Cheeses of England

History of Red Leicester

The County of Leicestershire has been an important dairying County for centuries and, as was the norm, cheese was made on most farms as a means of preserving the goodness of milk. Farmers' wives would make a variety of cheeses – some fresh and some long-keeping - particularly in the Spring and Summer flush of milk production.

Most counties had a cheese of the same name with typically the Southern and South Western Counties having recipes that evolved from Cheddar cheese (eg Gloucestershire, Berkswell) and the Northern counties having recipes that evolved from Cheshire cheese (eg Lancashire, Wensleydale).


Leicestershire cheese has evolved over many years with similar characteristics to those of hard cheeses made in other parts of England. It is sometimes described as a cross between Cheshire and Cheddar – and certainly as the County sits between the Northern and Southern Counties it is not surprising that Leicestershire's county cheese bore some resemblance to the two main cheese types produced in England.


However, in order to differentiate itself from these other cheeses, farms in the County, probably as early as the 17th Century, developed the practice of adding vegetable dyes to the milk in order to give the cheese a distinctive red colour. This was done in other parts of England, as originally this colour was associated with the best quality cheese. Such cheese might have been made from a mixture of cream skimmed from the previous day's milk added to the morning's milking, with butter sometimes being added to the separated curds. The resultant cheese had a high fat content and the concentration of carotene derived from the cows' diet of Spring and Summer grass gave the cheese a rich, deep colour; it was this colour that people associated with good quality cheese.


In the 18 th century annatto was being routinely used as a colouring agent. The cheese factors, who bought some of the Leicestershire cheese directly from the farms, were often the suppliers of the annatto so ensuring an even, and consistently, coloured cheese.


Leicestershire cheese was thus distinguished from that of its neighbours (eg in Staffordshire and Derbyshire) by its rich red russet colour. However, it was also distinguished by its shape and size – typically a large flat wheel of about 45 lbs (20 kgs) being made from a day's milk of an average sized farm. Smaller cheeses were also made but also in a flat wheel, the size being determined by the amount of milk typically available in a day.   The stone presses still visible on some old farms, particularly in the South Western parts of the County, testify to the shape of the cheese that was being pressed. Because of its shape, the cheese was also referred to as Leicestershire Flat or Leicester Flat.


Leicestershire cheese was sometimes made on farms that were also making Stilton cheese. Being a pressed cheese with a longer life, Leicestershire cheese was used to balance the production of Stilton. The marketing of Leicestershire cheese almost certainly followed the same distribution channels as Stilton and this helped to develop its fame and fortune. There are records of cheese from Leicestershire being sent to London in the early 18 th Century (1) .


A Cheese Fair was held each Michaelmas in the City of Leicester and the volume of business became so great that in 1759 a full time cheese market was built. To ensure that standards of quality and weight were maintained, the town crier used to read the punishments that would befall anyone caught trying to pass off cheese that was not up to the mark (2) . The importance of this market almost certainly led to the alternative name for this cheese – Leicester cheese – coming into use, even though there was little if any cheese made in the boundaries of the City of Leicester. Interestingly, other County cheeses – such as Lancashire, Cheshire and Staffordshire – have retained their county names, whilst others such as Derbyshire, Gloucestershire and Leicestershire adopted their respective capital City name – Derby, Gloucester or Leicester.






Probably the most consumed cheese in the world, Cheddar originated from Somerset around the late 12th Century and took its name from the Gorge or caves in the town of Cheddar that were used to store the cheese. The constant temperature and humidity of the caves provided a perfect environment for maturing the cheese. The town also gave its name to a unique part of the cheesemaking process – known as Cheddaring - which is the process of turning the slabs of curd and piling them on top of each other in a controlled way to help drain the whey. It also stretches the curd . The process helps to create a harder cheese with firm body and is unique to Cheddar making.


Some History


Cheddar making in Somerset goes back more than 800 years with records from the King of England's accounts (the so called “Great Roll of the Pipe”) noting that in 1170 the King purchased 10,240 lbs (4.6 tonnes) of Cheddar cheese at a cost of a farthing a pound. The king at the time- Henry II - declared Cheddar cheese to be the best in Britain and his son Prince John (who reigned between 1199 and 1216) clearly thought the same as there are records of him continuing to buy the cheese for the great Royal banquets. In the reign of Charles 1 (1625 to 1649) parliamentary records show that the cheese made in Cheddar was sold before it was even made and indeed was only available at the court.

