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British Foods: From Cheese to Smoked Fish, but Mostly Cheese!

Reading current magazines, we learn there is a new awareness regarding British food amongst the more educated public. I will let you into a secret, we had all those foods and chefs back in the 50's, we just did not go public and being our nature to keep quiet about things, we did not share our good fortune. However, in these techno times, publicity is important.

Since the time of William the Conqueror in 1066, cheese has played an important part in both the diet and economy of the British. But over the past two decades there has been an upsurge in the making of cheese and being a Brit, I am in the process of writing about the great variety of farm cheeses produced across the British Isles by cheesemakers who are passionate about what they do. In fact, Wales, Scotland and England can boast over 450 unique Farm cheeses.

Cheese can be split into two types: Traditional and Modern and those into three distinctive groups. The first group in the Traditional are Cheddar, Double Gloucester, Single Gloucester and Red Leicester- all mostly handmade, wrapped in cloth and left to mature for months, even years. The second group is the Crumblies which have a higher moisture content and are crumbly in texture. This group consists of Caerphilly, Cheshire, Lancashire and Wensleydale. The next grouping is Blue Cheese with Stilton and other less known blues - Shropshire Blue, Blue Cheshire, Blue Wensleydale, Blue Vinny and Yorkshire Blue.

In the second type: Modern, the categories include Fresh which has no rind, Semi-soft with a brownish orange to thick grey-brown rind; Soft white with a white velvety rind; Hard which often has a waxed or oiled rind; Blue with its gritty, sometimes sticky rind, and Flavour added which has various styles of rind.

Milk type also is important - be it Buffalo, Cow, Ewe or Goat. These animals munching on wild flowers and grasses in the fields and meadows around the Isles affords the complexity and varying taste of British cheeses - the almost metallic tang of Stilton influenced by the seams of coal and iron running beneath the rolling pastures of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, the characteristic sea spray freshness of Cheshire cheese attributed to the rich salt deposits lying just below the surface of the land.

Organic cheeses are gaining a foothold in the market with over 75 organic cheeses made by cheesemakers certified by the Soil association. My first encounter was deep in the Cotswolds at the Gloucester farmer's market with Gloucestershire chef, Robert Rees, a champion of excellence in home grown local foods. There I was introduced to Melissa Ravenhill of Birdwood Farm, a small organic dairy farm producing a prize winning range of traditional cheeses from home produced milk; Double Gloucester, Birdwood Blue Heaven and smoked Birdwood Dunlop. Birdwood Farm still uses old, established methods much like it was done over 100 years ago.

The owners of Windrush Valley Organic Farm specialize in Goat Cheeses and using milk from their own herd produce quality products like the delicate Chevre Blanc, Dainty Herb and Garlic Herb. Windrush Farm is a small, quite recent addition to family cheesemakers in the UK but their dedication to quality is unmistakeable!

Ravens Oak Dairy is becoming known for its award winning organic cheeses which are made using vegetarian and GMO free rennet. Their traditional Cheshire cheese is made in an environmentally friendly system and the dairy herd grazes in clover rich pasture. Cow cheeses are Ravens Oak and Burland Green Brie. Swanley and Whitehaven Brie, winner of Best New Cheese in 1999 are the two Goat cheeses. The Sheep cheeses are Bunbury, a Gold Medal Winner, and Radmore Brie. There are also the Buffalo cheeses Spurstow, winner of Best Fresh Cheese in 2001, and Brindley Brie.

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From the Organic Authority Files

One of my favourite cheeses is Cotherstone which is a flaky textured, semi hard white cheese perfect with a glass of chilled white Italian wine. Made solely by Joan Cross at her Quarry House Farm, it can be found at Neals Yard in Covent Garden and Boroughs Market Harvey Nichols Food Store and Selfridges.

Entering into the domain of smoked fish, Purely Organics is one of Rick Stein's favourite suppliers and no wonder as this producer smokes his fish in the traditional manner - trout swim through watercress beds in spring water enhancing the taste of these fine fish.

One of two remaining smokerys still smoking fish in the traditional manner is situated amongst the great Highland mountains at Dalmally overlooking the lower reaches of the River Awe. Robert Campbell-Preston, owner of this family-run smokery, took me through the many stages of salmon curing, from the slicing of the locally caught fish to the last stages of smoking using the old-world traditional and not the modern time-saving kilns. Mr. C-P has a very dry wit and I was fascinated by his knowledge, and laughing continuously at his quite cynical remarks which I totally agree with - how the plasticated era has taken over and so many foodstuffs are losing their taste, quality and individuality in the mad rush to make enormous profits.

But back to cheeses and since Caerphilly is another of my favorites, I very much enjoyed my visit to Caws Cenarth Dairy in Wales. Here the cheesemaker not only showed me the process involved in making this delicious cheese with its clean, grass taste, she regaled me how HRH Prince Charles also came to visit and view the process from the gallery/museum/shop. Cheese tasting is free of charge and you can purchase those tempting items to take home.

Of course this gets me off and running on the subject of Farm shops which can be found the length and breadth of the British Isles offering fine farm fresh local produce at its best. One I stopped at in Wales was Siopfferm in Llwynhelyg which is 8 miles north of Cardigan on the A487. There Teifi and Jenny Davies offer good food and personal service specializing in local cheeses, farm fresh vegetables, dairy produce, local honey, fresh herbs, homemade cakes and Welsh bacon and meat, besides much more. Jenny proudly informed me that they have around 110 active suppliers, most of whom are in a 40 mile radius. Sparkling with life, these goodies made me wish I lived nearby so I could shop each and every day for something delectable and delicious. Although I do shop at farmer's markets in Los Angeles, there is never the variety to be found for few small farms exist in this prime real estate area. Most produce is now 'manufactured' even the strawberries are hybrids as it is the only way to grow thousands to sell and ship across the world. Other natural varieties have gone by the wayside, or been outlawed by the big chemical companies who are making GMO's the only way to go in the USA, and wherever else they can talk farmers into using them.

The region known as the HEART OF ENGLAND comprises the shire counties of Warwickshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Staffordshire and the West Midlands, and is a cheese lover's paradise! Small farms abound in these green and grassy lands and many varieties of cheeses are produced, the majority individually by one cheesemaker so they are often only available locally or in specialist shops. These cheeses range from tiny logs of goats cheese to handsome truckles coated with toasted Hereford hops.

Monkland Cheese Dairy is a working traditional cheese dairy, and on my visit I put on white coveralls and watched a buxom lady stirring the curds and whey by hand in a large vat. Round and round she went, puffing and panting, her round red cheeks and strong body the perfect picture of an English countrywoman. The Dairy is owned by Mark and Karen Hindle, and there is a lovely little café and farm shop where fresh local produce can be enjoyed. The Hindle's produce Little Hereford, Hereford Sage, Monkland and the new Monkland with Garlic and Chives.

I am sure everybody has heard of Neals Yard Dairy in London where cheeses from across the UK can be purchased, but deep in the Hereford countryside is Neals Yard Creamery which is a small scale producer of hand made high quality dairy products. I visited them and very much enjoyed sampling their ranges of goat's cheeses, cows milk cheeses, yoghurt, fromage frais and crčme fraiche besides getting a tour of the products being made, quite fascinating!

To end: all over the UK, you will find dedicated cheesemakers and farmers proudly producing their wares just as has been done for hundreds of years, for the British have always been proud of their delicious home made produce. And rightly so!

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