04 April 2024, 07:00 AM
  • Uninspired mass production, and a lack of knowledge have knocked territorial cheeses from their historical pedestal. But there are makers and cheesemongers dedicated to helping them shine once more. Speciality Food reports
Special Report: Everything you need to know about British Territorial Cheese

The world view of British cheese has changed exponentially. Where once we had little to show for our dairy industry other than world-leading Stilton, block Cheddar and waxy parcels of mass-produced crumbly varieties, today’s ‘new wave’ of makers have asserted a revival. Of dreamy, raw milk Bries, unctuous, velvety washed-rind rounds, and melt-in-the-mouth cream cheeses.

But what of the territorials? Those humbly made farmhouse varieties, traditionally crafted (often by women) in lush rural pastures?

These kinds of cheeses (Wensleydale, Lancashire, Cheshire, Single and Double Gloucester, Caerphilly) in their true form were reduced to edible relics following their industrialisation, and positioning in supermarkets as, in most basic terms, different coloured cheeses sharing a mutual crumbly, acidic, unexciting flavour profile.

It is only thanks to a handful of purists, people who truly believe in our cheesemaking heritage, that cheese lovers have access to traditional territorials. They firmly believe these varieties should not only be made more widely in the UK, but that they deserve to be celebrated and guarded more fiercely.

Ben Ticehurst, head cheesemaker and dairy manager at Trethowan Brothers, has a strong stance on the topic of territorials, imploring buyers to keep supporting them, and other cheesemakers to continue to uphold the art of making these products, which so deftly reflect their terroir.

“It’s important to keep making this style of cheese because it’s pretty unique to these islands,” Ben says. “You don’t find cheeses with these dynamics anywhere else. The use of mesophilic starters is what makes them. They work best at a slighter cooler temperature, below 40C generally – and that gives a distinctive character that’s typically drier and more crumbly, but with that slightly more acidic quality.

“Obviously now they’re in the minority and in danger of disappearing.” The problem, he believes, is that territorials don’t lend themselves well to mass production, where they lose the very qualities that make them appealing to begin with.

“You can hardly find cheeses like Caerphilly in the supermarket anymore. Mass produced Caerphilly was flavourless, very dry and demineralised and, if I’m honest, not particularly pleasant.”

Artisan made territorials, on the other hand, Ben adds, are “far from being boring”. 

“There’s so much flavour and enjoyment, but you have to taste them when they’ve warmed up. Then you can appreciate just how delicious they are. In the excitement and rush of the new, we’re not celebrating the traditional cheeses – we’re overlooking them, and industrialisation has done us a disservice!” 

Why are there less territorial cheeses in Britain today?

Ben says another reason territorials have fallen out of favour is the changing tastes of cheese generally on sale for the mass market. We’re drifting away, for example, from what we’ve traditionally known as Cheddar. “There’s been a shift towards sweeter and nuttier flavour profiles. Humans have evolved to like sweet flavours and sweet things.” Big manufacturers, Ben adds, have ‘tricks’ to hit those flavour points. “But they’re nothing like a traditional Cheddar. You won’t find those continental flavours in a Cheddar like Pitchfork, Westcombe, Montgomery’s, Keen’s or Quicke’s. All these producers are following really traditional, ancient recipes, and in the case for certain makers, some use the same heritage starters that have been around for generations. These link back to the history of cheesemaking, before industrialisation. We can’t give up on them. They are a little piece of what’s unique to Britain!”

“The remarkable thing,” says Ben, “is that even those using the same strain get very different cheeses – that’s down to the milk, the locality, and the fact we might ripen the cheeses at ever so slightly different temperatures. That can completely change the character. And we cannot shy away from these flavours we are known for in favour of producing cheese that all tastes the same.”

Why is it important to sell territorial cheeses?

Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy passionately advocates for Britain’s farmhouse territorial cheeses, and has become an arbiter for change in the industry, helping to foster fledgling territorial brands, while putting them on the map with consumers.

