Cheese is one of the most versatile foods there is and can be eaten on its own, perhaps with bread or crackers after a meal, or as a snack. It can also be used in hundreds of recipes, both savoury and sweet. Almost as numerous as the ways of using cheese are the varieties available – in Great Britain alone there are ten traditional hard cheeses and more than 125 other varieties.

Types of Cheese

There are hundreds of different cheeses available. Some are hard, such as Cheddar, and some are soft like cottage cheese and fromage frais.

In Great Britiain the ten traditional hard cheeses in are Caerphilly, Cheddar, Cheshire, Derby, Double Gloucester, Lancashire Dunlop, Red Leicester, Stilton and Wensleydale.

Soft cheeses are either considered fresh (unripened) or ripened. Most of the soft cheeses produced in Britain are fresh cheeses, and include cottage cheese, curd cheese, cream cheese, fromage frais and quark. Several varieties of ripened soft cheeses, such as Brie and Cambridge, are now being marketed by British cheesemakers.

History of Cheese

Cheese has been made in the Britain for at least 2000 years.

From the 16th century onwards, cheeses came to be known by the name of the region or county in which they were made and until the second half of the 19th century cheesemaking was a widespread farmhouse activity. From this period on a series of events gradually eroded this local industry, beginning with a disastrous cattle disease in 1860. In an attempt to restore the tradition of English cheesemaking, the first cheese factory was established. Housed in a converted cheese warehouse in Siddals Road, Derby, it used the steam from the next door’s silk mill for power. The first, purpose-built cheese factory was opened in 1870 in Longford, Derby and by 1876 ten factories had been constructed serving five counties.

Ten traditional hard cheeses are still made today.

Caerphilly is a relatively young cheese, first made in about 1831. It is named after a village near Cardiff, Caerphilly. Caerphilly is the only surviving traditional Welsh cheese. It was known as the miners’ cheese because when taken underground it did not dry up because of its outer crust holding the moisture, while it also replenished the salt they lost while working.

It is a semi-soft smooth white cheese. The texture of the cheese is close and moist but somewhat flaky, the flavour is mild and faintly salty.

Cheshire is one of the oldest English cheeses- it can be dated back to Roman Britain and is also mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. In the 16th century it was reputed to be the best cheese of Europe and was a favourite at the Court of Elizabeth I. Originally, Cheshire was made near the village of Chester on the River Dee, but it soon spread to farms throughout the county.

Cheshire is usually white in colour, but there are red and blue varieties available. The distinctive flavour of Cheshire was due to salt springs which ran under much of the pasture land. These gave the milk, hence the cheese, a slightly salty tang, which is still a characteristic of the cheese today.

Cheddar was first recorded as being made in Somerset in the early 16th century. It became known as ‘Cheddar’ because travellers and visitors to the famous gorge bought the firm and fine cheese there. Up to the end of the 17th century, most cheese from the Cheddar area was bought for sale at the Weyhill Fair in Wiltshire – no easy task as cheeses were much bigger than they are now. In fact, in the early years a large cheese was adequate for a year of family eating.

Cheddar is a firm cheese, varying in colour from pale cream to a deep yellow. Close in texture, it is ideal for slicing and grating.

Owing to the difficulties in producing Derby – the curd had to be treated very gently as it is softer throughout than Cheddar – the production has always been small. It was first made in the farmhouse, but in 1870 production began in the first English purpose built cheese factory at Longford.

Derby is firm and close and is a pale honey colour. It has a delicate mild flavour which develops a tang with maturity. Sage Derby is another variety, where sage leaves are blended into the cheese to give it a green marbled effect.

Double Gloucester
‘Double’ because it is the large cheese and ‘Gloucester’ because it was originally made from the rich cows of the Gloucester black cattle. There was a single version as well which was known as the ‘Haymaking’ cheese because it was produced from early season milk. As it is matured quickly it was light in colour, while in contrast Double Gloucester, with its longer maturing period, became darker in colour. Single is only rarely made nowadays.

Double Gloucester is a golden straw colour with a smooth close texture and full flavour.

Traditionally there are two Lancashire cheeses – double curd and single curd. The double curd is the more traditional. It is called ‘double’ because one batch is made during the evening and kept overnight, then added to freshly made curds the next morning. This was often made in the farmhouse kitchen. Most Lancashire produced today is made from a single batch of curd which gives it a crumbly, drier texture compared with double’s rich and creamy texture.

Leicester is the main survivor of a range of local cheeses that were once made in the Midlands. Leicester is perhaps the most easily identified of the traditional cheeses because of its reddish hue. The colour was originally achieved by adding carrot or beetroot juice to the milk. Today, however, a natural colouring called ‘annatto’ is used which is found in the seeds pods of a tropical American tree (Bixa Orellana).

Leicester cheese has a granular texture and a mellow flavour.

Always referred to as the ‘King’ of English Cheeses, Stilton was first sold over 200 years ago to coach travellers alighting at the Bell Inn in Stilton village on the Great North Road.

Stilton’s characteristic blue veins are created by the air’s access to the cheese through the insertion of stainless steel rods during the maturing process. Stilton has an open, moist texture and rich and creamy flavour. A white Stilton also exists, which is simply a young cheese where the blue veining has not been allowed to develop, it has a fresh and mild flavour.

