I thought I would start off profiling the artisanal cheeses that we sell
at Capeling and Co with one of the best territorial cheeses that is being made on our doorstep. Well, actually I wanted to start with Cheddars but found it exceptionally difficult to not descend into vitriol or petty ad hominem attacks that, I am reliably informed, are “inconsistent with what we are trying to achieve”. So instead, I decided to warm up and focus on a cheese that ticks all of the boxes for a cheese-nut: a cheese made from raw milk taken directly from the farm’s own herd (no bought in anonymous cooked milk from a super-dairy), clothbound and matured on site (rather than hopelessly immature vac-packed block cheese), handmade according to traditional recipes, and made just a whisper outside of Birmingham (google maps tells me the farm is 28.2 miles outside of the centre – B1 1AA – of Birmingham).
Sparkenhoe Red Leicester:
Milk: Unpasteurised Cow
Rennet: Traditional Animal
Most territorial UK cheeses can trace their genealogy back to either Cheshire cheese (Britain’s earliest recorded indigenous cheese) or Cheddar (most historians agree that this was originally a relic of Roman presence in Britain) along geographical lines: Northern cheeses were Cheshire variants, Southern cheeses were Cheddar variants. Leicestershire cheese, becoming a distinct territorial cheese in the 1600s in the Midshires of England draws upon both traditions in a peculiar hybrid. It sits in the middle between the smooth, compacted mouthfeel of traditional cheddar and the rough crumblies of the North. Leicestershire cheese followed the example of Cheshire and was distinguished from other regional cheese by the addition of natural vegetable colourants, with beets and carrot juice being used at first, and later from the fruit of the annatto bush as colonies were established in the ‘New World’. This was partly to differentiate it from regional competitors, but also to artificially mimic the russet hue of cheeses made from the milk of cows grazing on lush pasturage, in an unsettling demonstration that seductive, tricksy marketing has been around for centuries.
Sadly, like most traditional UK cheese, Leicestershire cheese was effectively made extinct by rationing during WWII. The government proscribed recipes for cheesemaking throughout the UK, eliminating all soft cheeses as they did not keep for long periods of time, and fundamentally altering the recipes for hard cheeses to ensure that they were easily transportable and lasted a surprising amount of time. Only after WWII was there such a thing as ‘Red Leicester’ as the prescribed ration recipe forbade cheesemakers from wastefully colouring their cheese; several post war Leicestershire cheeses sought to differentiate themselves from the dreck produced during rationing by re-introducing vegetable dye as a ‘Red’ Leicester. Brute economic forces eventually killed off Leicestershire cheese, as small scale producers who abided by the pre-adulterated recipe could not compete with their far-flung industrialised counterparts. The last Leicestershire farmhouse cheese abiding by the traditional recipe using raw milk was recorded in the 1970s (although the mediocre Stilton makers at Tuxford and Tebbut made a pasteurised Leicester into the ‘90s). Until brothers David and Jo Clarke began production at Sparkenhoe farm near Upton in the early noughties.
Sparkenhoe Red Leicester justifiably holds the crown as the only
true Leicestershire cheese being made in the world, in that it is the only Leicestershire based farm using the raw milk from its own herd of cows working to an original Leicestershire recipe.
In terms of the cheese itself, it is incredible. It tends to have a strong flavour of freshly turned earth with an underlying sweetness and a nutty backnote. However, these strong flavours tend to express themselves in a measured and gradual fashion; they smoothly segue into each other and persist without overpowering the palate. The texture depends upon age; younger examples have a cleaner mouthfeel, whereas the older tend to vary – first smooth, then breaking down in a mildly granular, Cheshire fashion.
I would apologise for the sermonising, but I can’t help myself. This is a true Midshires cheese of unimpeachable provenance and heritage that sadly seems to be more often appreciated outside of rather than in the West Midlands. Compared to the claggy, lactic, slightly sour tasting offerings of things that dare to call themselves “Red Leicester” clogging up supermarket shelves and deli counters, there is no competition. Sparkenhoe, unfortunately, is the only game in town, and all down to the efforts of David and Jo. Surely I’m not the only person who finds it faintly terrifying that a cheese can live and die based upon the vision and expertise of so few?