“I just think we have a reputation for making some of the best cheese in the world,” Andy says. Though for a long time cheese counters were dominated by continental cheeses and the odd wheel of Stilton, “in the last 10 to 15 years we’ve had this renaissance of small farmhouse cheesemaking.”

The majority have erred towards French styles, but that’s largely, he thinks, because we had a spell of producing cheeses that were perhaps a bit “standard”, and new cheesemakers wanted to set themselves apart.

However, “ask any cheesemonger who’s been doing their job for years and they’ll tell you they gravitate to territorials. They’re not up front or sexy, but they are rich and complex. The other thing I think about good old-fashioned territorials is they are literally milk. When you buy a Brie or a blue cheese you’re getting a lot of flavour from the mould or adjuncts, but a territorial is showcasing the milk in its real form. The milk is so different from farm to farm. For me, that’s really exciting.”

These makers, Ben says are “not hiding behind anything. They’re part of Britain’s cheese history, and that’s something we have to keep alive.”

How to choose territorial cheeses

Mathew Carver, who runs dedicated cheese restaurants in London, including Pick & Cheese, says the amount of British cheeses buyers have access to in the category today is dizzying. “When I started, I said I’d only use British cheese and there wasn’t much to pick from, but now we have too many choices!”

If you have a small counter your mainstay territorial cheese, he says, should probably be Cheddar. “It’s one that less adventurous cheese eaters will try. It gives them a safer starting place, and then they might be willing to try something else.

“The most interesting thing we found with Cheddar is people intrinsically think it’s boring. But get them to try proper, clothbound Cheddar, and they can taste the difference quite significantly. The same with Caerphilly and Lancashire. People have tried really poor versions and say they don’t like them, but if they try a well-made one it’s a totally different experience.”

One of Mathew’s favourite examples of a territorial cheese is Gorwydd Caerphilly. “I’m a massive, massive fan of that cheese. I think it’s incredibly well made. You get this really interesting cheese with three parts to it – from a chalky, crumbly centre, to the melting part underneath the rind that’s a bit different, and this delicious rind that’s almost suede in texture.”

Mathew is a huge fan of Keen’s Cheddar too, which is a regular fixture on his menus. “It’s a fantastic raw milk, clothbound Cheddar. Occasionally we have a Westcombe smoked Cheddar as well. I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to Cheddar, but people really do love a smoked cheese!”

Andy has a penchant for Wensleydale and Lancashire cheese. “Industrialisation meant they became crumbly, acidic cheeses that lost their reputation. But now we’ve got Stonebeck, Kirkham’s and others. I could eat them all day. They are cheeses you could just consume for breakfast, for lunch in sandwiches, or put on a cheeseboard, and the quality ones shine through. Wensleydale, especially, is a big part of our shop.”

A standout Red Leicester could be a fantastic ‘gateway’ territorial to get your customers hooked, says Rennet & Rind’s Perry Wakeman, who thinks Sparkenhoe is “a fantastic example of how a Red Leicester can be. It blows people’s minds. They’ve been getting a selection pack from a nameless supermarket, or had a slab of dull red before, and all that is is Cheddar with food colouring in.”

Give them ‘proper’ Red Leicester “at 21 months and people will think it’s next level!”

Duckett’s Caerphilly, made at Westcombe Dairy, is another favourite with Perry and his customers. “I love that one,” he says. “They used to mature it under their house. You’d go downstairs and they had a cellar – that’s where I first fell in love with their cheese. There’s just something about the way the cheese is connected to the land.”

Gorwydd Caerphilly, he adds, is one of the most accomplished artisan cheeses he’s ever tried. “Every time I’ve had it, that cheese has been utterly perfect. The guys nail it. For me that is a shining example of a territorial. And people know Caerphilly. They understand it. There is a demand for it.”

The challenges of selling territorial cheese

Our preference for European-style cheeses presents a challenge for the cheesemonger, says Mathew because “the thing with territorials is they are quite subtle. They’re not like the big, punchy cheeses and I think, off the bat, people aren’t drawn to that.” Often this means they can be overlooked.

