The Ultimate Guide to Cheshire Cheese.

What is Cheshire?

Cheshire is the oldest of Britain’s “Territorial” cheeses (named after British counties or towns), and it comes from a family of cheeses that use an almost uniquely British technique that gives a crumbly texture and a dairy acid taste.
The family of “Crumblies” includes amongst others Lancashire, Wensleydale, Stilton and Caerphilly. It is a combination of high acidity starter, acidification-in-vat, table set and milling cheesemaking techniques that are only used here in the UK. Think of these cheeses as older and more British than democracy.
So what is it and why buy it?

Why have Cheshire on your table?

Here are six good reasons:

  1. It is the oldest Cheese in the UK
  2. It has a unique and historic flavour profile
  3. It is a perfect match with beer
  4. There is a good spread of quality and award winners across the producers
  5. Cheshire makers handle bitterness in a uniquely beautiful and complex way. Bitterness is on-trend, popularised by coffee and chocolate
  6. It makes arguably the best cheese on toast and Welsh Rarebit

Yes, lots. The Cheshire name is not protected in any way. There is no PDO/Protected Food Name nor is it a trade mark or brand name, so variants are common. Here are some examples of Cheshire variations

  • Block vs cloth wrapped: Cloth wrapped is the older style. Cloth wrapped is more expensive and manual to produce and is generally matured longer. Block is usually eaten earlier, wetter like feta, and at that age less distinguishable from its territorial cousins like Lancashire, white stilton and Wensleydale.
  • Young vs old: With older cheese the curds combine more like cheddar while retaining a softer texture. The traditional term is having “close body”, but to you and me it means less crumbly. You will also see predictable flavour variations between sub-3 months and pos-3 months.
  • White vs red: Many makers colour their Cheshires with annatto. This is not ubiquitous. There is a general observation that cheeses kept more than 3 months and more often coloured, but this is not a rule. Sarah Appleby says from her cheeses the red makes the cheese softer in texture, and this holds true in other cheeses so it may be true generally. I recommend the red versions simply to make them stand out in the counter and cheeseboard, particularly from other crumbly territorials as Cheshire is the only crumby territorial to be coloured.
  • Slow vs fast acidifying: All Cheshire needs a big acid development to give the taste and crumble structure they need. Traditional Cheshire makers use lower starter levels and have a longer acidification process, modern styles use more starter and big quick acid hit. Slow acidification seems to be attached to clothbound maturation, traditional starter styles and longer matured cheeses so it is hard to untangle its importance. This like so many things in cheese this is probably but not definitely important. In itself, it is unlikely to be critical, but it is likely to be a co-contributor to desirable flavours.
  • Blue: Ordinary Cheshire blues up very quickly, so it is unsurprising that makers over the decades have tried to make blue Cheshires, a kind of Shropshire blue style of cheese. The results have been patchy. People tend to like their blues to get their punch from the blue mould, and the carrying cheese to be more gentle and creamy. Cheshire goes against this grain.
  • Flavoured: There are flavoured Cheshires, but for the most part flavoured cheeses like their base cheese to be neutral in tone, and Cheshire isn’t. Consequently, flavoured Cheshire has not caught on unlike flavoured white stilton, Wensleydale and cheddar.
  • Cheshire Basin vs out of terroir: Out of terroir Cheshires are also mostly creamery (large volume) Cheshires, and so rely on starters for their character rather than single herd milk or terroir flavours. There is, therefore, a correlation between out of terroir Cheshires and young block pre-packed products.

Cheshire is a county in England just next to Wales and under Manchester. For nearly two thousand years there has been good grazing combined with local salt mining, making it ideal for cheesemaking. Like many cheeses its name was given by people out of the area associating the style with the county.

The Academy of Cheese is doing a great project on Cheshire with a full history for you to look at, so go over and check it out.

Shape 

  • Block: 25kg blocks. Rarely seen whole, usually cut down for pre-pack.
  • Truckle: 30cm diameter and 30cm high truckles.

Rind 

  • Block: no rind. The outer surface may vary in tones, including yellowy, ivory, creamy and grey. The rind may also be wet or be dotted with water droplets.
  • Truckle: a hard cheese rind of darker colour, you will often see white Camemberti dusting, and maybe darker mould spots as well. You should be able to see the imprint of the cloth in the rinds outer texture. Some truckle Cheshires are polished, removing and white mould making the outside shiny and smooth, and blotchy with brown marks where the moulds have been,

Should you eat the rind?

Maybe! For block Cheshire, this is not a question as there is no rind.

