The History of Cheshire Cheese

One of the oldest cheeses produced in the United Kingdom, Cheshire cheese has seen its popularity grow over the centuries. From when it was first produced in Roman Chester, Cheshire varieties found success throughout the North West as well as London.

About Cheshire Cheese

Cheshire cheese is produced in the county of Cheshire as well as the neighbouring counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire in England and Denbighshire and Flintshire in Wales. The dense and hard crumbly cheese is produced with cow's milk and is aged over four to six weeks, depending on the variety. The cheese has a mild milky and salty taste, although its taste and texture varies as the cheese matures. As it ages, Cheshire cheese becomes firmer and drier, and its colour becomes slightly darker. The flavours also become more complex although not bitter.

There are three main varieties of Cheshire cheese. The most popular variety of Cheshire is white, which features a natural bright colour. Young Cheshire is bright and white in colour as well as firm and crumbly. Red Cheshire is coloured with annatto vegetable dye and developed mainly in North Wale. The dye is added to the milk when producing the cheese. Blue Cheshire has blue veins but is less creamy than similar cheeses like Stilton. A longer aging process allows edible blue mould to develop on the cheese. Despite the differences in colour, Red and Blue Cheshire retain the same taste and colour as the cheese's white variety.

Origins of Cheshire Cheese

Cheshire cheese was originally the generic name for cheese produced in the county and parts of surrounding counties. The first cheese produced in Cheshire was likely during the Roman period, probably in the garrison town of Chester. One of the oldest recorded named cheeses in the UK, Cheshire cheese was first mentioned with Shropshire cheese in Thomas Muffet's Health's Improvement in 1580. While there are no other specific mentions of the cheese, the importance of Cheshire as a major diary producing region in England was highlighted in William Malmesbury's Gesta pontificum Anglorum ('History of the Bishops of England') in the mid-twelfth century. Some have claimed that Cheshire cheese was mentioned in the Domesday Book including the British Cheese Board, although this was largely discredited in Andrew Dalby's Cheese: A Global History in 2009.

Cheshire Cheese eventually became traded across the country starting in the early 17th Century. It was one of the most popular cheeses available on the UK market during the late eighteenth century. So sought-after was the cheese that it was the only one bought by the Royal Navy for consumption on its ships beginning in 1739. By 1758, the Royal Navy ordered all ships to be stocked with Cheshire cheese along with Gloucester cheese. Sales of Cheshire cheese continued to grow into the 19th century as it became a favourite in industries towns and cities across the Midlands and the North of England. At the time it was sometimes referred to as a 'poor man's meat' given it was an affordable source of protein.

In 1870, it was estimated that 12,000 tons of the cheese was produced each year according to the Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales. Until the late nineteenth century, Cheshire varieties were aged to harden and withstand transport markets further afield like London by horse and cart and later by boat. At the end of the century, a fresher and younger variety of the cheese that was made for shorter storage grew in popularity. The more affordable variety is similar to Cheshire cheese found on the market today.

Cheshire Cheese Today

Sales of Cheshire cheese reached its peak in 1960, with 40,000 tonnes sold. Although there has been a large decline in sales similar to other cheeses, Cheshire remains one of the most popular cheeses in the UK. It is widely available at supermarkets and independent retailers throughout the UK and is a favourite with local caterers. According to British Cheese Board, Cheshire cheese remains the UK's largest selling crumbly cheese with approximately 6,000 tonnes sold each year. Leading Cheshire Cheese makers include Belton Cheese Ltd., Joseph Heler Ltd. and The Cheese Company Ltd. (Reece's Creamery).