Cheshire Cheese

 


Cheese Fair

A Brief History of Cheshire Cheese

There is evidence ¹ that the Romans brought cheese making into what is now Cheshire via their stronghold at Chester - so named after the Latin for fort (castra) and the old English for town or city (ceaster). "Chestershire" later became abbreviated to Cheshire.

Camden's Brittania˛ - originally published in Latin in 1586 and subsequently enlarged and revised - was translated into English by P Holland in 1616 and recorded that "Cheshire Cheese is more agreeable and better relished than those of other parts of the kingdom". The 1637 edition 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."

1623 - First recorded instance of Cheshire cheese being shipped to London by road. These would have been aged cheeses, sufficiently hard to stand up to the rigours of the journey by horse and cart. Cheshire cheese was originally the generic name for cheese produced in the county and parts of surrounding counties as later in the century the cheese was shipped in large quantities into London from Chester. There were probably many different types of Cheshire Cheese but until the late 19th century, the cheeses would have been aged and hard.

1650 - Start of the trade in Cheshire cheese to London by boat following cattle disease in Suffolk in the 1640s. Until then large amounts of Suffolk cheese went to London ordered especially by the Navy. Port records show the growth in Cheshire Cheese landings from 1650. This was a full milk cheese - as originally was Suffolk - but cheaper. Production of Suffolk cheese declined in the wake of cattle disease. Suffolk farmers then switched to making butter for the lucrative London market and made poorer tasting skimmed milk cheeses. After this period, Cheshire Cheese would have been sold at a premium to the now inferior Suffolk Cheese.

 

1690s - Trade with London slowed due to the loss of ships to the war with France. 1713 - Trade resumed at the end of the war and from 1739 the Navy only bought Cheshire cheese. London was the major market for Cheshire cheese.

1750 - The Industrial Revolution and the growth of the Northern mill towns and the Potteries opened new markets. Sales into the Mersey basin increased - not just of cheese but also of milk and butter. The canals and then the railways opened up new markets and demand for cheaper, younger cheese started to develop especially by the poorer industrial workers.

1823 - Cheshire cheese production estimated at 10,000 tonnes a year

1840s - Alternative markets for milk produced in Cheshire continued to develop (milk and butter to the industrial areas) and production of Cheshire cheese moved to the South of the County. London remained an important market - especially for aged Cheshire.

1865-66 - During the Cattle Plague several Cheshire clergymen claimed that the plague was divine punishment for the sins of the people, the first being the making of cheese on a Sunday. Landowners often gave prizes for the best cheese "made without Sunday labour". As a result Monday's cheese was often asserted to be the best as the milk had stood over the weekend.

1900 - The move to younger, fresher, crumbly cheese that required shorter storage - similar to the Cheshire cheese we know today - continued. The cheese was sold every week during the grass growing season rather than the once or twice a year sale that typified cheese marketing in earlier years. This resulted in a decline in the volumes of cheese sold into London. But the main markets at Whitchurch, Chester and Nantwich were increasingly used to sell cheeses - primarily into local markets.

1927 - The Cheshire Cheese Federation was formed to control standards and grade cheese on farms. It was they who set the standards for how good Cheshire Cheese should be made and graded. Most of the Cheshire being made was still being produced on farms.

1939 - The Second World War resulted in the end of cheese production on farm and was only re-started at the end of rationing in 1953 by the MMB. In the intervening post war years, imported cheese was freely available "off ration" and helped to create a market for such cheese at the expense of traditional British varieties.

1960 onwards - Milk production and cheese production grew strongly in the UK and the range of cheese available increased considerably. Crumbly cheeses like Cheshire became less fashionable as they did not lend themselves to the new pre-packing requirements of the supermarkets - traditional crumbly cheeses simply did not pack well! Faced with such competition, Cheshire sales gradually declined from their peak of around 40,000 in 1960 to about one sixth of that level today.

Today, the three Cheshire makers behind this re-launch of Cheshire account for the majority of Cheshire cheese made in the North West. They continue to use traditional methods of manufacture - open vats and manual curd handling - to produce what many regard as one of the most under-rated cheeses in Britain. Their aim is quite simply to remind the Great British Public what a fabulous and versatile cheese this is - perfect for crumbling over salads or for melting over vegetables or simply to eat on its own with fruit as a snack or as a delicious dessert with traditional apple pie or fruit cake. Try it and surprise yourself!

Sources:
1 Strabo - a Greek geographer (60 BC to AD 20) and Pliny the Elder - Natural Historian (AD23 - 79)
2 Camden's "Britannia" - 1637 Edition - Translated into English
3 Cheshire Cheese and Farming in the North West in the 17th and 18th Centuries - Charles F Foster - Arley Hall Press - 1998
4 The Marketing of Agricultural Produce in Cheshire during the 19th Century - R E Porter - Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire - Vol. 126 1977
5 Hooked on Cheese - F W Foulkes - Shropshire and Cheshire Library Service 1985
6 Personal correspondence from Stephen Matthews - Cheshire Local History Association
7 United Kingdom Dairy Facts and Figures - Federation of Milk Marketing Boards - 1964
8 Milk Development Council and the British Cheese Board