It's the world's most fashionable foodstuff – and the British are the new masters of creating it. Jonathan Brown meets the movers and shakers of cheese-making

Blessed are British cheesemakers. Anyone in doubt about this statement should have made their way to the Great British Cheese Awards in Oxfordshire's White Horse Vale these past few days where the country's leading artisans were celebrating their new-found status as world leaders in the subtle and occasionally not-so-subtle arts of curdling milk.

At the last count, home-grown creameries were producing 460 unique varieties of cheese – far more than the 246 types which in General de Gaulle's celebrated view made France a nation virtually impossible to govern.

But it is not just a question of quantity. Today, a real Cornish Yarg or truckle of Gloucestershire Stinking Bishop can command a place alongside the ooziest of Camembert de Normandies on the cheeseboards of the world's top restaurants.

It is all a far cry from the dark days of the 1980s when cheesemaking in Britain was virtually dead and buried. A dismal popular food culture and a mania for industrial-scale farming had bequeathed a yellow, rubbery substance that barely deserved its place below the pineapple chunk on an uncaring nation's cocktail sticks. But the mere mention of the words Dairylea triangle was likely to earn anyone an unceremonious ejection from the British Cheese Awards, the centrepiece of British Cheese Week which runs until Friday. Much of the media attention was focused on Alex James, former bass player from Britpop superstars Blur. James, who has quit the shallow pleasures of city life for a farm in the Cotswolds, has become the unlikely poster boy of British cheese and amid the glare of the television camera lights was busy setting out the stall for his very own Little Wallop, a mild, vine-leaf-wrapped goats' cheese with lemony hints and just a suggestion of gooeyness.

The presence of a pop star in this traditionally unglamorous world of dung-caked wellies has been greeted with good humour by his fellow producers. "Cheese people are a bit like pilots," explains James. "I've never met a pilot who doesn't think everyone should fly planes – cheese people are the same. They think everyone should make cheese."

Produced in a soup kettle in the kitchen of his Oxfordshire farmhouse, Little Wallop picked up a regional award for best new cheese. The musician has already been approached by one supermarket chain keen to stock it, and he says he harbours ambitions to establish his own herd of goats and, when the time is right, sell his cheese in France.

"We have got more cheese varieties in this country than France now, which is mad. And there is a buyer here from one American food giant who says that he now believes the quality of British cheese is better than in France," he says. He is only half-joking when he describes cheese as the new rock '*' roll. "The music business is a sinking battleship. It is a complete contrast to the food industry, which is just so buoyant. You simply cannot make a food that is too posh or too expensive."

But it was not always thus. British cheesemaking has undergone a series of calamities in recent centuries that nearly brought an end to traditions dating back thousands of years. One of the world's oldest foods, cheese was first made among the Turkish tribes of central Asia, possibly as early as 8000 BC. According to legend, the first batch was churned soon after the domestication of sheep and the acquisition of the know-how played a central role in mankind's switching from a predominately nomadic existence to a settled life revolving around agriculture.

Yet this only came about by accident. In those days, animal skins or cured stomachs were used to transport liquids, normally strapped to the back of a horse or mule. The heat and the motion of the horse created a natural churn, and it soon became apparent that when milk was carried like this the end result was a lumpy mixture we now know as curds and whey.

But in Britain the advent of the railway nearly destroyed indigenous cheesemaking. As all but the most far-flung farms found themselves linked to urban milk markets and the cash they brought, there was little surplus milk and many local traditions died out. The 20th century brought similar ravages. Before the First World War, Britain could boast some 3,500 independent cheesemakers. By 1945 this figure had fallen to fewer than 100, according to Juliet Harbutt, the grande dame of the British cheese industry and organiser of the annual festival. At the height of the Second World War, the Ministry of Food ordered all milk producers to contribute towards a single National Cheese. With Britain battling for its very survival, taste, of course, was very much a secondary issue. Nationalisation meant the end for many small creameries.

Yet it was more adversity that helped revive the industry. Plummeting milk prices in the 1990s and the growing control of the market by the big supermarket chains saw dairy farmers pushed to the brink of bankruptcy. One way to stay afloat was to add value to your milk by turning it into cheese – a move which coincided with a growing interest in food in this country.

