Like a chocolate box, cheese comes in all shapes, sizes and colours. The myriad shades and hues to be found on your local cheese counter certainly makes for a vibrant cheeseboard. Here we explore the reds, whites and blues that help build the nation’s best-looking cheeseboards.
Have you ever wondered why some cheeses are as white as freshly fallen snow, while others appear to have been carved out of the late afternoon’s sinking sun? In some instances, their complexion is determined naturally, due to the type of milk used, for example, while for others, the cheesemaker will have introduced additional ingredients in order to influence the flavour or appearance of the cheese. Whatever the motive, the great British cheese industry certainly provides the full spectrum of colours in its palette of traditional and modern cheeses.
Let’s fly the flag for British cheese, says Tracey Colley
Why is my cheese ‘red’?
What gives Red Leicester and Double Gloucester their vibrant colours? Even though type of animal or seasonality can influence the colour of some cheeses, ‘red’ cheeses are not naturally red.
From as early as the 16th century, British cheesemakers have been adding colourants to their cheeses on the grounds of commerce and cosmetics. Back then, the colour of a cheese was taken as an indication of quality: when the best cows were grazing on summer pastures, the fat in their milk would pick up the orange pigment from the beta-carotene in the grass and clover, which was then transferred to the cheese. Hence the best cheeses were considered to be richer in colour.
To add to this, many English cheesemakers realised that they could make more money if they skimmed off the cream — to sell it separately or make butter from it. But in doing so, most of the natural orange pigment was lost. So, enterprising cheesemakers would add a colourant to make the milk less pale. Not only did this give the guise of a high-quality product, it also helped produce a consistent year-round tinge.
Initially, producers would have used carrot juice, marigold petals or saffron to add colour; but the rise of imports from the Americas in the 18th century saw these replaced by annatto: a harmless, vegetable colourant that comes from the seeds of the native Brazilian Achiote tree.
In many cheeses, more and more annatto was added until a deep red hue was achieved. It was this that distinguished them from their territorial cousins, creating a demand for ‘quality red’ cheeses. Nowadays, a red colour doesn’t mean the cheese is of a poorer quality; in fact, making a cheese with an even colouring is a process requiring much expertise.
Sparkenhoe Red Leicester
Made by the Leicestershire Cheese Company, with milk from their own cows, Sparkenhoe Red is England’s only unpasteurised Red Leicester cheese. Clothbound with lard, and matured for six months on beech shelves, the cheese has a rich, chewy texture, and a mellow nutty flavour. A fine cheese that has done much to boost the reputation of the much-loved, traditional British Red Leicester.
Appleby’s Coloured Cheshire
The only traditional raw-milk handmade Cheshire cheese left in production, Appleby’s Cheshire is cloth wrapped and matured for a maximum of six months. Moist and crumbly in texture, the flavour is clean and zesty on the tongue followed by a rich mouth-watering finish. Appleby’s Cheshire goes particularly well with fruit cake, figs or dates.
Quicke’s Devonshire Red
Handcrafted using milk from the farm’s 600 grass-fed cows, Devonshire Red is similar to a traditional Red Leicester. Clothbound and matured for six months, this vibrant, full-flavoured cheese has a crumbly texture. Earthy notes just under the rind give way to fresh, nutty flavours and a lemony creaminess. Pairs well with a Rioja or a crisp dry white.
Crumps Double Gloucester
Jonathan Crump’s award-winning cheese is the only Double Gloucester to be made exclusively with raw milk from pure-breed, Old Gloucester cows from his farm on the edge of the Cotswold Hills. It’s matured for around three months, over which time a velvet, almost furry, edible rind develops, shrouding its fudge-like interior and rich, nutty flavours.
It's all white
If the internal paste of a cheese is very white, there’s a strong possibility it’s made with goat’s or sheep’s (ewe’s) milk. It has nothing to do with their diets, as they feed off the same pastures and eat the same grasses as the cows that we’ve talked about.
So, if they’re taking in the same levels of beta-carotene as their ruminant cousins, why is the colour of their milk so pure? It comes down to chemistry and the way their digestive systems break down these carotenoids.
Simply put, in cows, these fat-soluble compounds are absorbed into the milk (hence the reason the cheese from their milk is anything from a pale cream to a vibrant yellow); whereas in goats and sheep, the beta-carotene is broken down into colourless vitamin A.
But what of the ‘white’ cow’s milk cheeses: why are they so much whiter than other cow’s milk cheeses? In some we refer to the external velvety, bloomy rind that develops on the soft cheeses, enveloping it in a white coat of Penicillium candidum or camemberti, whilst others are whiter in colour, usually due to the rate of acidification and being sold at a young age.
