Britain’s best farmhouse cheddar cheeses (plus what is ‘farmhouse cheese’?)
Andy Swinscoe, owner of The Courtyard Dairy in Yorkshire, is one of olive magazine's favourite cheese experts. Here he explains what farmhouse cheese is, why we should all be eating it, and suggests 12 excellent British farmhouse cheddars to try.
A resurgence in farmhouse cheese-making means that traditionally-made cheddar is now available from at least a dozen cheddar makers across the country, all of who are producing interesting, unpasteurized, farm-made cheese.
What is ‘farmhouse cheese'?
First of all, what does ‘traditional’ or ‘farm-made’ mean? Simply put, it refers to a product that's made by caring professionals on their own farms, using their own herd’s unpasteurised milk. Such cheeses are made using traditional native bacteria; are always ‘cheddared’ by hand; and are cloth-bound (rather than waxed or vacuum-packed) and aged to form a natural rind. But, although 52% of all British cheeses sold are still cheddar, only a tiny amount of that is made farmhouse style.
Making cheddar in this age-old way produces a cheese that's unique to the farm and has a greater depth of flavour. Montgomery’s, Westcombe and Keen’s, the only three producers in Somerset making farmhouse cheddar, are barely eight miles apart and all use similar recipes, yet the differences between their cheeses is vast.
As the name ‘cheddar’ became more common, the vast majority started being made outside Somerset, reliant more on the recipe than whether or not the creamery was located in the West Country. So when, in the late 1990s, farmhouse British cheese started to see a resurgence, farms all over Britain started creating brand new cheeses based on the cheddar recipe. Many don’t hail from Somerset, but their cheeses are still excellent. Interestingly, some of these use recipes even more ‘traditional’ than those used in Somerset (where recipes have developed over the last 100 years).
What really matters is that all these traditional farm-made cheddars taste amazing and are keeping traditional methods of farming alive. They really capture the uniqueness of each farm’s terroir, reflecting the hard work and loving care that goes into each one. Of course, there’s no guarantee that they’ll taste like the cheddar you’ve come to expect, but you will be enjoying a taste of something special, unique to where it’s made. In other words, proper cheddar!
Britain’s finest farmhouse cheddars
Made by Tricia Bey in Ayrshire using her own Ayrshire cattle, having built up the herd and diary from scratch in 2005. This cheddar is fast becoming renowned for its complex and long flavours.
Dale End (Yorkshire)
Made using the traditional Dairy Shorthorn breed. This unpasteurised, organic cheddar, aged for 18-months, is made by Botton Camphill community (employing people with mental and learning disabilities to farm the animals and make the cheese). Tangy, full on-flavour.
Hafod Cheddar (Lampeter)
Created by the Holden family in 2005, they used a recipe from the early 1900’s to recreate cheddar ‘as it was’ – a much slower production process. Their cheese is rich and buttery, and brings out the best of the hilltop farm and rich Ayrshire-cattle milk.
Isle of Mull (Argyll and Bute)
Having made cheese with Montgomerys, the Reade family relocated to the Isle of Mull to set up their own farm and create this ‘modern classic’. Their cows are fed on the ‘draff’ from the nearby whisky distillery and the resulting cheese is sharp and fruity.
One of the cheddar makers of old: 'cheese has been made here as long as anyone can remember', says current generation James, who makes cheese with his father, George. Their cheeses have that classic, sharp cheddar bite.
Lincolnshire Poacher (Lincolnshire)
Simon Jones made his first batch of cheese in 1992 on his family farm in Lincolnshire. Based on a cheddar recipe but using a bit of methodology from the Alpine cheeses, this cheddar has a slightly waxier texture and fruitier, sweeter notes to contribute to that traditional cheddar tang.
Loch Arthur (Dumfries and Galloway)
A Scotland-based sister community to the Botton Camphill community (see Dale End, above). Loch Arthur hails from Dumfriesshire and the creamery again provides employment for people with learning disabilities who work the land and the dairy. Their cheese is sold at nine months old and is slightly milder, with a softer texture and full flavours.
One of the archetypal traditional cheddars, Jamie Montgomery makes a mighty-fine cheese on his farm in Somerset. Caramelised, beefy, and rich complex flavours are why this cheese is so great.
Mary Quicke’s father restarted cheddar making on their family farm in the 1970’s, adopting the old method of cloth-wrapped traditional cheeses. Now one of the larger farmhouse cheese makers in the UK, they produce some great traditional, old-style cheddar, still using all their own milk.
St Andrew’s Cheddar (Fife)
Jane Stewart originally started out on the coast in Fife making a Cheshire recipe (Anster), but now also makes a small amount of farmhouse cheddar from her own cows’ unpasteurised milk. St Andrew’s cheddar is powerful, strong cheddar – even at 10 months old.
After a long period making ‘block’ cheddar, Richard Calver restored their farm to its former glory and began making traditional cheese in 2001. Now run with his son, Tom, they have further improved their cheese to make rich, deep, savoury-flavoured cheddar that graces some of the best cheese shops in the country.
Winterdale Shaw (Kent)
Robin Betts started making cheese in 2006, after building a model eco-friendly dairy on his family farm. The cheese cave is so far underground it stays cool naturally and needs no refrigeration, and the warmth of the make room is used to heat their house, even their car is electric! Using the family farm’s unpasteurised milk he produces interesting and diverse-flavoured cheddar.
About Andy and The Courtyard Dairy
Andy Swinscoe is owner of The Courtyard Dairy in Yorkshire. He set it up with his wife Kathy in 2012 (both pictured above), after many years working for some of the best cheesemongers in France, London and the South West; including a apprenticeship studying cheese-maturing with Herve Mons near Lyon.
His ethos (and one that is echoed in The Courtyard Dairy) is to champion and support the few remaining independent farmhouse cheese-makers in Britain. These small, individual farmers still make their cheese by hand with unpasteurised milk from their own herds, in order to get the best depth of flavour. Each cheese is then aged to perfection in The Courtyard Dairy’s maturing cheese room near Settle.
The Courtyard Dairy won The Best New Cheese Retailer at the 2013 British Cheese Awards, and was a runner-up for Yorkshire Food Destination of the Year 2013. Following these accolades The Courtyard Dairy also won 'Best Cheese Counter' and 'Cheesemonger of The Year' at The World Cheese Awards 2013; before being awarded runners-up in BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards 2014 'Best Food Retailer'.
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