In 1724 Daniel Defoe devoted a chapter to Cheddar and its cheese in his book “A tour of the Islands of Great Britain”.


Today Cheddar cheese is still made in Somerset but also all over the world. It is made on farms in the West Country and 14 makers are licensed to use the EU Protected Designation of Origin “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar”. The cheese must be made on a farm in the four counties of Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset from locally produced milk and using traditional Cheddar making techniques – including hand Cheddaring. West Country Farmhouse Cheddar is matured in the region and sold at a minimum age of 9 months and is subject to regular grading throughout its life.

Larger dairies throughout the UK also make Cheddar and this is sold at different ages. Mild Cheddar is typically sold at about 3 months of age; medium matured Cheddar at 5 to 6 months; mature Cheddar at around 9 months, Extra Mature at around 15 months and Vintage at 18 months or more.

As Cheddar matures so it's taste develops from the young creamy taste of mild Cheddar to complex, lasting, slightly nutty flavours of mature Cheddar and beyond.

Major brands include Cathedral City, Pilgrims Choice and Seriously Strong whilst many supermarkets will now include the creamery or the farm in which the cheese was made. For example, Davidstow, Taw Valley, Aspatria, Caledonian Haverfordwest, Lockerbie in the case of major creameries and Gould, Denhay, Parkham, Brue Farm, Quickes, Keens, Ford Farm, Greens, Longman or Leaze Farm in the case of farm made cheeses.                                                                                                          

Traditionally made Farmhouse varieties, which may be cloth bound, become significantly harder as they age; the texture becomes drier and the flavours generally more complex than their creamery counterparts. Some of the farm- made Cheddar uses unpasteurised milk which will tend to have rather more complex and stronger flavours, whilst others will use pasteurised milk. Cheese flavour will also vary depending on the time of year it was made and what the cows may have been eating at that time.

Creamery made Cheddar is increasingly being sold at a longer age in response to changing consumer tastes for tastier cheese. These more mature (extra mature or vintage) Cheddars tend to have a characteristic sweet, nutty flavour with a very long finish. Mild Cheddar remains popular as an every day cheese and is characterised by a gentle, creamy flavour and has the added advantage of slicing easily.

So whatever your preference there will be a Cheddar for you depending on its age, how it was made, where it was made and the time of year that it was made.

Tips when buying 

If you can, try before you buy because every   Cheddar will be slightly different. Find the one that you like and try to remember its name and its age (as defined by mild, medium mature etc). For a difference try one of the smoked or smoke flavoured Cheddars which many cheese shops now offer or the blended Cheddars where ingredients such as herbs, spices, Marmite © or fruits may have been blended with the matured cheese to produce a whole range of different taste sensations.


  Sources: Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, West Country Farmhouse Cheese Makers



Some History

At one time everyone in Lancashire ate Lancashire Cheese and almost all farms in the county made it in one form or another. Evidence suggests that cheese was being made in Lancashire from the 13th Century; however the style, texture and taste is unlikely to be what we recognise as Lancashire cheese today.


Each farmer's wife would use the surplus milk from their farm to produce cheese that would sustain their family and supplement their household income. Historical records show Lancashire cheese was being transported by boat to London from Liverpool in the 1600's.


Then in approximately 1890 a Lancashire County Council employee named Joseph Gornall began visiting all the farms in Lancashire, observing the cheese making activity and giving practical advice on production and method. His aim was to standardise Lancashire Cheese production across the county and create a formal recipe and method - one that is still used to this day.


Back in the 1890's Lancashire farms tended to be small holdings and farmers often did not have enough surplus milk to make a whole cheese. So without refrigeration the best way of keeping surplus milk was to turn it into curd and store it overnight at room temperature. This curd was then mixed with the curd from the following day and in some cases blended again with the day after.


This traditional method is unique to Lancashire Cheese and is still adhered to by Lancashire cheese makers today. It is also the reason why Traditional Lancashire Cheese, which is known and Creamy and Tasty Lancashire, has such a rich buttery flavour and when melted gives a smooth and even consistency. It probably makes the best cheese on toast in the world!


