Perhaps it’s just me but when I think of historical British cheeses, it’s the hard ones that spring to mind: Cheddar, Cheshire, the crumblies – Caerphilly and Wensleydale. And I confess that when I first saw a piece of Bath Soft Cheese, I thought, ‘Oh hello, here’s one we pilfered from the French.’ But actually I couldn’t have been more wrong, as whilst Bath Soft Cheese certainly looks a bit on the Gallic side, it turns out to have a British pedigree stretching back centuries.
Here it is, cunningly disguising itself as le fromage:
The more I write this blog and learn about cheese, the more I love British cheeses. Of course, I love them because they taste amazing but I also love their stories. There’s a common narrative that seems to run through many of them; of their historic creation and heyday, then a decline and extinction, finally followed by a renaissance in the late twentieth century. And Bath Soft Cheese provides another great example of this circularity.
Made on Park Farm, between Bath and Bristol, Bath Soft Cheese is an organic soft cheese made with pasteurised cow’s milk. Back in the early 1990s, the Padfield family had been dairy farmers for three generations but, against a backdrop of falling milk prices, Graham Padfield was looking to diversify. He was attracted to cheese-making – his grandparents had made rudimentary cheddar on the farm – but Graham didn’t want to make any old cheese; he wanted a cheese with history, with heritage. When he came across an old grocer’s book in Bath library containing a 1908 recipe for Bath Soft Cheese, he struck gold:
“When the curds have drained, sprinkle fine salt on, and spread with a feather. Place on a dry shelf, turning them daily. When a fine white mould has covered them they are fit to eat. Bath cheese will demonstrate its ripeness by spreading on bread as butter does with the aid of a knife.”
Alas, the Padfields chose not to tickle their cheese with a feather but in all other respects the cheese is made to the old recipe. And if Graham wanted a cheese with history, he’d certainly found it. In 1801, a Bath Soft Cheese was sent to Admiral Lord Nelson by his father:
My dear Horatio, – On Tuesday next I intend (God willing) to leave Bath and tho’ not very strong, yet, hope to reach Lothian on Thursday, as I must remain a few days in London, let me not interrupt any of your engagements.
Recollecting that Sir William and Lady Hamilton seemed gratified by the flavour of a cream cheese, I have taken the liberty of sending 2 or 3 cheeses of Bath manufacture.
I am my dear Son your most affectionate Edmund Nelson
Apparently Nelson’s lady love was ‘gratified’ by its taste. Ah, cheese, always the way to a girl’s heart!
Or mine anyway.
The packaging for Bath Soft Cheese is beautifully designed; each cheese is wrapped in replica parchment paper printed with an excerpt of the recipe and then sealed with red wax:
But you can’t always judge a cheese by its cover and I’ll admit that when I unwrapped it, I wondered if it was going to be ripe. The rind was white and what cheesemongers describe as ‘bloomy’ but it looked so perfectly square that I cut into it bracing myself for the disappointment of a chalky white stripe through the middle. Fortunately I was wrong again. The knife immediately gave way and the paste of the cheese was creamy and gooey. You could certainly spread it on bread ‘as butter does’. I bet it would bake a treat too.
Oh – but whilst I was wrong about it not being French, it does taste quite like a good Brie or a Pont-l’Évêque . All mushroomy and lemony and grassy. Which is no bad thing. Well, unless you’re Admiral Lord Nelson, who probably wouldn’t have appreciated the comparison, if we’re honest.