Food & Drink: All ripe on the night

Over the past 10 years the number of British cheeses has quadrupled. But where are they?
If you were asked what Archie's Choice, Cardinal Sin, or Jove's Balls had in common, cheese is unlikely to be the first thing to spring to mind. Yet, they are just a few of the 450 unique varieties now made by British cheesemakers.

But, once you know what they are, where do you find them? The problem is that each type is produced by a single small cheesemaker unlike say, France, where hundreds of small cheesemakers produce the same type of cheese. Consequently these British cheeses are often only found in the region where they are made, or in London.

Check out your local cheese shop or farmers' markets. But, rather than expect to find a specific cheese, you will need to be flexible. If you can't find the one you love, love the one you're with, because each one is the product of a dedicated cheesemaker, influenced by the vagaries of climate, soil, even the type and breed of animal providing the milk.

Fortunately, with the four-fold increase in the number of artisan cheeses over the past 10 years, specialist cheese shops and delis have sprung up which recognise the importance of providing ripe local cheeses to satisfy the public's increasingly demanding palates.

Scotland: Ann Dorwood makes three superb cheeses in Ayrshire: Dunlop from cows' milk, Swinlee from the ewe's and Bonnet from her herd of mischievous goats. The Bonnet is pure white inside but coated in pale yellow wax or left to develop a fine, grey, crusty rind. Distinct, but not strong, its aromatic character hints at marzipan and hawthorn. Anne's produce is aged and sold by Iain Mellis The Cheesemonger, alongside 70 cheeses from Britain and Ireland, at 30A Victoria Street, Edinburgh, 0131-226 6215 and 492 Great Western Road, Glasgow 0141-339 8998 (and mail order).

Cumbria and the North: Cheeses from the unspoilt dales of Yorkshire can trace their ancestry back to the arrival of the Cistercian monks in the 11th century. In recent years, many new cheeses, based on old recipes, have begun to appear, like Mrs Bell's Blue, a ewes' milk blue from Justin Bell at Shepherds Purse, Thirsk. Creamy, like mature Stilton but moister, it has a distinct, though not vicious, spicy blue tang. One of the most accessible farm shops in the area is Low Sizergh Barn, Low Sizergh Farm, Sizergh, 01539 560426, near Kendal. They offer an excellent range of local cheeses. (Mail order available.)

Cambridge and Lincolnshire: A prevailing easterly wind blows in off the North Sea and dries out the fields in summer so it's no shock that the number of cheeses made in the Eastern counties can be counted on one hand. But both local food lovers and the media were surprised when Lincolnshire Poacher, made by Simon Jones in Alford, won supreme champion at the 1996 British Cheese Awards. Hard, almost chewy, it is fruity, savoury with a lip-puckering bite on the finish. The dearth of local cheeses has not daunted the Cambridge Cheese Company, All Saints Passage, Cambridge, 01223 328672, which boasts more than 100 well-kept farmhouse cheeses from Britain, Ireland and Europe.

Wales: John Savage, originally from Holland but now based in Llandysul, was best known for his Gouda-like Teifi Farmhouse until he created an unusual washed rind cheese with the help of cheese expert James Aldridge. The result was Celtic Promise, a small, terracotta, dumpling with a supple texture, pungent aroma and sweet-sour spicy character. It was voted supreme champion in 1998. Avid supporter of Welsh cheeses, Tom Innes at Irma Fingal- Rock, 64 Monnow St, Monmouth, 01600 712 372, has created a haven for food lovers. (Mail order available.)

Somerset and Devon: Amode Katiyar of newly-established Monastery Cheese in Nether Stowey, makes washed-rind cheeses using cow, ewe and even buffalo milk. Their sticky orange rinds hum with activity as they ripen. The earthy sweet milk, from one of three British herds of water buffalo, lends itself to these frequent washings. The result of all this is a cheese called Bishop Gold, with a smoky, vaguely meaty aroma and taste, and a smooth, dense interior. Country Cheeses in the Harlequin Shopping Centre, Exeter, 01392 494049, mainly stocks West Country cheeses, all displayed with useful tasting notes. (Mail order available.)

The South-East: Cheese-making, unlike wine, rarely attracts interest from the rich or famous. Actor Terence Stamp has proved the exception, bringing his creative skills and humour to the cheese world with two organic cheeses, Troy and Priscilla, made by Sussex High Weald Dairy, near Uckfield. Priscilla is a charming, frothy number, sprinkled with organic rose and marigold petals. Delicate, moist and pure white, it melts like ice-cream on the palate with a lingering sweetness from the ewes' milk on the finish. Jeff Webb sells cheese from most of the 23 local producers at Harvest Deli, 46 West Street, Alresford, Hants, 01962 733189, an impressively stocked, if chaotic village shop.

For information on cheese shops in your area contact the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, PO Box 448, Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire, ST5 0BF or The British Cheese Awards, Old Woolman's House, Hastings Hill, Oxon. OX7 6NA.

Juliet Harbutt chairs the British Cheese Awards. Her latest book is `Cheese: a complete guide to over 300 cheeses of distinction' (Mitchell Beazley pounds 16.99)