For cloth wrapped Cheshire, the rind will be very profoundly different in smell, taste and texture. I have frequently come across Cheshire rinds that have been distinct and delicious, but check first! They can be musty, earthy, farmyard, bitter and more on occasion.

Paste 

The paste of the cheese can be experienced in three main stages of age: 

  • Block <3month Colour usually white (occasionally red), the curd looks not unlike fetta, being structurally curdy though usually with smaller curds, and to a greater or lesser extend wet. Look for: No discolouration of the skin; less (like dew) rather than more (like feta) wet
  • Block >3month Colour usually red (occasionally white). The curd is closer set and more granular. It will probably but not definitely have lost its wet look. Look for: Avoid mushy textures and excess moisture. 
  • Cloth wrapped <3month Colour red or white, the curd looks like an open textured or crumbly cheddar. You should see frequent and distinct mostly closed cracks and fissures, with small variations in colour tone. Look for: Dry textures and clear crumble.
  • Cloth wrapped >3month Colour red (occasionally white), the curd will have closed up a bit but not entirely and will continue to show an open body and crumbly texture. You should see frequent and distinct closed cracks and fissures. Look for Dry textures and clear crumble, firm to the touch and not mushy or pappy.

Using the tasting notes:

  • Paste applies to the body of the cheese
  • Numbers range from 0-10, 10 being highest, 0 being not present
  • Cheese can vary significantly in some areas, and number can vary. If you have anything you would like to add drop me a message

Before you taste the cheese…

Texture/consistencyPasteRindComments
Texture56
ConsistencyRubbery crumbly when young, curdy crumbly when older. Very even, with cracks throughoutFirm, dry, dusty
BlueingNone
Smell2-3, milk and sour milk

When tasting the cheese

MouthfeelPasteRindComments
Texture
Wet to dry
Simple flavoursPasteRindComments
SavouryBroad-spectrum 2-7Becomes more savoury with age
SweetLow 2-4
SaltBroad spectrum: 3-7
BitterCan be significant: 3-7Younger cheese often has a more fruity, chemical or metallic bitterness, older cheeses have more savoury herbaceous bitterness
AcidAlways high 5-9
Complex FlavoursLikelyOccasionalRare
DairyButter 1-6; yoghurt 1-5Milk 1-5; sour milk 1-5; baby sick 1-5
Fruity or FloralLime, lemon or tropical fruit notes 1-6Spice, mustard or peppercorn 1-Flower/floral notes 1-3
Vegetal or herbaceousBitter herbs 1-7; alliums (onions, chives, leaks or garlics) 1-6Bread, yeast or malt 1-4
Mineral or chemicalMetallic, quinine, rubber or vinegars 1-6
Animal, fungal or fermentedFarmyard 1-4

Overall assessment

ComplexityHigh (7) for older Cheshire, low (3) for younger Cheshire
BalanceThis is the key to good Cheshire, as it deals with difficult to control flavours. A well balanced Cheshire is a good quality Cheshire.
LengthLength can be associated with negative flavours in Cheshires, as the high acid and bitter notes can be the ones that linger. Hence is not a measure of quality in Cheshire.
SummaryCheshire is matured for between 2 and 5 months and so can vary extensively in flavour. They can reach a high level of complexity with butter, yoghurt and milk flavours with accompanying low-level citrus or tropical fruit, alliums and slight meaty, yeasty or bready flavours. Mid textured and crumbly, its acidic and bitter notes can become excessive.

There are not many producers

  • Belton Farm A family-owned company based in a lovely farmhouse in north Shropshire, Belton’s have achieved the most success in high-quality block Cheshire. They won best overall cheese for their red Cheshire in 2018. 
  • Appleby’s In the traditional/Neal’s Yard stable of cheesemakers. Red 4-5 month Appleby’s is the go-to for the speciality cheese shop.
  • Hellers are another great Cheshire maker with provenance

I don’t believe there is any non-British cheese equivalent to Cheshire, but no doubt there is somewhere because there always is.

British alternatives: 

There are several high acid traditional Crumblies that can be similar to Cheshire, especially if you are looking for sub-3 month substitutes. Wensleydale and Lancashire are two that come closec.

Within the modern British grouping, Anster from St Andrews Farmhouse Cheese Co has similarities.

Lunch, cooking or cheeseboard 

All three. 