Perry agrees. “The cheese industry has been trying to get territorials back on the map forever. I think we bang on this drum with rose-tinted glasses because we are bastions of the protection of our heritage.” When actually cheesemongers and makers need to be thinking, “how are we going to sell more of these cheeses? How are we going to get the younger audience to engage with them?”

As well as the allure of continental styles, Perry adds the British palate has become more attuned to savoury and umami flavours in the last 15 years. It’s what they crave from their cheeseboard – and they have more options than ever before. No longer is a grazing platter a simple wedge of Cheddar or Wensleydale with a few slices of apple and a chunk of bread.

This means you have to put more effort in at the counter. “If someone puts a big, flavoured wax cheese in front of you that’s short and sharp and ticks all the boxes in two seconds, it’s going to get sold. Then, on the other hand, you’ve got cheeses where you need a long conversation, taking someone through a mini tasting. It’s easy to understand why some of them are going extinct. I hate the thought of that!”

Perry thinks the term ‘territorials’ is a turn off and “counter-productive” to selling artisan British farmhouse cheese. “What I train in my delis, and I might be pitch forked by the cheese community for saying this, is that no one ever comes in and says, ‘have you got any territorials?’. 

“I think the best thing we can do to support these cheeses is to ditch the territorial ‘brand’. That is a cheesemonger term covering how we group them up. It doesn’t appeal to the general public.”

What does create inspiration, though, is “for example, with Wensleydale, letting them know that the Wensleydale they have been eating for the last 15 years flavoured with cranberries or tiramisu, is a completely different product.”

Andy thinks adding more makers to the small list of territorial producers in the UK could help the sector, allowing cheesemongers to create displays where there are multiple examples of a specific type of cheese for customers to sample. 

“I think Graham (Kirkham) is the last farmhouse maker of Lancashire cheese. And 10 years ago, when we set up, there wasn’t one Cheshire cheese being made in the whole of the Dales. Now they are resurfacing, which is a positive thing,” he says.

Andy would be delighted to see more examples of Cheshire and Lancashire Cheese. “And, this might be controversial, but I’d really like to see more Sage Derby. It’s one of Britain’s oldest cheeses and is a classic. We don’t do any flavoured cheese, but putting sage in a cheese is historic, and it would be nice to see another quality one of those on the market as a nod towards British traditions.”

Ben says he thinks we, as Brits, should have greater respect and appreciation for territorials, and that begins with education and championing at the cheese counter. “I think we are very odd in Britain, England more so, when it comes to celebrating our own. There’s almost something un-English about being proud of being English. It’s almost a national characteristic to not shout about what we’re good at!” 

Stocking really good quality examples of territorials and explaining more about the people that make them really works, says Andy, who adds that these cheeses are the biggest sellers in his shop, being something “people are less likely to find elsewhere. They can buy a piece of Cheddar in a supermarket, but if you give them a taste of artisan Cheddar the difference is astronomical.”

Doing ‘micro tastings’ of territorials is a nice way to put them on customers’ radars, says Perry. Get them to understand what a variety made using time-honoured methods, really tastes like. “When people stop to engage with these cheeses their profiles change completely. Nine out of 10 times they are blown away, but it requires a lot of engagement.”

The majority of territorial cheeses are fresh and lactic. “And if you don’t dig around in what that acidity is, be it sour cream, yoghurt or a touch of mushroom, everyone thinks of them as lemony cheeses, and it can be hard to differentiate them.”

Perry advises deli staff to “ramp up” conversations. “They need to let customers know Wensleydale is one of the oldest cheeses we make. Tell them how it’s changed so much, and how the one they know is miles apart from this one. That what they find in the supermarket is not representative of how good our cheesemaking is. Get them engaged with that aroma of summer meadow grass.”

Perry is not an advocate of pairing these cheeses with anything – letting their subtle flavour profiles do all the talking. But Mathew has found, in his restaurants, that interesting pairings have led to customers giving territorials a try.

“For us, we’ve found it’s sometimes what you put with cheese that helps its chances of getting picked,” he says. “Like Stilton. We serve that with chocolate brownies. And Lancashire cheese with fruit cake. That’s more popular than when we put it with a simple jam or chutney.”

