Or, more specifically, Farmhouse Cheshire Cheese.
As well as slicing up lots of dead pigs every week, the other major food item my parents sold on their market stall was cheese.
Now for some reason, the tradition in my part of Yorkshire – the West Riding – was, along with haddock not cod, rolled bacon not flat, to have Cheshire Cheese. One would have thought that Wensleydale would have been the cheese of choice, but no, Cheshire was the must-have cheese.
Along with the premium bacon that we sold, the cheese was equally expensive and top quality.
We didn’t have prices up (apart from the cheap bits of shoulder mentioned back on the bacon post) mainly because the price often fluctuated anyway from week to week.
When someone came and asked how much, and walked away, I always felt crestfallen. It was a kick in the teeth that someone thought we were charging too much. When I see what people pay now for sheer garbage, I wonder what incomes people were on back then.
But back to the cheese. They came in cylindrical form, well, cheeses really, weighing around 50-55 pounds. Occasionally they were less than 50 and were easier to carry. The 55s were seriously heavy. To young teenage me anyway.
Their designation as Farmhouse was a bit like chateau-bottled wine. Well, more or less. They had to be made on the farm where the milk came from rather than the milk being transported to a factory. Not much difference in reality as it was basically a mini-factory on the farm. And the farm had to be approved. Each one had a number.
We bought our cheese from Emberton Brothers based in Crewe, an old-established Cheshire business. Probably started at a similar time to our bacon stall business back in the early 1920s.
If my father was in charge of buying the bacon, my mother managed the cheese side of the business. Every couple of weeks she would ring up to order whatever we wanted to see us through.
One week, one of the drivers came down our yard and was chatting saying that we were one of the biggest cheese customers they had – we ordered more than Leeds’ famous department store – Schofields. Maybe, because we only sold one type of cheese.
It was easy to tell the better cheeses. Cheshire cheese should be extremely dry and crumbly, slightly salty, and not heavy and solid. But – not too dry that it falls apart when you cut it. Customers did not want a heap of bits, even if they ended up grating it afterwards. We could have made a fortune selling pre-wrapped crumbs, seeing that people buy grated cheese nowadays.
There were two types of wrapping a cheese. One was in cheesecloth with a light waxing around, and the other was without the wax, the more traditional way.
Now, I am all for traditional ways of making and preserving food but the blunt truth is that, clothing cheese without wax just ensured a heavy cheese with an extremely thick skin/crust. And, customers did not like skin/crust. They would ask for it to be cut off because they didn’t want to pay for something they couldn’t eat.
Flavour? Maybe slightly stronger than some of the waxed cheesecloth cheeses, but texture could be variable. Sometimes superb cheese, but if it won’t sell …. I see Applebys, the one we would sometimes end up with, (not through choice), is commanding a fine price and self-marketing rather well. Link at the end.
Sometimes we complained to Embertons – later Dairy Crest, a subsidiary of the Milk Marketing Board – that some of the cheeses were below standard. Not only was the consistency poor, (varied depending on the period of year), but there was mould in it. This could either come from the outside or from a badly handled seal when the cheese was tested for maturity with a sort of scoop thing.
Cheshire may have a bit of blue mold inside. It is entirely natural and complements its flavor nicely.
Er, someone should have told our customers that, because they certainly didn’t want mouldy bits. Some bright spark on the other end of the ‘phone suggested we ask for the cheeses from the farms we preferred. Life went swimmingly after that. No longer did we get random cheese but the pick of the best. In fact at that point we were invited to visit one of our fave farms – which we did. Maybe number 55?
We opened our cheeses in a traditional fashion. In the morning, I would commandeer a stall next to us, and open the cheeses on there – carefully cleaning up afterwards as the poor dear sold clothes, so wouldn’t really want cheesy bits all over them.
I ripped off the wax and cheesecloth, and then took a narrow cut diametrically across the top. Then, I followed that down on either side, again very narrowly. The difficult bit was using the cheese steel. I usually used five, sometimes even seven insertions on the horiontal line to try and get the leverage. Once the steel holes had been made, I turned the cheese upside down, and hopefully connected with the top holes.
In theory, and most times, in practice, the cheese broke in half, with a totally crumbly texture.
One of the salespersons for the cheese firm visited the stall and asked us to go to some display on a Sunday because he’d never seen it before and thought it was wonderful, plus there was the crappy happy family inter-action. No money in it. We didn’t go.
Back to the cheese. We now have two halves.
They then get split with a cheese knife, hopefully fairly straight down the middle. Each quarter then gets wired in four (or three if it was a small cheese). That was the only time we ever used a cheese wire. Everything else was done with a knife.
The quarters weren’t cut equally however. Remember the crust that people don’t like? Even on a waxed/cheeseclothed cheese there was still a slight crust, so the top and bottom were wired deeper so that people didn’t have too much of it (shallower cut equalled more crust). Favourite customers who ordered a pound or more always got their piece of cheese from the middle (less crust/skin). Hey? Do you look after your good customers or what?
As with the bacon, some customers were savvy enough to ask us for whichever cheese we recommended. Although we only sold Cheshire, we sold white and coloured cheese.
‘The white one’s made with Ayrshire milk and the coloured one’s made with Guernsey,’ sang my father merrily. It was ages before he told me what a total lie that was and that the coloured cheese had colouring added. Oh, well.
Oddly, the two cheeses did taste different. The coloured one would often taste slightly drier.
There was/is a blue version that we never sold.
Wiki seems to think Cheshire is Britain’s oldest cheese.
And, get this:
Sales of Cheshire cheese peaked at around 40,000 tonnes in 1960, subsequently declining as the range of cheeses available in the UK grew considerably. Cheshire cheese remains the UK’s largest-selling crumbly cheese, with sales of around 6,500 tonnes per year.