Creamy Lancashire cheese is matured for between 4 and 12 weeks. Anything that is matured for longer is classified as Tasty Lancashire. Tasty Lancashire can be aged for up to 24 months.


Crumbly Lancashire is a more recent creation and is the style of Lancashire Cheese that is better known outside of the region. Crumbly Lancashire was created around 40 years ago when Cheese Factors in Lancashire demanded a younger, less expensive cheese that could compete with competitors such as Cheshire, Caerphilly and Wensleydale.


Crumbly or "New" Lancashire was created and is made with only one day's milking and in a similar way to Cheshire cheese.


Is it Creamy, is it Tasty, is it Crumbly?

No! It's all three . It may seem slightly confusing but Lancashire Cheese is produced in 3 main styles:

Creamy Lancashire

Tasty Lancashire

Crumbly Lancashire

Creamy and Tasty are traditional Lancashire Cheese styles which have been made using the same method for more than 120 years. Crumbly Lancashire is a more recent addition and was first created in the 1960's.


Cream Lancashire

Creamy Lancashire is a fluffy, open textured cheese with a rich creamy flavour and smooth buttery finish. It is an excellent culinary cheese and when melted it maintains a smooth, even consistency.

Best enjoyed:

Classic cheese on toast

Welsh Rarebit

Every day eating in sandwiches or with pasta


Tasty Lancashire

This is the more mature relative of Creamy Lancashire and is also made in the same traditional method. Tasty Lancashire is a delightfully rich cheese with a delicious mature nutty bite on the finish.

Best enjoyed:

Ploughman's lunch; lump of cheese, pickle, crusty bread, real ale


Cheese and onion pie

Crumbly Lancashire


Crumbly Lancashire:

is a more mild cheese with a young, fresh milky finish and slightly tangy flavour. It is also the only Lancashire Cheese that is also made by dairies from outside of the county.

Best enjoyed:

Accompanying fruit cake

With a crisp Granny Smith apple

Crumbled over salads


Sources: Lancashire Cheese Makers Association, BCB




Rightfully known as the 'King of English Cheeses', Stilton takes its name from a village just south of Peterborough which was a coaching stop on the Great North Road. Recent research has revealed that a cheese called "Stilton" was made in the village in the early part of the 18th century. A recipe from that time published in a newsletter suggests that this was a hard pressed, cooked, cream cheese that would have been kept for some time before being eaten. Daniel Defoe referred to the cheese as the "English Parmesan". The cheese was sold from The Bell Inn in the village and its fame spread up and down the Great North Road. The landlord of the Inn - Cooper Thornhill - was an entrepreneur and trader and sold large amounts of Stilton into the London market. Faced with growing demand he set up an agreement with a renowned cheesemaker by the name of Frances Pawlett in the village of Wymondham - not far from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire - to supply a somewhat different cheese which was also called Stilton. This we believe was the forerunner of today's Blue Stilton. Production of cheese ceased in the village during the course of the 18th century and most was then subsequently made in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and then Derbyshire. How the cheese evolved from its original style to the cheese made by Frances Pawlett remains unknown.


For more information please go to


Stilton is honoured with a certification trademark and Protected Designation of Origin status, meaning it can only be made in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire to a specified recipe. The milk must come from the three counties and must be pasteurised before use. The cheese must be allowed to form its own crust, can only be made in a cylindrical shape, must never be pressed and must have the magical blue veins for which Stilton is famed radiating from the centre of the cheese.


It is smooth and creamy with complex, with a slightly acidic flavour when young. As it matures so the texture becomes softer and creamier with a mellow flavour. It makes an excellent dessert cheese and is traditionally served with Port at Christmas. However, it can be enjoyed all year round and is worth trying with a dark cream sherry or a sweet dessert wine. It is also very versatile and can be used in hot or cold recipes.


Being an open-textured cheese (not pressed) it is ideal for freezing - simply cut into portions of around 250 grams, wrap in foil or cling and keep for up to 3 months. The cheese should then be de-frosted in the fridge overnight.