This ripened goat’s milk cheese is made from the milk of a herd of 220 British Saanen, Toggenburg and British Alpine goats that graze on West Sussex pastures from spring through to autumn. The cheeses are shaped into logs and rolled in ash, then matured to develop a complex nutty flavour: sweet, yet delicately grassy, with a texture like ice-cream.
A semi-soft cheese made from thermised ewe’s milk by Village Maid Cheese in Berkshire. The curd is washed by removing some of the whey and replacing it with hot water, which lowers the acidity and gives the cheese its delicate sweet flavour and silky texture. Leaving the dairy at just six weeks with a pure white rind of Penicillium camemberti, the sweet, lactic flavours develop from milky and mushroomy to meaty and nutty.
Named after a 12th century nobleman, Baron Bigod is the only traditional raw milk Brie-style cheese made in the UK. In fact, it is one of only a few that is actually made on the farm, as opposed to a creamery, meaning the raw milk is the freshest it can be.
Hand-made in small batches on Fen Farm in Suffolk, using the milk from their own herd of Montbeliarde cows, this bloomy rind is aged for up to eight weeks in cave-like conditions, resulting in an outstanding cheese that is now often exported to the French, brie-loving market.
Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire
One of the palest cow’s milk cheeses made in the UK, this award-winning crumbly cheese is made to a traditional recipe over two days. Very little starter culture is added to the raw milk, which allows acidity to build gradually, leaching the carotene out of the curd, resulting in the characteristic white paste, but also its clean and lactic flavour. Said to make the perfect cheese on toast, because of how the cheese “bubbles” rather than melts.
Enjoy the blues
The “Marmite” of the cheese world, blue cheeses can conquer or divide a room. The ‘blue’ can actually be green, blue, black or grey and they come in all forms: from cow’s to sheep’s, soft to crumbly and creamy to piquant.
Whichever, the ‘blue’ refers to the characteristic veining, encouraged through the addition of Penicillium cultures, which is entirely safe to consume and is what gives these cheeses their distinct and unique flavours.
The earliest varieties of blue cheese were made in France and Italy and, it is believed, invented by accident. Legend has it that a half-eaten loaf of bread was left behind in a cave by a cheesemaker in Roquefort, France, and, upon his return, he discovered that the mould covering the bread had transformed the cheese into blue cheese. Whilst this may not be exactly what happened, it isn’t entirely implausible, with Penicillium thriving in damp and humid environments.
It is the roqueforti strain of Penicillium that is predominantly used in most blue cheese production today, due to the intense flavour it adds and the way it helps to break down and mature the cheese internally.
Nowadays, the milk is inoculated with the mould spores (usually in powder form) at the beginning of the cheesemaking process. Before the microbes can get to work, there is one vital ingredient that needs to be added: oxygen. Once the cheese has been made and left to start maturing, cheesemakers will spear the cheese with stainless steel spikes, to let oxygen circulate and encourage growth of the mould. The long, channel-like streaks of blue often found within are evidence of this spiking. Due to the saltiness of a lot of blue cheeses, they pair exceptionally well with contrasting sweet accompaniments, such as dried fruit, honey and even chocolate, and can stand up to more full-bodied reds and ports in a way that many other cheeses cannot.
Cote Hill Blue
A decadent, soft creamy blue cheese from Cote Hill Farm, made by the Davenport family in Lincolnshire.
This multi-award-winning blue is handcrafted into a deliciously rich cheese, with a peppery blue bite. It is pierced only once, through the centre, giving it just one horizontal line of blue. With a natural edible rind, the slightly chalky centre develops into a smooth creamy gooey texture, the colour of vanilla ice-cream and has been likened to a blue brie.
This raw milk blue cheese is made to a traditional Stilton recipe at the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire, but can’t be called Stilton because the PDO forbids the use of unpasteurised milk. The curds are delicately hand ladled, pierced at around six weeks and matured for 12 weeks. The results are a luxuriously smooth and creamy paste. Its edible, orange-red rind adds a washed rind savoury note to the matured cheese, providing a long-lasting umami finish.
Cropwell Bishop Stilton
Crafted by hand, this cheese is made by the Skailes family in Nottinghamshire, who have been making Stilton for more than 160 years.
Using methods that have changed little since the 17th century, including the crucial hand-ladling of the curds, the result is a smooth, creamy and open-textured cheese; whilst buttery, caramel notes are picked up initially on the tongue, it has a slightly spicy, stronger blue finish.
Made by the Roses of Two Hoots Cheeses in Berkshire, this ammonite-shaped cheese is made from the pasteurised milk of Jersey and Guernsey cows, which give it its rich, yellow paste.
The indigo veining is evenly distributed and helps deliver a savoury, almost brothy tang. But its fabulous, buttery, melt-in-the-mouth texture accounts for its many awards.
Unusually, this is one blue cheese that pairs perfectly with white wine, particularly sweet dessert types.