Offering a few pairings in store, so customers can imagine their cheeseboard experience, and be inspired “can help push their boundaries”.

Above all else, Andy says demonstrable pride is one of the best ways to clinch a sale. “Be proud of Britain’s cheese industry.”

These are cheeses “developed by farmers’ wives in their kitchens, and we need to showcase the influence women had (and still have) on the industry. Get some pictures of Mrs Kirkham and Lucy Appleby, pictures of those old family farms, and put them by the cheese to support the farmers and their social history. You are selling a slice of our past, and that makes a huge difference.”

What are the types of British territorial cheese?

Made largely across England, British territorial cheeses include: Caerphilly, Wensleydale, Cheddar, Stilton, Double Gloucester, Red Leicester, Lancashire and Sage Derby. Speciality Food spoke with some of the small-scale producers of these cheeses to learn more about their history and importance.

Caerphilly and Cheddar

Ben Ticehurst, head cheesemaker at Trethowan Brothers, says the company’s decision to make Cheddar was a conscious one – coming out of a respect for, and desire to protect traditional cheese.

“We had been in Wales, and moved to Somerset, only about two-and-a-bit miles as the crow files from the village of Cheddar. There were only three PDO Cheddars holding the status for West Country Farmhouse Cheddar which, to be honest says something about us in the UK. We are very bad at protecting British things!”

Although West Country Cheddar can be made in one of five counties, historically its production centred around Cheddar “where the Mendips meet the pastures, and there’s some access to limestone caves. It goes back to the days before refrigeration.”

Traditional Cheddar is a hands-on process. “Modern Cheddar can sometimes only be touched once by human hands in production. We proudly hand make our cheese. Come and watch us, or Keen’s or Westcombe and see how hands-on it really is. In a factory they do one flip of the block during cheddaring, and then it goes back into the machine to do the rest, which I think does the cheese a disservice.”

He admits it was an “insane” idea to go into raw milk Cheddar production, from a business point of view, coming from a set-up designed for making Caerphilly. It requires bigger presses, cooling tables, bigger tins, and a storeroom designed to hold a year’s worth of maturing cheese. But the team was undeterred by the challenges that came with making Pitchfork.

There are so few cheeses of this kind today because the initial outlay is so demanding, and costly. Unless you’ve inherited cheesemaking facilities, with the structure and product in place, there’s a lot of waiting, praying and hoping involved. “You’ve got to buy the milk, make the cheese and wait a whole year before you have any money coming in,” Ben explains. “If you’re only just starting out there’s no guarantee the first few batches are going to be any good, and the feedback time is so long.” It could be nine months, he adds, before you can do a grading “and that’s scary”.

“When we were thinking we wanted to do a Cheddar, others said ‘do you know the risks? You’re talking about two or three years for a decent cheese’, but it’s something Tod and Morgan felt really passionate about. And instead of three really traditional Somerset Cheddars, we now have four. If more people are producing this style of cheese there’s more chance the general public will taset it, and appreciate it.”

Although Ben admits he does buy some ‘block Cheddar’ for the school run, he says speciality cheese has to be enjoyed as such. “It’s the equivalent of buying a £30 bottle of wine. It’s beautiful and delicious, but not the wine you drink on a Tuesday evening. Don’t think, ‘oh it’s just Cheddar’. It’s a special product and the real stuff is as close to cheeses made 200 years ago as you’ll find anywhere.”

On the subject of Caerphilly, Ben says Trethowan Brothers feels a great deal of responsibility. Chris Duckett of Duckett’s Caerphilly had no interest from his family to continue production, and when he took Tod on for an apprenticeship, taught him every aspect of the make, so he could take it back wih him to Gorwydd Farm in Wales. “His thought would have been, when he stops making it, the cheese might die out,” says Ben, adding that there’s hope for Caerphilly’s continuation. “Tom Calver also picked the recipe up and started to make it at Westcombe. There’s definitely a market for this more traditional style of Caerphilly now.

