At the turn of the century, there were more than 1,000 farms making Cheshire cheese in England, says Randolph Hodgson; now there are about half a dozen. Hodgson is hardly a census-taker, but he does have reason to keep track of British farmhouse cheese-makers. For the past 20 years, he has dedicated himself to saving them from extinction.
Hodgson runs Neal's Yard Dairy, a central London shop whose British cheeses are so highly prized that they are given pride of place on dessert menus in restaurants thousands of miles away, including at Campanile in Los Angeles. They even sell in France.
Hodgson insists, though, that the shop is as much the creation of its suppliers as its founders. Opened in the late 1970s as a Greek yogurt supplier in a whole-food ghetto, the store might have gone the way of much bean-sprout ephemera had not a series of old-style cheese-makers found it. "They'd come in, slam a truckle of cheese on the counter and say, 'Here lad, try this,' " Hodgson recalls.
By the time they sought out Hodgson, they were desperate. It was not just Cheshire-makers whose numbers were dwindling precariously. The number of dairies making authentic versions of Stilton, Cheddar, Lancashire and Caerphilly had also plummeted.
Their crime was having remained a bucolic bunch in the very home of the Industrial Revolution. From the 1850s onward, the rise of the railways, advent of refrigeration and subsequent boom in liquid milk consumption rendered the craft of preserving milk in cheese increasingly redundant.
World War I then laid waste to a generation of British men and half of the farmhouse dairies. Women helped staff the remaining dairies, but during the Second World War, the very milk was rationed and only a tenth of farmhouse cheese-makers operating in 1939 survived to the repeal of rationing in 1954.
Then the 1960s supermarket boom swept away specialist retailers and the 1970s brought unprecedented crises as livestock feed prices shot up and the price for milk plummeted. In the '80s, there was the introduction of milk quotas throughout Europe, and by 1989 there followed what may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of British artisanal cheese-making: the modern food scare.
This is not to say that the situation is hopeless. It seems possible that farmhouse cheese-making might even enjoy the same sort of "real" food renaissance achieved by microbreweries and craft bakeries during the 1980s and '90s, both in England and the U.S. A former Neal's Yard staffer is working with California cheese-makers in and around the Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes.
However, one revival is not necessarily much like another. Unlike a microbrewery or a bakery, an artisanal cheese-making operation is often only part of a larger business: a dairy farm. So the most old-fashioned of practitioners not only make cheese, they also tend pasture, make silage, oversee the breeding and calving of their cattle and milk their herds twice a day. They can't pop up in gentrifying warehouse districts. Take them off the land and it isn't farmhouse cheese. Leave them on it and one cannot expect them to abide by hygiene laws largely drafted to suit huge commercial dairies.
Given all of this, the extraordinary thing may not be that there are so few British artisanal cheese-makers left, but that there are any at all.
CHESHIRE: Refusing to Go Meekly
Cheesemaking on the Cheshire plain has been going on at least since the Norman Conquest, when it was mentioned in the Domesday Book. Certainly, the extended family of Lancelot and Lucy Appleby have been making it as long as anyone can remember. "Lucy made cheese at her home before she got married," says her daughter-in-law, Christine. "Her mother did before her. And so on. Everyone in the Shropshire-Cheshire area did."
Until World War II, that is. While Patrick Rance, author of "The Great British Cheese Book" (Macmillan London Ltd., 1988, out of print), finds evidence of 405 farms making Cheshire cheese in 1939, by 1948 the number was down to 44. "Now there are maybe half a dozen," says Hodgson.
For a style of cheese that is nearly extinct, Cheshire refuses to go meekly. Rather, its style is defiantly robust. It comes in drums and has the firm texture of a fine young Cheddar. And it is positively abloom with flavor. At an informal tasting held in Los Angeles recently, it stole the hearts of most of those present. "It's got grass and meadows and flowers in it," said one.
If it tastes authentic, that is because it is. The Applebys refuse to change with the times. Hodgson explains: "As Cheshire cheese-making became industrialized after the Second World War, the Cheshire Cheese Federation used to meet to discuss why sales were falling. Lance Appleby got up and said that there was one reason: It didn't taste good. He blamed the new methods. For example, replacing cloth wrapping with wax kept the water weight up, and the cheese didn't ripen properly.