  • Lunch: Cheshire is a classic lunch cheese. For block Cheshires it can a be a good salad cheese. Cloth wrapped cheese makes for better ploughman’s plates.
  • Cooking: Cheshire holds its structure and does not weep oil like a cheddar when heating. It therefore makes for excellent welsh rarebit/toasted sandwiches, sometimes combined with a little cheddar or perhaps cream and beer to make for a softer texture. Older Cheshire will melt better than younger ones which stay firm like feta. 
  • Cheeseboard: go late aged. A 5 month Cheshire is a good hold its own cheese on a cheeseboard and a red colour brings character.

Sweet or savoury tracklement: Jelly, pickle or chutney? 

Cheshires like classic British pickles, like whole pickled onions or chopped like real ale chutneys, and sweet mustard pickles like piccalilli. Sweet or fruit confections are usually not so good.

  • White wine: For younger acidic tropical flavoured Cheshires, go for dry fruity whites. Sweeter whites and white dessert wines have more success than dry with older Cheshire.
  • Red wines: I may be romantically generalising, but I have found the Cote du Rhone vin de pays work well for me. The slight teeth sucking country reds of the higher and lower Rhone with Cheshire are like two old friends.
  • Bitters: Yes, but go old school with non-citrus hops for cloth wrapped Cheshire. Younger Cheshires can be very good with more modern craft ales.
  • Lagers: Doesn’t really work
  • Juices: I like pear juice or sweeter apple juices.
  • Ports: Try the drier more brandyish ports, Tawney’s or vintage ports. This would not the choice for if Cheshire was my only cheese, but when looking for drinks to match a range of cheeses on a board that includes Cheshire, ports are good.
  • Others: There is some talk of sherries and even madeira, but I have not found any success myself. Please get in touch if you have.

The UK Environmental rules for this kind of cheese are that you can leave it out of the fridge for 2 hours, and then return it to the fridge for normal use. You can leave it out of the fridge between 2 and 4 hours, and then it must be consumed or disposed of. If you leave it out for longer it should be disposed of without eating.

This is very limiting, and most ordinary people are either not aware of the rules or ignore them. Many of my customers over the years leave cheeses out, especially Bries and camemberts to ripen them. As a professional, I can not advise people to do this.

I can say that in my own home I try to find the coolest place in the house to do my final ripening. I am allowed to poison myself.

Larders are best if you have one, with stone, marble or slate shelves, but these are rare now. Some of my customers use their garages, unheated spare rooms, utility rooms or porches. They are trying to represent the producers maturing rooms, which means between 10 and 16oC for final ripening. Above 20oC and you will over-ripen on the outside of the cheese and bring on a smelly rind while possibly still having a chalky centre. Kitchens are NOT good. Today’s kitchens are 21-24oC in temperature, which is too hot for ripening. These customers say 1-2 days is generally plenty. I am told they then put them back in the fridge to slow down the process again until they want to eat it.

Storage

  • Number 1 choiceIn your fridge: I use a Tupperware, and am quite happy putting all my cheeses together, unwrapped and even touching when I have a lot of cheeses in the house. The exception is the washed rind cheeses. These don’t play well with others and should have their own box.
    Why doesn’t the white or blue mould get into other cheeses? Given enough time it will, but you’ve got a week. just keep eating your cheese at a good rate
  • Number 2 choice – Clingfilm: it really works, keeps the air out and is less harmful on the environment than bagging them up

Storage DONTs

  • I don’t like greaseproof paper. It is generally not recyclable nor proof from cheese drying out, and once used two or three times becomes dirty and a hazard. I agree it looks cool, but cheese looks best naked anyway.
  • Tinfoil: some blue cheeses use it but it is not the same as the stuff you buy in supermarkets. It has a plastic coating on the cheese side. Don’t use your own.

Consumption

Bring to room temperature before consuming, this means 20-23oC in most houses. An hour should be plenty for wedges, for large pieces leave a little longer.

The Academy of Cheese is doing a great project on Cheshire with a full history for you to look at, so go over and check it out.

Charlie’s top tips: How to buy a good piece of Cheshire

Here are my two golden rules:

  1. Always taste before you buy (if you can)
    All cheeses are affected by their whole journey, not just who made them. The season of making, the weather on the day, who by and how they were matured, how long they will in the chill chain (chilled transport system) for can all nudge tastes and flavours unexpectedly.
  2. Buy your wedge cut off from a big cheese (if you can)
    All cheeses like to stay whole as long as possible. Pre-pack is never as good – head for the deli counter.

Is Cheshire suitable for pregnant and immunity fragile people? If you dont know them i always point people to the NHS guidelines https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/foods-to-avoid-pregnant/ 

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