“When I was a cheesemonger I would talk about the difference between raw milk artisan cheese and mass-produced, and one of the things I would do is go to the supermarket to buy the cheapest block of equivalent cheese. So a cheap Red Leicester against Sparkenhoe, and a mass Cheddar against a Montgomery’s. I was unable to find Caerphilly because it had got such a bad reputation no one was making or selling it!”

The number one thing to tell people about this cheese, Ben says, “Is they are just delicious in their own right. Get customers to taste them. Territorials are the ‘shrinking violets’ of the cheese world, and people tend to overlook them in favour of something that looks sexy and runny and naughty, like a French cheese. Get them to taste what you have, and the flavour will speak for itself.”

Single and Double Gloucester

Charles Martell’s mission to protect a native breed of cow is what started him on his mission to revive Single Gloucester – which was extinct when he started his business in 1972.

There were less than 70 Gloucester cows left in the world and “at the time, territorials were all being made in one factory. I think it was said, back then, that the variety of cheese depended on what colouring was put in. It was really a disgrace.”

Charles garnered a lot of attention when he fired up Single Gloucester production in 1978, beginning with just three old Gloucester cows. “They were extremely rare. A puff of wind would have wiped them off the face of the Earth!”

“The ideal was for us to make Gloucester cheese, in the county of Gloucester, using milk from Gloucester breed cows.”

Today, Charles has a herd of around 500 females, and gained PDO status for the cheese in 1994, which came with a lot of fanfare.

“The BBC came out to film us! It created so much interest because there was no regional territorial cheese, apart from Stilton, of course. We were trying to bring back credibility for us, and other counties, but making the real thing, as best we could.”

A question often asked is, what is the difference between Single Gloucester and Double Gloucester?

Charles is probably one of the best-placed people in the country to answer. “Double Gloucester is orange, and the single is uncoloured. Also, with a Double Gloucester you do more of everything. Heat it more, take longer to cut and turn it. The cheese is harder and drier than Single Gloucester.”

The cheese, Charles adds, would have undergone long journeys by land or sea – so a lower moisture point and longer keeping nature was essential. “Double Gloucester was made by the farmers of the county, largely for their income,” he says. “The cheese was carried in waggons or on barges to London, and made a fine sight as it travelled into the city.

“It also used to travel, in the days of sailing ships, by sea, and was recorded as going to North America.”

Single Gloucester, on the other hand, would rarely have left the county. “It wouldn’t stack up as it was relatively soft. It was considered the ‘poor man’s cheese’ - made in winter when the cows were being fed hay. Sometimes it was called a ‘hay cheese’.

Charles says the specialist retail sector has played a huge role in the survival of cheeses like his. “They buy from people like me, and take our products to independent, specialist cheese shops, which have grown with the revival of territorial cheese. I’m really grateful, because without them we’re nothing.”

Cheshire Cheese

Cheshire cheese can claim to be one of the oldest recorded dairy products on the British Isles, dating back at least to AD70, says Emma Daniel, business unit director at The Cheshire Cheese Company and Joseph Heler.

“It’s mainly because Cheshire is rich in salt. There’s a lot of salt mines, and it was used to preserve the cheese being made in local kitchens.”

At one point, Emma adds, approximately 90% of all cheese made in Britain was Cheshire cheese. “Apparently between 1650 and 1750 it was the most popular cheese for transporting to London and a lot of people were eating it there.”

At the turn of the 20th Century around 1,000 farms within the Cheshire region were making cheese. It was a lucrative side hustle for rural dwellers seeking to boost their income, using milk from a cow or two on their land. “Unfortunately though,” says Emma, “with the two wars this went down to less than 100 dairies for various reasons. People moved around, sons didn’t come back from the war. Production did dwindle to less than 100 dairies.”

Something else that hit the market was the introduction of supermarkets, and the making and importing of low-cost Cheddar. “Those creameries took over and Cheshire cheese, because it was artisan, became too expensive, so it naturally went down the pecking order. Now there’s, unfortunately, only a handful of makers including Joseph Heler.”

The business (now run by his son and grandson) was founded on Joseph’s grandmother’s cheese recipe, and is still traditionally made in Cheshire, with all salting and stirring carried out by hand.

