Cheshire cheese: a slice of history
While their neighbours succumbed to mass production, Lance and Mrs Appleby doggedly continued to make Cheshire cheese to their family's traditional methods, resulting in a sublime cheese with crumbly texture and slightly salty flavour, as Dee McQuillan discovers.
Cheshire is our oldest recorded English cheese and one of the very best. Over the past four decades the surname Appleby has become synonymous with Cheshire cheese, and deservedly: the Appleby family of Hawkstone, Shropshire, persevered with the traditional method when other farmers on the Cheshire Plain had given up making their own cheese and were selling milk to the large-scale manufacturers of plastic-wrapped, block cheese.
The senior member of this cheese dynasty is Mrs Appleby; her late husband (who died in 2003) was known as Lance, and this nomenclature reflected their respective characters: he was outgoing and lively, she the skilled craftswoman and a much quieter character. Mrs Appleby comes from a line of Northern women who made cheese and ran farmhouses. She remembers her mother's instinctive cheesemaking: 'She would know by smell alone when the cheese was acid enough, and would judge by the lengths of the curds just when it was ready for grinding.' This is how all cheeses used to be made – as a scientific process without instruments in which the experience and judgement of the maker governed the quality (or lack of it).
When our Mrs Appleby fell for Lance, a dairy farmer with lands on the Cheshire Plain, her fate was sealed. She got up and made cheese on her wedding day, and all her babies went, in their cots, into the cheesemaking room with her. The room and mother making cheese are the earliest memories of her son, Edward, who now runs the farm. This farm, called Hawkstone Abbey Farm, was built as a folly for the grand house nearby. The cheese room is separated from the family kitchen only by an impressive hall, so it seems, at times, much too close for comfort. As soon as the morning milk is flowing, cheesemaking starts and, says Lance, 'While it is in the vat, the cheese is the boss.'
The salt deposits beneath the soil of the Cheshire Plain, which gave rise to old salt works and spas such as Nantwich and Droitwich, are supposed to give a special flavour to the soil and pasture, and hence to the milk – the traditional region for making Cheshire cheese extends into Lancashire, Staffordshire and Shropshire. The Applebys see no point in having the good milk from their closed herds of Friesians pasteurised. The evening milk is left to stand and thicken a bit (a process called ripening) and, come 5 or 6am, the morning milk is mixed in and – on Mrs Appleby's strictest instructions – the minimum amount of their own starter culture is added so that the acidity rises slowly and the delicate flavour of the milk is retained. The curds are carefully turned, broken, salted and milled to make the special flaky texture that is a trademark of the Applebys' cheese, then pressed relatively lightly to expel the last of the whey. (Whey is made into that old farmhouse favourite – whey butter.)
Their Cheshire is shaped into the traditional column – the largest weighs 62 lb – and carefully wrapped in cloth so it breathes and matures. Following the tradition that Cheshire should be red, most is lightly coloured with annatto, though one day a week they make white Cheshire. Of their own accord, some cheeses will even start to develop the once-famous Cheshire green fade (a veining of beneficial mould), which used to be prized. In the bad old days, when such a cheese was too weird for the Milk Marketing Board to wholesale, Lance loaded up a van and started visiting the shops. This does not sound ideal for a dairy farmer with a big herd to keep, but people liked his humour and loved his wife's cheese, and so on the basis of endless work by husband and wife, farmhouse Cheshire-making survived.
In 2001 Lance, then aged 93, and Mrs Appleby, who is several years younger, received the MBE for their services to British cheese-making.
Appleby's Cheshire is available from all fine cheese shops; cheese enthusiasts should look out for it at Neal's Yard Dairy which makes a point of selling it specially matured.
Other features to read:
Delia's five steps to a good cheese board
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