There’s been a distinct lack of ovine action on this blog so far and I think that’s partly because I didn’t realise just how many sheep’s cheeses were out there (remember, I did start this blog from the premise of ‘I am a cheese ignoramus’). In my defence, I think it’s fair to say that most people in the UK don’t associate sheep with cheese. In fact, let’s face it – given that almost a third of primary pupils think cheese is made from plants, they probably don’t associate cows with cheese either. But some of our favourite cheeses are derived from the woolly-backed beasts: Pecorino, Feta, Manchego and Roquefort, to name but a few.
Spenwood is a hard, pressed cheese made from unpasteurised ewe’s milk. Produced by the Village Maid Cheese Company, it’s named after the Berkshire village in which it’s made, Spencers Wood. Here it is in all its glory:
The story of Spenwood’s genesis is steeped in adventure. Back in the 1980s, Anne Wigmore was a cheese microbiologist and her husband, Andy, a journalist. After leaving their jobs to join two friends who were sailing a self-made yacht back to Australia, Anne tasted the local Pecorino cheese in Sardinia en-route and was inspired to create her own British version. Back home in Berkshire and backed with a £40-a-week government incentive, Spenwood was born.
Artisan cheese-making was a tricky business in the 1980s, especially if you didn’t have your own farm. Apart from the fact that the British palate at that time thought that Edam was the height of cheese sophistication, it was hard to actually get your hands on milk. Supply was controlled by the now-defunct Milk Marketing Board, which was set up to provide centralised manufacturing during the war and sold cow’s milk in quantities suitable for large producers rather than small operations. Fortunately for Anne’s Pecorino plans, it was far easier to buy sheep’s milk, as there was less demand and hence control. Sheep’s milk cheeses had been all but extinct in Britain since the eighteenth century and it was enterprises such as the Village Maid Cheese Company that spearheaded a renaissance.
The milk that goes into Spenwood comes from three herds of nearby Dorset Friesland sheep. In true artisan style, the creamery began life in a converted garage at the bottom of the Wigmore’s garden, although operations have since expanded due to demand for their cheeses. Spenwood is matured for at least six months. It has a pale-yellow paste and a thin, silvery rind. Its flavour is subtle, sweet and slightly nutty and the texture is a bit like a mature cheddar. It’s a cheese that you want to eat slices of on its own, so as not to lose a morsel of flavour to a cracker. Like Pecorino, it’s a bit salty too and, again like its Italian cousin, was delicious when I grated a chunk of it over some pasta.
I read an interview with Anne Wigmore in which she said: ‘All cheese starts off with just milk, rennet and starter bacteria and the cheesemaker can turn it in to any number of different types of cheese.’ And as I look at the sagging, cracking blob that is my Tooting Gold (that I can’t bear to throw away yet) sitting next to the pert slice of perfection that is the Spenwood, I can certainly vouch for that. Fortunately for cheese-lovers, Wigmore has the expertise to match her ambitions.