“Traditional Cheshire is a fresh, young cheese with a high lactose content and a bit of acidity,” says Emma. “It’s very different to a Cheddar cheese. It only matures for eight weeks or so, which gives it that nice, milky taste. And it’s not pressed, so it’s less dense, and has that crumbly texture. I like to think it’s almost the British version of feta. It’s really versatile – use it in salads, or melt it.”

Emma says it’s important to keep telling the story of Cheshire cheese, and to remember its historic value. “We need to keep it going! I don’t think the British public are really aware of its past, or even what to do with it. One of the reasons we’re doing what we’re doing with our Cheshire rebrand is really trying to make Cheshire more funky, modern and vibrant, to draw younger people’s eyes back to Cheshire cheese.”

Wensleydale Cheese

“We really rely on specialist cheesemongers,” says Sally Hattan, who produces Stonebeck Wensleydale up in the Yorkshire Dales.

“It’s 10 years since we started converting our farm, and this is our fourth season of selling. We couldn’t have done it without people like Bronwen Percival from Neal’s Yard Dairy or Andy Swinscoe at The Courtyard Dairy championing and supporting us. That’s been vital.”

Originally farming sheep, but feeling the profit wasn’t in the market, Sally says the decision was made to investigate what was traditionally and sustainably made on their land – which led them to cheese.

“Ultimately, a long time ago this was a wool area. Wool from the sheep would have paid the rent. But we also found this would have been a small subsistence farm, and that everyone had a few cows and a few sheep- usually native breeds. We looked into Northern Dairy Shorthorns and they’d become nearly extinct. There were only 50 in the world. Pre-war they were very popular on small farms, providing a family with some milk. But they also made some cheese, and the boys that were chunky enough would go for beef.”

Post-war, as farmers were encouraged to ramp up production, the cows fell out of favour, with more people turning to Fresians or Holsteins. 

Sally set down a rabbit hole, learning more about the production of traditional Dales cheeses. “There are some wonderful pamphlets that show how cheesemaking went on here. They talk about cheese being made and sent down to Fortnum and Mason. It was a sort of viable and successful industry in the Dales, and it was very much a woman’s role in farming households.”

Until, post-war, these same women were driven into other roles and responsibilities, at the very time cheesemaking began to be led down an industrialised path. “That’s what gave birth to more of the type of Wensleydale you might find in the supermarket – a crumbly, acidic cheese.”

Sally was adamant they would revive the making of traditional, raw milk Wensleydale on their farm, and even managed, during her research, to talk to a 101-year-old lady nearby, who recalled making cheese with her mum as part of her weekly chores. “It was amazing. She was able to talk to me about the different stages and parts of the process. I also went to the British Library to read historical descriptions of the cheese. One of the reasons we went for Wensleydale is that we’re in Niddledale, which is very close by. And it had the most historical records and information points.”

Like many territorial cheesemakers, the operation at Stonebeck is small scale and everything is done by hand, from stirring to cutting and breaking the curd, and salting. It’s the long make, Sally says, that’s integral to the finished flavour.

Only being made seasonally, this flavour is informed by whatever the cows graze on during the spring and summer months over 50 acres of hay meadows and pastures recognised for their biodiversity. “It’s interesting feed for the cows, and that comes through and is expressed in the milk. That’s why we make raw milk cheese. In being raw milk, what you’re tasting at the end is representative of what they eat. Our story begins with the land, rather than the cow.”

Authentic farm made Wensleydale, Sally says, is creamy, buttery, and soft with a flavour that “really fills your mouth”.

“People have this fairly fixed idea of what Wensleydale should be, and that’s not been challenged for quite some time. We now have a few Wensleydale producers in the ‘new world’ and I think that’s really exciting. Just as one might have a cheeseboard with a few different Cheddars on, you now have the opportunity to have a cheeseboard with three different Wensleydales.”

Hearing the story of the cheese, Sally urges, is what will help mongers to sell it. “And let them taste it. It’s very important. It’s what then leads to having those conversations and the exchange of information about why it’s the colour it is, why it tastes the way it does, and to educate people on our heritage.”