I’m desperate to avoid giving the impression that traditional UK cheesemaking is a tale of never-ending woe, so I thought I would profile one of the British cheeses that has it all; an auspicious beginning, a problematic second act and a triumphant third. Or at least as triumphant as small-scale independently produced traditional cheesemaking allows. And still avoiding the subject of cheddar.
Gloucester cheeses have been traced back to the 8th century, but only became distinct, recognisable entities in the 17th century, and in this intervening time (like most UK cheese) losing the sheep’s milk base and transferring to cattle – in this case, the native Old Gloucester breed of cattle.
The two recorded Gloucester cheeses, Single and Double, emerged reflecting the life of a 17th century dairy farmer. Double Gloucester would be the cheese sold at market, and Single Gloucester would be the cheese eaten in the household. The difference in making a Single is that the butterfat would be skimmed from the morning milking (to be turned into the farmhouse’s butter), and the remainder would be used for making cheese. With the reduced butterfat content, the cheese loses its yellow-russet fat content indicating hue, and becomes unsaleable at the market where higher-fat products are prized. The same reasoning presumably explains why Double Gloucesters took on their annatto induced orange hue, as producers competed with each other to make a more appealing cheese in an historic cheesemongering arms race. The consequence was naturally that the consumer lost out and could no longer tell the
difference between better and worse cheeses, as the better cheeses were forced to fight fire with fire and compete by institute their own annatto dying – but hey, this is the cheese that history has bequeathed us, so who are we to argue?
Traditional Gloucester cheese was dealt two death blows: the first was a cattle plague that wiped out a great deal of Gloucester cattle stock, being replaced with Longhorn cattle, which produced greater quantities of milk at the cost of quality. The second was the industrialisation of cheese in the mid 18th century, where farmhouse cheesemakers found it near impossible to compete with the industrialised creamery. Real Gloucester cheeses became effectively extinct, although many creameries produced and marketed ‘Gloucester’ cheeses, despite being made elsewhere, with non-Gloucester cattle, to a recipe bearing little to no relation to the tradition. Times were so bad for farmhouse cheese in general that Paxton and Whitfield, Britain’s oldest and most prestigious cheesemongers, temporarily moved markets into greengrocery as factory cheese became predominant.
By 1975, Old Gloucester cattle were officially an endangered species, with only one working herd remaining in the country – that of Charles Martell, latterly more famous for his Trappist style washed ‘Stinking Bishop’ cheese. Charles worked tirelessly with other local farmers to re-establish the breed, and ensure that Gloucester cheese did not die out. With the re-establishment of the Old Gloucester cattle society, a successful application to the EU to give Single Gloucester a Protected Designation of Origin status, and ongoing assistance in the form of a Presidiuum grant from the Slow Food Movement, there are now around just under a thousand registered Gloucester cattle in the UK, with around 400 breeding females.
Single Gloucester (PDO)
Milk: Unpasteurised (Old Gloucester) Cow’s milk
Rennet: Modern vegetarian rennet
The Single Gloucesters being produced today are all flaky textured, mild cheeses, not entirely dissimilar to a Caerphilly. The curds are cut into relatively large pieces during cheesemaking, which acts to increase the acidity in the final cheese: this step ensures that all Single Gloucesters have a tang, ranging from mildly sweet to approaching acerbic. Martell’s single Gloucester has the creamiest mouthfeel, with a sweetly-acidic astringency like a natural set yoghurt. Jonathon Crump’s Wick Court farm Gloucester is the gentlest in terms of flavour, and lightest textured. Smart’s Gloucester begins mild, but as it matures takes on tangier notes, and becomes mouthfillingly chewy. Each of the cheeses displays different characteristics depending on the producer, batch, age and season, as with any handmade cheese. However, the fact that we have four different Single Gloucesters to compare is incredible given how close we came to having none at all.