Rather amusingly, Charles de Gaulle once pondered, "How can anyone govern a nation [France] that has 246 different kinds of cheese?" I wonder if in the near future we will hear Gordon Brown say something similar about British politics, because our cheese-making is on the up and up, and the day is not very far away when we will surpass the French with our cheese-making ability.
The very best of British cheese is represented by the wonderful Montgomery Cheddar, which is full of flavour and character with a subtle nutty taste. It is certainly the best in its class. At my café, Albion in east London, we actually only serve British cheese and the Montgomery is probably the most popular, closely followed by Stichelton, Tunworth and Tymsboro.
Cheddar is a very versatile cheese which can be cooked, grated or eaten on its own, but for a top-class cheeseboard it must be handmade. The Montgomery family are third-generation farmers in south Somerset, who for over 70 years have been producing world-class unpasteurised cheese by hand to ensure that each and every cheese they produce is first-rate. The quality of their cheddar ensures that it makes a statement when added to a cheeseboard and will impress anyone who has only eaten block cheddar before.
They are one of the few cheesemakers in the UK who still use calf rennet, a traditional source of the enzyme, to start the curd, and are possibly the only farmhouse cheddar-makers still using an old, slow peg mill which produces the peculiar fissuring and brittleness of the cheese. When you strip away the cheese-cloth and cut open the Montgomery Cheddar, an amazing aroma fills the room and the first taste is an absolute delight.
Stichelton, one of my other favourites, varies from "decent" to "good", probably because it is unpasteurised, unlike Stilton, but it is always better than anything from Colston Bassett.
Tunworth and Tymsboro appear to be copies of Camembert and Valencay, but are still excellent and have truly developed their own character.