Hmm, that one might explain why my parents sold loads of it, obviously popular back in the late 50s/early 60s. And why sales started to tail off.
Cheshire cheese is dense and semi-hard, and is defined by its moist, crumbly texture and mild, salty taste. Industrial versions tend to be drier and less crumbly, more like a mild Cheddar cheese, as this makes them easier to process than cheese with the traditional texture. The Cheshire family of cheeses is a distinct group that includes other crumbly cheeses from the North of England such as Wensleydale and Lancashire cheese.
Cheshire cheese comes in three varieties: red, white and blue. The original plain white version accounts for the majority of production.
Red Cheshire, coloured with annatto to a shade of deep orange, was developed in the hills of North Wales and sold to travellers on the road to Holyhead. This trade was so successful that the travellers came to believe that all Cheshire cheese was orange, and producers in its home county were obliged to dye their cheese in order to match the expectations of the market.
Blue Cheshire has blue veins like Stilton or Shropshire blue, but is less creamy than Stilton and is not coloured orange as Shropshire Blue is. It has a long history, but production ceased in the late 1980s. Recently it has been revived by several manufacturers.
Actually there was a coloured (ie orange) version of the blue.
If my father was happy to wax lyrical about the different milks I was phased when I was asked if our cheese was vegetarian.
Of course, I replied, ‘It’s cheese isn’t it?’ Not surprisingly they didn’t buy. I was puzzled what I had said wrong as they walked away. I cringe now.
Cheese is invariably set with animal rennet. Although I see current Cheshire producers advertise their vegetarian rennet. Very good. (If you don’t mind the dairy industry set-up).
And the explanation about animal rennet is ….. (wiki might as well do it for me)
Production of natural calf rennet
Natural calf rennet is extracted from the inner mucosa of the fourth stomach chamber (the abomasum) of slaughtered young, unweaned calves. These stomachs are a by-product of veal production. If rennet is extracted from older calves (grass-fed or grain-fed) the rennet contains less or no chymosin but a high level of pepsin and can only be used for special types of milk and cheeses. As each ruminant produces a special kind of rennet to digest the milk of its own species, there are milk-specific rennets available, such as kid goat rennet for goat’s milk and lamb rennet for sheep’s milk.
That’s good, could be either dead cows, veal, lamb or goat entrails in your cheese 😦
Dried and cleaned stomachs of young calves are sliced into small pieces and then put into saltwater or whey, together with some vinegar or wine to lower the pH of the solution. After some time (overnight or several days), the solution is filtered. The crude rennet that remains in the filtered solution can then be used to coagulate milk. About 1 gram of this solution can normally coagulate 2 to 4 liters of milk.
This method is still used by some traditional cheese-makers, e.g. in Switzerland, Greece, France, Romania, Italy, Sweden, United Kingdom and Alp-Sennereien in Austria.
Deep-frozen stomachs are milled and put into an enzyme-extracting solution. The crude rennet extract is then activated by adding acid; the enzymes in the stomach are produced in an inactive form and are activated by the stomach acid. The acid is then neutralized and the rennet extract is filtered in several stages and concentrated until reaching a typical potency of about 1:15,000; meaning 1 gram of extract can coagulate 15 kg (15 litres) of milk.
That sounds most cost-effective. What a good idea.
The first piece of cheese I ever cut, my mother gave away. Great PR. And not stupid either, it was only 4ozs. But it was to a regular customer. And the truth is, whether people buy 4ozs of cheese or 1lb, you want regular customers.
Cutting cheese with a hard cheese knife is not easy. At the end of the day your hand hurts. When someone asks for a quarter or half a pound of cheese and you cut half an ounce over they can get annoyed. All about the money I guess. But it wasn’t deliberate. Sometimes the knife didn’t want to work right!! I have since bought cheese and they couldn’t get it right within two ounces.
Christmas time was our busiest period. We would have seven or eight cheeses ready to open all piled up with their Farmhouse Cheshire Cheese sticker on them, and in the morning, I would open at least three, because we would sell the cheese so quickly, ie 150 lbs of cheese gone in a couple of hours. There were times when my father had to drive home to bring extra supplies because we had been busier than expected. At Christmas the business started not long after 7am, and queues were forming around the stall and into the street by 8am. Customers were very patient in those days and nobody complained about waiting. But apart from the bacon and ham, what people really wanted at Christmas was the cheese – to go with Christmas cake. I have never understood this strange fixation, and never will. It’s a Yorkshire thing. And it made good money on Christmas Eve, so why complain?
We normally had 2lb scales as they were enough for usual orders. At Christmas we took these scales (pic below) because there was a lever to flip them over to a capacity of 4lbs. Yes, people did buy three and four pounds of cheese at Christmas.
After cutting hundreds of pounds of cheese on Christmas Eve, my hand had a huge groove in it, was incredibly tender and later would form a callous over the next few days. But still, it was always the best day of the year, for fun, for money, for general goodwill and happiness.
I’d still take my chances with my knife over someone with a cheesewire to cut cheese accurately. And I could open a 50+lb cheese today in a few minutes. If there are any left.
Before my father sold his business, he had thought about changing and diversifying the cheese market. He chose not to. I think he made the right decision given he was more interested in retirement. Some things were best left as they were.
Some links about cheese:
I couldn’t find a pic anywhere of cheese opened the way we used to do it, sorry about that. I can’t even find pix of 50lb Cheshire cheeses, they are all tiny ones.
Farmer’s Guardian wittering on about Farmhouse Cheese and missing the point
A general Cheshire linky
Includes an article from the Guardian that spouts some total garbage
Another ill-informed article … there seem to be a lot, although this one does point out the difference between fine and superfine. I had forgotten that. We bought superfine and sulked if we were sent fine.