Wensleydale has been made in the Yorkshire Dales for the nearly a thousand years. It was orginally produced by the monks of Jervaulx Abbey, who came to England with William the Conqueror. Having fled from the destruction of their abbey by Henry VIII, the monks left behindtheir cheesemaking recipe, which was then continued by the local farmers.

Wensleydale has a slightly flaky texture and mildly sweet flavour, reminiscent of honey. A rare blue-veined variety is also produced.

How Cheese is Made

Read on to find out about the different production processes for hard cheeses and soft cheeses.

How is hard cheese made?
Cheese is a concentrated form of milk and it takes 8 pints (5 litres) of milk to make 1lb (450g) of English Cheddar. Making cheese is a craft which involves the same techniques, whether it is made on the farm or in large factories, known as creameries:

Pasteurisation, souring and clotting
Fresh milk is delivered to creameries where it undergoes a series of tests for quality. Any milk that does not pass these tests is rejected. The milk is then pasteurised which involves heating the milk to at least 71.7 °C for 15 seconds and then cooled rapidly.

The pasteurised milk is pumped into stainless steel vats where a culture of harmless bacteria is added. This is known as the ‘starter culture’. It sours the milk, producing the right amount of acidity to develop a good cheese flavour.

Rennet, containing enzymes which clot mik, is added and thoroughly stirred in.

Cutting and scalding the curd
After about 45 minutes the milk has clotted. It is then cut into small particles by rotating cutters in a vat. This creates curds and whey. The curds form the cheese while the whey is a by-product which is used by other sectors of the food industry. The curds and whey are heated to a temperature of about 39°C (scalding). The curds are then ‘pitched’ or settled together at the bottom of the vat and the whey is drained off.

The pieces of curd start to fuse together, squeezing out more whey, until they finally form large blocks. Cheddaring is the methodical turning and piling of these blocks to achieve the correct texture. Often this process is performed mechanically. A popular method used is the ‘Cheddar tower’. The curd is lifted by vacuum to the top of the tower where it is held for about 11/2; hours, draining further and fusing together.

Milling, salting and pressing
The blocks of curd are milled into small pieces and salt is added. Salt is needed to preserve the cheese and bring out its full flavour. The salted curd is then packed and pressed into moulds.

The pressed cheeses are stacked in a temperature-controlled cheese store, where they are left to mature. The flavour develops and the texture changes owing to the work of enzymes which change the composition of the cheese.

Cheese is a ‘living’ food which has to be checked and graded for quality. After eight weeks, the grader can decide which cheeses are best eaten young and which will mature successfully.

How is soft cheese made?
Soft cheese encompases a wide range of types and varieties such as fresh cheeses (e.g. cottage cheese, fromage frais) and ripened cheese (e.g. Brie and Camembert).

As with the production of hard cheeses differences in the manufacturing process give fresh and ripened cheeses their own unique flavour and texture. Soft cheeses are made from milk to which a starter culture and rennet are added. Fresh varieties such as cottage cheese are ready for consumption as soon as the manufacturing process is complete, and these are generally not pressed and therefore have a higher moisture content than hard cheeses. Other differences also occur in the manufacture of the various fresh cheeses. For example, skimmed milk is used in the manufacture of cottage cheese, rather than whole milk. In contrast, cream cheese, as the name suggests, is made from cream instead of milk.

For ripened cheeses the partially drained curd is transferred to moulds and the cheese is matured in a temperature and humidity controlled room, during which time the charateristic rind develops.

Fromage frais originated in France and is another popular fresh cheese. It is produced in a similar way to yogurt but different bacteria are used as a starter culture, resulting in a different flavour and texture. A starter culture is added to skimmed milk and the milk is fermented until set. When the correct level of acidity is reached, the coagulated milk is cut and some of the whey is drained off. The curd is then cooled and cream is added to give the desired taste and texture.

Another popular soft cheese is quark. It is similar to fromage frais and is made in the same way.

Cheese Nutrition

Cheese provides energy, protein, vitamins such as vitamin A (whole milk products) and a range of B vitamins including riboflavin (vitamin B2) and B12, and minerals such as calcium, phosphorus and zinc. As with milk, the calcium is particularly well absorbed and utilised by the body.

The Composition of Cheese (per 100g)

Nutrient English Cheddar Reduced Fat Cheddar Brie Cottage Cheese, Plain Cream Cheese Soft Cheese, Medium Fat
Energy (kcal)
Protein (g) 25.5 31.5 19.3 13.8 3.1 9.2
Carbohydrate (g)
of which sugars (g)
Fat (g)
of which saturates(g)
polyunsaturates (g)
Vitamin A (µg) 336 182 320 46 422 224
Riboflavin (B2)(mg) 0.4 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.1 N
Niacin (mg) 6.1 7.5 5.0 3.4 0.8 N
Folic Acid (µg) 37 56 58 27 11 N
Vitamin B12 (µg) 1.2 1.3 1.2 0.7 0.3 N
Vitamin D (µg) 0.3 0.1 0.2 0.03 0.3 0.1
Calcium (mg) 740 840 540 73 98 N
Phosphorus (mg) 490 620 390 160 100 N
Zinc (mg) 2.3 2.8 2.2 0.6 0.5 N

N = No data available
( ) = Figures in brackets are estimated