Wensleydale cheese has been made in Wensleydale since 1150, when the Cistercian monks first settled in the dale, and established a monastery at Fors, just four miles from Hawes. Some years later the monks moved, because of hostile natives and inclement weather, to Jervaulx in Lower Wensleydale. These French Cistercian monks brought with them their special recipe for the making of cheese, which continued to be produced at Jervaulx until the dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540. The cheese was made originally from sheep's milk but over time cows' milk was also used. The art of making fine cheese, which the monks had developed, was passed from the Monks to local farmers' wives who, for more than three hundred years, produced the cheese in their own farmhouses. Often the cheese came out as a blue cheese – as it matured so cracks in the coat would allow narturally occuring blue mould spores (from leather harnesses often found in the barns where the cheese was stored) into the cheese to create the blue veining.

In 1897 Mr Edward Chapman, a corn and provisions merchant of Hawes, began to purchase milk from surrounding farms to use for the manufacture of Wensleydale cheese on a larger scale. The industrial depression of the 1930s made trading conditions difficult leaving the creamery in significant debt to farmers and Mr Chapman's dairy was facing closure.

Farmers, who were owed money by the dairy, were offered contracts by the Milk Marketing Board to take dales milk to a national dairy miles away. The farmers, although they were creditors, were adamant that the Hawes dairy should continue, and they found a champion of their cause in Kit Calvert, one of their number. In 1935 Kit Calvert called a meeting in the Town Hall and gathered enough support to rescue the dairy, the only one producing cheese in the heart of Wensleydale.


Wensleydale productioon ceased during the second world war – the only cheese being made was a national Cheddar style cheese produced to a standrard recipe to enable efficient distribution and rationing. Production reusmed in the early 1950s but at much lower levels than those seen before 1939.


In 1966 the Milk Marketing Board purchased Wensleydale Creamery. By this time Wensleydale cheese was being made in different dairies and farms throughout England and included 3 dairies in the Wensleydale itself. In May 1992 Dairy Crest, a subsidiary of the Milk Marketing Board, closed the Hawes creamery, the only one then left in the Dale, and transferred production of Wensleydale cheese to a multi purpose cheese plant in Lancashire.


Former managers at Hawes eventually agreed a management buy-out in November 1992 and cheese making resumed. Today, Wensleydale is still made in different parts of the UK by a number of small and medium sized cheesemakers,   who specialise in themaking of English regional cheeses, as well as in the Dale itself.


The Hawes Creamery has applied for a European Union “Protefted Designation of Origin” for “Yorkshire Wensleydale Cheese” to differentiate its Wensleydale made in the Dale from that produced elsewhere in the UK.


Blue Wensleydale is also produced as well as traditional Wensleydale cheese made from sheep's milk.


Other Producers of Wensleydale

Wenslydale Cheese is also produced in other parts of the UK for, like many British cheeses, the name describes a recipe or a method   of production and is regarded as a generic name for a particular style of cheese. Most of the Wensleydale made in other parts of the UK – mainly in Shropshire and Cheshire – is made on farms and small creameries and still relies on traditional cheesemaking methods using open vats. Some is made in traditional wheels but the bulk is made in blocks which then makes the cheese easier to pre-pack.   Main makers are Joseph Heler Ltd, Belton Cheese and Reeces of Malpas (part of Milk Link).


Taste and Texture

When young, Wensleydale has a milky freshness and hint of lemon not dissimilar to young Cheshire, Caerphilly or Crumbly Lancashire. As it matures so the flavours become more complex with a slightly sweet honey flavoured background. Wensleydale is a crumbly cheese but becomes firmer as it ages and in the case of the traditional cloth bound cheeses much drier.



Traditional uses of Wensleydale include serving with fruit cake and an apple for a perfect luchtime or tea time snack; with crusty bread or with hot apple based desserts such as Apple pie or Apple Crumble. It is also at home on any cheeseboard where its fresh, milky sweetness contrasts with the more intense flavours of stronger cheeses.


Blended Cheese

Much Wensleydale is is blended with cranberries and other sweet and savoury items and proves to be very popular not only at Christrmas but throughout the year. Young Wensleydale with its milky, creamy freshness makes an ideal partner with sweet and savoury ingredients alike.

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