This article from Neal’s Yard Dairy, an artisanal cheese shop in London, magically appeared in our inbox while we were working on an article about Welsh Rarebit, which traditionally is made with Cheddar cheese. They have graciously given us permission to post it here.
To write a brief history of Cheddar cheese, it makes sense to start with a description of what Cheddar cheese is and how it came into being. Sadly, neither of these tasks is easy to accomplish. Despite being one of the most popular and widely-consumed types of cheese in the world, Cheddar has both uncertain origins, and no fixed recipe that must be adhered to in its production. As a result, all manner of cheeses now employ the name of Cheddar, despite bearing little relation to one another. What we can say about it with a certain amount of surety is that the cheese likely evolved in Somerset near the village of Cheddar. Like many British cheeses associated with particular counties or regions, the name Cheddar was likely introduced by those who, whilst travelling, ate some cheese and recalled it by the locale in which it was enjoyed.
Over time, Cheddar production extended to Dorset, Wiltshire, and Scotland, as well as the US, Canada, and Australia. It has proved to be one of the most adaptable cheese styles, being made in many different ways in many different climates. Indeed, whilst a number of Cheddar methodologies emerged in the nineteenth century, there has never been a singular Cheddar recipe nor has Cheddar production been regulated as a consequence of a protected status.
Today, Cheddar is undeniably the most famous ‘British’ cheese, but in the 17th century it was very much a rare and exclusive product. It regularly fetched three or four times more at market than a top quality Cheshire cheese, and it was also distinguished by its enormous size. William Camden, writing around 1600, noted that Cheddars were so large that it took two men to life one onto a table. Xerxes Willard, in his 1872 analysis of the British dairy industry, described cheeses that tipped the scale at 100lbs. Their proportion meant that Cheddars were generally aged for much longer than other styles of cheese, and could only really be made in a cooperative manner because of the volume of milk required.
In spite of its relative scarcity, or perhaps because of it, Cheddar was regarded by some as the most delicious cheese produced in Britain. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, claimed that “without all dispute, it is the best cheese that England affords, if not, that the whole world affords.” Beyond these minor details of size and scarcity, however, very little is known of Cheddar and Cheddar production until the latter part of the nineteenth century.
In 1891, F. J. Lloyd, a scientist employed by Somerset County Council embarked on a decade-long analysis of Cheddar cheese-making. He identified four key systems of Cheddar production employed in Britain at the time; the Joseph Harding system, the Scotch system, the Candy system, and the Cannon system. To date, Lloyd’s work remains the most exhaustive account of Cheddar production methods, and much Cheddar made today can trace its origins to one or other of these systems. Each methodology differs significantly from the others, both in its recipe and the manner in which the cheeses are matured. Lloyd was surprised that such seemingly divergent systems could produce similar results, leading him to the conclusion that Cheddar production was and should be shaped by the environment and climate in which it is produced. For example, the Scotch system tended to be favoured by American dairies as it was more attuned to large-scale production, whereas the Harding system was more suited to smaller, farmhouse production. It therefore fell to each cheesemaker, through trial and experience, to ascertain the appropriate method for their particular circumstance and goals.
Despite his recognition of the validity of different production systems, Lloyd’s work in the 1890s was part of a wider trend to catalogue and refine cheesemaking in Britain, and apply a scientific and mechanical rigour to a practice that hitherto had largely been passed on through local or family tradition. To support the application of formalised methods, the late nineteenth century also witnessed the creation of new dairy schools with the purpose of training a new generation of cheesemakers. Although the ultimate aim of this movement was to improve the quality of British cheese and protect it from the onslaught of imported continental and American cheeses, it also had the effect of removing a great deal of the diversity that had characterised British farmhouse cheeses. Cheddars, whilst still varying considerably in textures, flavours, and methods of production undoubtedly occupied a narrower bandwidth than had previously been the case.
Whilst undergoing these internal changes, the British dairy industry was also subject to external pressures. The late nineteenth century saw the rapid development of the rail network, allowing for the easy transportation of perishable goods like milk. Farmers that had previously viewed cheese as a way to preserve the value of their milk came to view cheesemaking as an expensive and time-consuming pursuit. Rapid transit of goods around the country also had the effect of broadening the range of cheeses available to consumers, including cheaper imports of cheddar from North America. Many farmhouse producers could not compete with these lower prices and moved away from cheesemaking. The first half of the twentieth century brought further hardship as two world wars caused considerable disruption both through the removal of manpower from the rural economy, and later through the introduction of rationing, which forced producers to standardise their cheese production. Of the 514 farms making cheese in the Southwest of England in 1939, only 57 were still in production when the Second World War ended in 1948.
This trend towards mechanisation and away from diversity has continued to the present day, and much of the knowledge of cheddar-making accumulated through centuries of practice has disappeared. When seen in this context, it becomes especially important to celebrate the recent growth in British farmhouse cheese production.
Neal’s Yard Dairy sells six different cheddar-style cheeses, each with its own unique character and flavor. Three are made in Somerset (Montgomery’s, Westcombe, and Keen’s); one is from Scotland (Isle of Mull), one from Wales (Hafod), and one from Lincolnshire (Lincolnshire Poacher). The original Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese shop opened in 1979 at Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden. Since then a cheese shop has been opened at Borough Market and in Spa Terminus in Bermondsey. A visit to Neal’s Yard Dairy is a memorable experience for anyone living in or visiting London. Neal’s Yard Dairy delivers individual orders to mainland U.K. locations only. Many of their cheeses are available at specialty cheese shops in other countries. U.S. residents can order a selection of Neal’s Yard cheeses from Zingerman’s online.