A history of the Stinking Bishop

The bizarrely-named cheese appears in the new Wallace and Gromit film. But its manufacturer is worried. By Terry Kirby reports

"We can't expand to deal with this. For a start, we can't employ any more people because we don't have anywhere to park their cars or put in a new toilet. We're just a farm, after all," says Charles Martell, creator of the gloriously named Stinking Bishop cheese.

However, until it all blows over, Mr Martell will have to ride out an expected to be a tidal wave of demand for his lovingly handmade cheese, after it appears in the new Wallace and Gromit film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, due out next month. When Wallace, the cheese-loving plasticine creation of Nick Park, expressed a fondness for "a nice bit of Wensleydale" in an earlier film, turnover at that cheesemaker soared.

Mr Martell is happy for his cheese to be featured - his wife Sasha, a fan of Aardman Animations, persuaded him to grant the trademark licence for free - but realistic about the company's need or desire to expand. Currently, the couple employ just two people who help them make 20 tonnes a year of Stinking Bishop.

"It's going to put a lot of pressure on us, but we are really happy as we are. We earn a living and I don't really want to increase production - and we really can't anyway. I want to stick by the people with whom we have been making and selling the cheese to all along." His belief that small is beautiful will strike a chord with food enthusiasts, who argue that the individualism of any such product could be endangered by attempts to move up a gear.

Stinking Bishop is one of hundreds of new varieties of British cheeses, usually made in small, farmhouse-style operations, that have sprung up in recent years. Its story is typical. A self-confessed child of the Sixties, Mr Martell was one of the first to, as he puts it, "go back to the land", moving to Gloucestershire to work for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge.

After a propitious meeting with a Gloucester cow, one of around only 60 then surviving, he began to conserve and breed the cattle and took up cheese-making with their milk as a sideline. Both thrived; there are now several hundred Gloucesters in the world while Mrs Martell still makes single and double Gloucester cheese from the couple's small herd.

Mr Martell also began planting varieties of pear trees to make perry, a traditional local drink, including the Stinking Bishop, created by the local Bishop family and named after an unpopular relative. The perry it produces, says Mr Martell, has a distinctive effect. "It cuts you off at the knees - after you've drunk a few you're absolutely normal apart from the fact that your legs no longer work."

In the early 1990s, perry and cheese-making at the farm came together. "There was just something in my head from when I worked on a farm in France when I was young. I didn't have a recipe, I just fiddled about for six years..." Commercial production began 10 years ago, based on the methods of the Cistercian monks who lived in the village. In Mr Martell's process, the perry is used to "wash" the curds - made from milk bought in from other local farms - before being ladled into moulds and then again as the cheese matures over a period of up to two months, creating an orange rind and a creamy interior.

Even cheese connoisseurs agree that the end product does smell like old socks. But the taste and texture are entirely different and have earned it a following not only in Britain, where it is sold in specialist shops, but also in Japan, Singapore and North America. "It is a very well-made, serious cheese with a nice nutty flavour and fruity overtones. It's a very easy-eating cheese and much milder than you might expect," said Ann Hastings, a cheese expert at Neal's Yard, the cheese emporium in London's Covent Garden.

Back at Laurel Farm, Mr and Mrs Martell and are looking forward to seeing the film and discovering the closely guarded secret of what part their cheese will play in the plot. Mr Martell remains relaxed about the present and future publicity. "My accountant reckons it will all blow over in the end. I'm 60 now and I'm not sure I really want all this... and I'm bone idle."

Six British alternatives to cheddar and stilton

CORNISH YARG

Produced on a Duchy of Cornwall estate farm in Cornwall, the cheese is based on a 13th-century recipe, which includes being wrapped in nettle leaves. It has a moist texture, with a tangy, citrus flavour. A success since it was started, at the suggestion of the estate, 20 years ago and widely available. The name, although Cornish-sounding, is the makers' name, Gray, backwards.

CILOWEN ORGANIC

A Gold Medal winner at the 2003 British Cheese Awards, this is a hard cheese in a truckle shape made from organically produced milk from farms in West Wales by the award-winning Llanboidy cheesemakers. It is certified by the Soil Association. Smoked and leek versions are also available.

FOWLERS LITTLE DERBY

Made by Fowlers of Earlswood in Warwickshire, a family company that has been making Derby cheese since 1840, making them possibly the oldest cheese-making family in Britain. Originally the cheese was made in Derbyshire, and the family moved to Warwickshire in 1918. It is a hard, medium-flavoured cheddar-style cheese, without the anatto colouring used in traditional Derby cheese.

LANARK BLUE

Described as the first British blue sheep's cheese for centuries when it was first made in the 1980s, Lanark Blue is hand-made in a farm-house using using unpasteurised milk from ewes who graze the heather covered hillsides of Strathclyde. Only available from June to January.

TYMSBORO

Made from unpasteurised goat's milk by Mary Holbrook on a farm near Bath, it is usually produced in the shape of flat-topped pyramid and the natural rind, dusted with black ash, is covered with a white mould. Tymsboro is said to have the taste of lemon sorbet and apples.

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