“Now more than ever there’s no need to look beyond the British Isles for a world-
class cheeseboard”, said The Times’ Frances Bissell in the mid 90s. Ten
years on, the same could equally be said of the English Westcountry alone, where
tradition and innovation have combined to create a range of quality cheeses that any
country would struggle to equal.
The four counties of Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Cornwall are justifiably famed for
the quality of their produce, and can boast more food and drink producers than any
other English region. At the centre of the Westcountry tradition is, naturally,
cheddar cheese, which takes its name from the Somerset town. Cheddar, however,
has long since moved outwards to the neighbouring counties. The importance of
this cheese is indicated by the fact that it has now been awarded the EU’s Protected
Designation of Origin. The PDO scheme was set up in 1993 to define the
authenticity of traditional foods and help to preserve their place of origin, methods
of production and essential ingredients. Only a very select group of British foods
have been protected in this way.
Long established Cheddar makers include Montgomery’s – winner of Gold at the
2005 World Cheese Awards, Keen’s, Westcombe Dairy and Quicke’s. The
Montgomery and Keen families have been cheesemakers for three generations, but
even they look like newcomers when compared to the Quickes, who – but for a few
decades- have been making cheese on their Devon farm for 450 years! Traditional
cheddar as made by these makers has an intensity and complexity that comes from
the muslim-wrapped truckles that mature on wooden shelves for over a year.
Allowed to breathe, the cheese forms an old fashioned rind that is the hallmark of a
well-matured traditional cheddar. Newer examples include Godminster Vintage
Organic Cheddar, a powerful, moist cheese coated in a distinctive red wax.
Other traditional cheeses include the so-called ‘territorials’ such as Caerphilly and
Double Gloucester. The Westcountry can boast fine examples of these in Duckett’s
Caerphilly and in Quicke’s Double Gloucester. Quicke’s also make a Red Leicester, as
do Westcombe Dairies whose ‘Westcombe Red’ is the only cheese of its kind made
with unpasteurised milk.
Wartime rationing allowed production of only seven varieties of cheese – all
pasteurized, and in the early postwar period production of ‘artisan cheese’ or ‘real
cheese’ languished – reflecting the general threat to traditions that which often
seemed anachronistic in the modern world, not to mention competition from large
factory-style creameries with their economies of scale. The last 30 years, however,
have seen a renaissance in small-scale cheesemaking. The impetus here comes
partly from the consumer, tired of homogenized, low-quality food, and partly also
from the production side. Whether it’s dairy farmers seeking to diversify in the face
of low prices for milk, or people with no farming background looking to ‘downshift’
and change their lives, there are now more makers of farmhouse cheese than at any
time in the last 50 years.
New cheesemakers often means new products, like the three goats cheeses
produced by Dave Johnston near Crediton in Devon, one of which – Norsworthy –
won a coveted Gold at the 2005 World Cheese Awards. Impressive given that Dave
only produced his first cheese in 2002! In Cornwall there is Cornish Blue, and Sue
Proudfoot’s three cheeses: Miss Muffet, Keltic Gold and Trelawny. At other times
cheeses are revivals of earlier traditions. The Dorset blue cheese, Blue Vinney (or
Blue Vinny), had almost died out when Michael Davies resurrected it. A now very
popular cheese, Cornish Yarg (distinguished by its covering of nettles or wild garlic
leaves), is based on an old recipe, while Cornish Garland continues an old
Westcountry tradition of herb-flavoured cheeses. In the area of soft cheese one can
– unexpectedly perhaps – find a Somerset Camembert and award-winning bries
(Somerset Brie, Cornish Brie) as well as the similarly mould-ripened, but cream
One small area of South Devon – south of Totnes, alongside the River Dart – can
boast two makers of fine cheese, both relatively recent. As well as a vineyard, the
Sharpham estate produces Elmhirst and the wonderful Sharpham Rustic, whilst
Robin Congdon of Ticklemore makes a trio of superb blue cheeses: Devon Blue
(cows’ milk), Beenleigh Blue (sheeps’ milk) and Harbourne Blue (goats’ milk).
Other makers are expanding away from cows’ milk cheeses into goats’ milk, sheeps’
milk, and even buffalo milk products. Historically, sheeps’ cheese was actually far
more common in England, but there is no denying the present-day dominance of
cows’ milk cheeses, and cheddar in particular. A shift, however, is underway, and
producers are keen to respond: the region can now boast excellent ewes’ milk
cheeses such as Nanterrow and Somerset Rambler alongside a whole host of goat
cheeses such as Norsworthy and Ticklemore (hard), Gevrik, Capricorn and
One problem for lovers of gourmet cheese has always been that many of these
items are difficult or impossible to buy if you live at any distance from the makers.
Now however, we are in the era of the online cheese shop: over 50 of these cheeses
as well as gift and cheese board selections are available mail order from an online
cheese store like The Cheese Shed. If customers all over the UK can buy cheese online, the prospect is of a
virtuous circle in which a geographically broadening market adds to the makers’
There seems to be every reason to think that the re-invigoration of the Westcountry
farmhouse cheese tradition will continue.