Since launching the British Cheese Awards in 1994, Ms Harbutt has witnessed a rapid snowballing in the number of entrants. In its first year, 97 cheesemakers showcased 296 varieties. This year 175 producers travelled to Millets Farm Centre near Abingdon to bring 867 different cheeses before the judging panel, which eventually named Seriously Strong Cheddar, made in Stranraer by the Caledonian Cheese Company as the overall winner.

"When people ask me whether the British can hold their heads up and be proud of their cheeses, the answer is a categorical yes. They are as good as any other country's and we have an amazing diversity now," she says.

Savouring the range of tastes on offer was cheese-taster Dom Lane, whose infectious enthusiasm for the food brought to mind a real-life Edward Trencom, whose super-charged olfactory powers made an unlikely hit for Giles Milton's historical caper Edward Trencom: A novel of History, Dark Intrigue and Cheese. Mr Lane was leading a masterclass in cheese appreciation in which he insisted cheese should be afforded just the same reverence and colourful vocabulary normally reserved for wine.

"You have got to imagine taste as a shape," he tells his initially sceptical audience. "Imagine a cone with a circular base, this is the initial mouth feel, and then a long nose for the flavour. In the West Country we talk about a five-mile cheddar. You can eat a piece of cheese at lunchtime, go for a five-mile walk and still taste it. That is the sort of thing you are looking for."

A good cheese, like a good wine, will demonstrate a number of flavour notes. A cheddar may demonstrate some bitterness, tannin tastes – somewhere between leather and the smell of the bottom of an old wardrobe, he enthuses. In blue cheeses there will be piquancy or twang, a sweaty feeling in the jowels as the digestive juices start flooding the mouth, alongside a vital underlying creaminess. For milder cheeses look for hints of lemon meringue pie.

And every cheese tells a story. John Knox, of the Staffordshire Cheese Company, had particular reason to celebrate: his cheese had just been included under the EU's protected designation of origin scheme, the 15th British cheese to be recognised as an authentic regional food.

Brandishing a huge chunk of his cheese – a cross between a Stilton and a Wensleydale – above his head, Mr Knox looked back to a time 300 years ago when buyers would travel from London to the creameries of Uttoxeter to spend £1,000 a week – a fortune in those days. The native Scot discovered his recipe in a 200-year-old will and then tracked down the only living person who knew how to make it – knowledge which dates back to the time of the Reformation. He now plans to build a new dairy.

It is a similar story with Double Gloucester, the revival of which saved not only a cheesemaking tradition dating back centuries but safeguarded the future of an entire breed of cattle. So too with Red Leicester, resurrected by David and Jo Clarke of Sparkenhoe Farm in Upton. Prior to this, the last farmhouse cheese made in Leicestershire had been churned in 1956.

Yet there are dark clouds on the horizon. Failing harvests in Australia have sent milk prices spiralling upwards, reducing the incentive for cheesemakers. Growing demand from new consumers in China and India discovering milk for the first time is also squeezing supplies. And disease is also on the march. Epidemics of BSE, foot-and-mouth and bovine TB have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of animals in recent years. Bluetongue has sent a shiver of fear through the farming community in areas hitherto spared the worst of the epidemics.

Yet this weekend, the feeling was one of optimism. At present UK consumption is just a third of the French average. Farmers believe the best is yet to come and that this rural renaissance is still just the thin end of a delicious and ripening wedge.

How to make your own (if you must...)

Ingredients: One gallon fresh milk; 1 oz starter culture; 1/4 tablet rennet; 1 tbsp salt

Heat milk to 90F (32.25C). Add starter culture and mix with a whisk until dissolved. Leave for 1 hour. Dissolve rennet in 3-4 tablespoons of cool water and slowly pour into milk, whisking continuously. Stir well for 5 mins and allow to set, (takes 1-2 hours). Cut curds into 1/4 in cubes, and allow further 15 mins for them to firm up. Gently increase temperature to 102F/39C (this can take 1 hour), stirring all the time. When curds are firm, allow to settle before straining through cheesecloth into a colander. Return curds to boiler ensuring it is still at 102 F/39C. Separate any that stick together, add salt and mix well. Cook for 1 hour, stirring regularly, and place in a cheesecloth-lined mould. Press for 45 minutes with 20lb weight. Remove from press, flip, then press at 40lb for three hours. Remove, flip and press at 50lb for 24 hours. Remove cheese and dry on a cheeseboard for 3-5 days. Bandage in larded-muslin cloth or wax and allow to mature in a fridge, flipping every other day. Can be eaten after 3 months; for a mature flavour, allow 24 months.

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