There’s something of the déjà vu about Sage Derby. I feel nostalgic for it, it reminds me of my childhood but I haven’t the foggiest idea why. I never remember eating it or seeing it in the house. I grew up in the next door county so perhaps it was always on the supermarket shelves (I was going to say pub menus but in those days it was all chicken-in-a-basket and a piece of Stilton on the cheeseboard would have been the talk of the town.) So, I don’t know why I think I know Sage Derby. Mum, if you’re reading this (and sometimes I fear it’s only my Mum reading), let me know if we ever ate Sage Derby.
Anyway, since I’ve had my eyes peeled for cheese, I’ve seen it in the supermarkets a few times but it just looks so, well, green. And not a nice Farrow and Ball sage green but the kind of scary, luminous green of the pots of gloop you can buy for children that are always called ‘alien bogies’ or somesuch. It just didn’t look very appealing. But when I saw Fowlers Traditional Sage Derby on a local market stall, it just looked, well, a bit herby. Thus:
Sage Derby is a semi-hard, pasteurized, cow’s milk cheese and this speckly beauty is made by Fowlers Forest Dairies of Earlswood in Warwickshire, one of the few remaining dairies to make traditional farmhouse Sage Derby. Fowlers claim to be the oldest cheese-making family in England; they can trace their origins back to the Staffordshire Moorlands in 1670 and are now on their fourteenth generation of cheese-makers. Derby cheese itself also has somewhat of a vintage; the late, great Patrick Rance describes it as a distant relative of Cheshire cheese, with both of the cheeses originally being part of a homogenous ‘Midlands’ cheese family before each developed its own characteristics. Derby was also the first cheese to be made in a factory (in the nineteenth century).
The tradition of adding sage to the cheese is thought to date back to the seventeenth century. At that time, sage was touted as a bit of a cleansing wonder-herb that could cure everything from excess gas to sexual problems (the former presumably leading to the latter). Chopped up sage was added to some of the curds which were then sandwiched between layers of normal curds, before being pressed and a final sprinkle of sage added to the top. Fowlers still use the same farmhouse techniques to produce their Sage Derby and it stands in stark contrast to the fluorescent-looking factory versions, where the curds are coloured with green vegetable dyes such as chlorophyll and sage powder or chopped sage and spinach juice and so look more marbled than stripy and more E.T. snot than subtle vegetation. (They may well taste lovely though; I just haven’t tried them.)
Traditionally Sage Derby was a ‘holiday cheese’, made in the springtime for eating at Harvest or Christmas. Nowadays it’s made all year round and, in the case of Fowlers, matured for around nine months. Even if you’re a cheese purist who doesn’t like ‘bits’ in their cheese, you should give this one a try. The cheese itself is not unlike cheddar, slightly nutty but more buttery. The taste of the sage is subtle; herbaceous and grassy without overpowering the cheese. We ate some on crackers and then stuffed the rest into the centre of baking apples.