenced by the range of cheeses available at this Neal’s Yard cheese tasting, the cheese landscape is very different.

The final cheese we taste is the Baron Bigod from Suffolk. It’s a brie. From Suffolk. The Parisian is in shock.

Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore began producing Baron Bigod in 2013 at their farm near Bungay. We place the cheese in our mouths, it’s has a delicate, lactic flavour with a tang of lemon – mild yet satisfying in its simplicity. It tastes beautiful.

The Crickmores went to buy Montbeliarde cows from eastern France whose milk – unlike Holsteins, who are bred primarily for ‘quantity over quality’ – is specifically optimised for cheese production.

“The result is a cheese both like and unlike a traditional Brie de Meaux: with a character all of its own,” says Adam.

Adam continues: “In France, as far as I know, there is no producer of brie who is still making it on a farm. All brie in France is made industrially. But this cheese here is made by people who are farmers on a farm, this is like a brie, this is possibly the only brie made with raw milk in existence.”

Ahem, UK 10 point.

“Possibly? But you can’t be sure?” I ask. Adam says he’s almost sure. Readers, do you know anyone in France making brie on a farm with raw milk? Do let us know. Of course the Parisian is now on mission to unravel the truth. But I think it’s safe to say British cheeses are just as good as the French variety.

A brie from Suffolk, goat’s cheese from Somerset, are there any amazing cheesemakers in your area? Leave a comment below!



Katie Roche

Katie Roche

Katie is editor of The Food Assembly blog. She enjoys writing about community, food, sustainability and how it all fits together.