A brief history of British Cheddar Making

  • 3 min read

It is thought that cheese making first began well over 7,000 years ago, around the time sheep were first being domesticated. Thought to be by accident, (milk was stored in animal stomachs, possibly introducing the rennet and the action of curdling), the finer subtleties of different cheeses grew as countries and communities developed their own styles and traditions, influenced by geography, cooking / preserving methods and trade across continents. The origins of Cheddar can certainly be traced back to the area surrounding the village of Cheddar since at least the 15th century. In fact many European cheeses appeared first around the 15th and 16th centuries, from Cheddar, to Gouda and Parmesan.

Cheese making was often turned to as a solution for dealing with surplus milk (no fridges in the 15th Century!). It is thought that hard cheeses like cheddar were created when cheese makers discovered that pressing fresh curd to squeeze out moisture would make the cheese last longer. The process was further refined until traditional cheddar making as we know it was born. Farmhouses across the region and the UK all created their own unique cheeses, giving us the rich heritage of British cheese we have today.

Traditionally made cheddar saw a short decline around World War Two, when all milk production was taken on by the British Government. This saw a rise in industrialised cheddar, which you will be familiar with - generally what you see in the supermarkets.

We are proud to be one of a small group of traditional cheddar makers who use heritage methods to make proper cheddar with character. We are also one of only three Artisan Somerset Cheddar makers in the Slow Food presidia – a distinction not easily won. 

So what does this mean, what is the The Slow Food Movement and why is our Pitchfork Cheddar so different from the industrialised supermarket cheddars?

To be one of the three cheddar makers in the Slow Food Foundation, Artisan Cheddar Presidium, we have to adhere to a model of agriculture centred on local biodiversity, respecting the land and farming and making cheese in harmony with the environment.

We meet these aims by using organic, unpasteurised milk, provided by a single herd of Holstein-Friesian and Jersey cows. We take into account all the factors of terroir (the grass on which the cows graze and the bacteria in the soil), before gravity (not pumps) transfers the milk from the milking parlour directly to our dairy. Using gravity instead of pumps ensures the milk molecules are not damaged along the way.

The benefits of using organic milk also go beyond supporting local biodiversity. The quality of milk from our cows, (who are pasture fed to meet organic standards) is of a superior quality, containing up to 50% more omega-3 fatty acids (study led by Newcastle University).

As well as following a process that respects our environment, to be part of the slow food movement our process is just that: slow!

From farm to fork, Pitchfork Cheddar is over a year in the making. This is very important in creating the flavours and texture of a traditional cheddar.

Firstly, we use a cheese starter based on local microflora and traditional rennet to create the curds. These are then cut and poured onto a draining table.

We then begin our process of cheddaring, forming the curds into blocks and turning several times over a two hour period. These are then formed into high stacks. This results in curds with a stretchy texture similar to pizza dough. To mix the salt into the curds we use our famous pitchforks, then fill and press into moulds. We cloth-bind our cheddar with lard-soaked muslin cloth and transfer them to our ageing room.

This is where there is the biggest difference between supermarket cheddar and our traditional, handmade Pitchfork Cheddar. During a traditional cheddar’s aging process it develops a rind and time also allows the long, rounded flavours to develop from the unpasteurised milk. The cloth allows moisture to leave, resulting in a concentrated flavour and a firm “body”. Supermarket cheddar is rindless, vacuum packed and uses pasteurised milk, making the results very different.

Lastly, to be considered a true Somerset Cheddar, the cheese must be made in Somerset. Our Dairy where we make our Pitchfork Cheddar is within 5 miles of the village of Cheddar.

The broad, round flavours and rich, creamy textures of traditional handmade cheddars are unique and are earned through hard work, skill, and lots of love and care.