Working with cheese has taken me many places over the years – some great, some good, some…well, not so much – and in July of 2008 it thankfully brought me all the way to Bath, England. This beautiful city is home to the finest cheese store in England (in my humble opinion): the aptly named Fine Cheese Shop. It is operated by The Fine Cheese Co., a maturer, retailer and exporter of artisan British cheeses, which is owned and run by Ann-Marie Dyas and John Siddall. Ann-Marie is one of the most passionate cheese people I have ever met and is committed to only selling cheeses at their perfection of ripeness. The result of her discernment is one incredible shop.
Fast-forward from 2008 to this March, when I was lucky enough to be invited to a rather extensive English cheese tasting. I got to sample more than a few cheeses, but there were three standouts; I later came to find out that all three were imported by the Fine Cheese Co. Surprising? Not at all.
If you’re dying to delve into the grand tradition of British cheesemaking, I’d recommend any of these three cheeses as a starting point. Not only are they delicious, but they have fantastic names as well!
Morn Dew (White Lakes Cheese Company, Somerset, England)
This was the first cheese that grabbed my attention at the tasting. Morn Dew is a washed rind Guernsey cow’s milk cheese, with a sticky (and slightly smelly) orange rind. But don’t let the aroma deter you. Aged two to three months, Morn Dew is richly flavored with bold fruity notes, and pairs perfectly with a strong, dark English beer. It takes its name from the Morning Dew that shimmers in the early dawn light on the meadows of the Mendip Hills surrounding the dairy; you can’t get more picturesque than that.
Wyfe of Bath (Bath Soft Cheese Company, Kelston, Bath)
Made on the outskirts of Bath, this is a semi-hard cheese that is named after one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, professing to offer a taste of old England. The cheese is farmstead and certified UK organic and is made only with the richer “evening milk” of the farm’s Jersey cows. I loved the company’s description of this cheese: “redolent of buttercups and summer meadows” – no wonder, given the buttercup-laden hills of the “Golden Valley” where the cheese is produced. That description alone made me want to try it! It has a it does have pasture flavors, hints of sweetness and a pleasant richness, and I could sit in a pub, pair it with a full pint of bitter beer and be happy all day.
Lord of the Hundreds (Traditional Cheese Dairy, Stonegate, East Sussex)
This is a sheep’s milk cheese made from grass-based, free range, raw Friesland ewe’s milk and aged over six months. The long aging process develops a nice firm texture similar to that of Parmesan, and the end result is a complex layering of caramel and toasted hazelnut flavors. Lord of the Hundreds takes its name from Saxon times, when each Lord, or tax collector for the king, controlled exactly one hundred parcels of land and had to report back to a specific spot in order to hand over their taxes; the farm where this cheese is made happens to be situated on one such site. So in fact, this epic name actually refers to ever-stressful practice of tax collection…but don’t let that hinder you from kicking back and enjoying this cheese with chilled, but not ice cold creamy lager.
Additional reporting by Madeleine James.