Clothbound Cheshire cheese, made from unpasteurised milk, used to be a glory of the British cheeseboard. Cheshire cheese is one of the big five 'territorial' cheeses of Britain, along with Cheddar, Lancashire, Caerphilly and Stilton. All of them, when made to timehonoured recipes, formed a part of a justifiably proud tradition.
Nowadays, however, few are made in the old way. Their quality has been diluted by market pressures to go for quick turnover and fast profits - they are in the shops before they have had a chance to mature. But it is not simply a question of maturity; most of these cheeses are dead to start with, because the milk they are made with has been pasteurised; that is, raised to a temperature of 85C and held there for one minute, to kill off unwanted bugs. But pasteurisation also kills off the friendly bacteria which mature the cheese, developing richness and flavour.
Real Cheshire cheese is rare almost to vanishing point. Only one producer in Britain still makes it in the traditional way, Appleby's of Hawkstone Farm in Shropshire. Poised on the brink of extinction, however, the real thing is suddenly being rediscovered and hailed by gourmets overseas. Neal's Yard Dairy, in London's Covent Garden, which exports it to America, says it is in tremendous demand. Appleby's Cheshire has been featured in the New York Times, and is also celebrated in the August issue of American Gourmet magazine.
'We used to be able to sell our weirder and wackier cheeses to America,' says Jason Hinds of Neal's Yard. 'Especially if they had names like Cashel Blue and Beenleigh Blue. But now they are turned on to the real thing, unpasteurised Lancashire, Caerphilly and Cheshire.'
An Appleby cheese is a meal in itself, rich, sharp and intensely savoury. It is also deliciously dry and crumbly. The difference between it and a supermarket Cheshire cheese is extreme: the latter is an immature, moist slab of pressed curds, sold when two or three weeks old. Disguised with chutney or pickled onions, it passes muster in a ploughman's lunch.
The Appleby family make their cheese at Weston-under-Redcastle in Shropshire, a few miles from the Cheshire border. The dairy parlour at Hawkstone Abbey Farm is hung with gleaming horse-brasses, the farmhouse floor is red-polished tile. The farm has enjoyed splendid bucolic isolation for most of this century.
Edward Appleby and his wife, Christine, run the family farm, with younger brother Robert and his wife, Elizabeth; his father, Lance, 85, first milked a cow on the farm 80 years ago, and his mother's family have made Cheshire cheese for a century. The farm embraces the most ancient and most modern technology. The milking carousel that is being installed is the most modern in the country (a vast concrete structure floated on water which can accommodate 32 cows at a time). One man at the computer console can milk the Applebys' dairy herd of 450 cows without help.
Surrounding the new complex are 16th-century, timber-framed brick buildings, now used as byres for the animals. Supermarket buyers who come to look at the cheeses can't cope with the collision of medieval and modern. 'They don't understand us,' says Edward Appleby, guiding me delicately through the puddles. 'They are obsessed with health and hygiene, rules and regulations. I tell them: a farm is not a hospital.'
Edward's mother, Lucy, taught the present cheesemaker, David Collins. They use traditional methods, though some things have changed since the 19th century. 'My mother used to test for the acidity of the cheese with a red-hot poker,' Lucy says. 'After the rennet is added to the milk, the curds should be ready in three and three-quarter hours. Any sooner and the cheese will be spoiled, too acid.' Her mother would dip the red-hot poker into the curds and pull it out with stringy bits clinging to the end, where the curds had cooked. 'The strings hadn't to be longer than one-and-a-half inches or the curd was too acid. If it was right, that's when we added the salt.'
David Collins uses an acid meter, but not much else has changed, although the Applebys have consigned most of their traditional wooden tools to museum status, replacing them with safe, unlovely, washable plastic ones.
The subject of hygiene is one which rouses Appleby senior's ire: 'Those puppets who are sent to tell us how to make cheese. What do they know?' In truth, the good cheesemaker doesn't need to be told about cleanliness. 'We live in terror of the phage,' David Collins says. Phage (pronounced farge) are yeast-like bacteria which lurk in the atmosphere. 'If a single phage gets into your milk it will multiply to a million within half an hour. It creates false acidity, and the cheese is ruined.'
The cheese curds are pressed in Victorian wrought-iron screw presses, stamped with their makers' names, evidence of a once-thriving regional industry; Burgess Brothers of Northwich, Clay and Son of Ellesmere, W H Smith (any relation?) of Whitchurch.
The Appleby cheeses are wrapped in calico, the traditional porous cheesecloth, now no longer used by the other Cheshire cheesemakers. The cheeses are then removed to storage sheds to mature. Here they gently perspire, and every two days their sweaty flanks are rubbed down with a cloth.
The cheeses are also regularly turned to prevent moisture settling at the bottom. The colour gradually changes from beige to a stony, spotty grey and then, at 10 weeks, they are ready to be sold, though they go on improving. They are best eaten between six and 12 months.
The Applebys make four cheeses in all. Traditional and smoked (by Ashdown smokery in Cumbria); a creamy Double Gloucester, and a melting, succulent Cheshire Blue they call Green Fade - they sell it at six months, though, again, it continues to improve.
'A cheese factor who comes to buy the Cheshire can look at it and say: 'That'll make a good Fade,' ' Edward Appleby says. 'Usually because it's developed cracks and the mould can get in. Once a cheese is going blue, we encourage it.'
The Double Gloucester has a higher cream content than the Cheshire, and is matured differently. In the store room they mimic the atmosphere of a dank, damp cave, spraying it with a jet of steam for an hour every day. 'You must never allow a Gloucester to dry out.'
Making cheese the traditional way has not been an easy option for Edward Appleby. Life became tough 20 years ago when supermarkets said there was no demand for clothbound cheeses. The other local Cheshire cheese producers chose to switch to a wax coating which conserves moisture. Moisture loss means weight loss, which in turn means profit loss.
The Applebys couldn't countenance the change and had an extremely hard time for seven years. Finally it dawned on Edward and Catherine that they'd have to get on their bikes and sell it themselves. 'We took it down to Paxton and Whitfield, the cheese shop in Jermyn Street in London, and said: 'Would you pay a little bit more for this?' ' Eventually they built up a niche in the market. The listeria scare six years ago came as a mule-kick - for a while no one would buy any cheese made with unpasteurised milk, despite the fact that listeria cases were caused by soft, not hard cheeses. But when the dust settled and others stopped using unpasteurised milk, they found themselves alone; market leaders in a market of one. The irony is that the listeria case in Switzerland which triggered the scare involved a cheese made with pasteurised milk.
Edward Appleby admits that he sometimes feels a bit nervous. 'But I wouldn't make the cheese with unpasteurised milk from any but my own cows. My bank manager doesn't think it's exciting to live dangerously. He thinks I'm playing Russian roulette.'
He arranges the four cheeses on a plate with pride. 'My wife and I used to buy a bit of Cheddar and a French soft cheese, but now we don't bother. We've got every taste here you could ever want.'
Appleby's Cheshire cheese is sold countrywide in good specialist shops. Also at Neal's Yard Dairy, 17 Short's Gardens, London WC2H 9AT (tel 071-379 7646), pounds 5.10 per lb, and by mail order, add p & p pounds 5 for up to 30 kilos, or by overnight courier, pounds 9 for up to 10 kilos; Paxton and Whitfield, 93 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6JE (tel 071-930 0259), pounds 4.30 per lb, and by mail order, p & p extra, minimum order pounds 5.
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