Yes, I’ve eaten Red Leicester before. If truth be told, I was practically weaned on Red Leicester. I ate so much that it probably permanently altered my DNA. We always had a slab of it in the fridge – cheese sandwiches, cheesy jacket potatoes, cheese salads. But when I grew up, I went off Red Leicester. It always seemed to look a bit sweaty and shiny and taste quite sharp and, if I’m honest, there’s probably an element of food snobbery about its colour. We’ve been so conditioned to think that all colouring in foods is bad – salmon shouldn’t be pink, smoked haddock shouldn’t be yellow and children’s juice shouldn’t be the colour of dayglo socks from the 1980s – that orange cheese somehow feels a bit wrong. But back to the colouring later…
Someone told me that to re-kindle my friendship with Red Leicester I needed to seek out Sparkenhoe, the first Red Leicester cheese for decades to be made on a farm in the county using raw milk. I so wish I had a decent camera to photograph it, although I still wouldn’t be able to do justice to the way it almost glows.
Sparkenhoe Red Leicester is a hard, unpasteurised cow’s milk cheese made by David and Jo Clarke of the Leicestershire Handmade Cheese Company on Sparkenhoe Farm (Sparkenhoe is an old Leicestershire name meaning ‘Gorsey Nob’ and the juvenile in me can’t help wishing they’d named their cheese that). The Clarkes were dairy farmers, both from local farming families and David bought a herd of 160 Holstein-Friesians to raise on a plot of land near his family’s farm, selling the milk to a local dairy.
I like the sound of the Clarkes. Apparently David decided to make Red Leicester in 2005 after complaining about the quality of it with some mates down the pub, and despite the fact that when a local butcher suggested they make it, he had replied ‘No, it’s revolting!’ The couple put their reservations aside and went on a three-day cheese-making course and, before long, and following several dodgy batches, they were selling the cheese to wholesalers. And so they produced the first farmhouse Red Leicester cheese in the county for fifty years.
Leicester cheese has a long history; it can be traced back to the seventeenth century and is probably a distant cousin of Cheshire cheese, as well as being influenced by the cheddar-makers of the southwest. The cheese was dyed to differentiate it from other regional cheeses but also because consumers associated richer-coloured cheeses with better quality, creamy milk, full of beta carotene from when cows had grazed in summer pastures. Leicester Cheese was often made by Stilton-makers, from the leftover, less creamy milk and so tended to be pale. It’s thought that traditionally it was dyed with a plant called Lady’s Bedstraw, which not only contains a natural yellow-orange dye but is also known as ‘cheese rennet’ as it was used to separate curds. The cheese is now coloured with annatto seeds, from a Mexican shrub, which were introduced to Europe by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the seventeenth century and were first used by makers of Gloucester and Cheshire cheeses.
As Britain became more industrialised during the nineteenth century, farmhouse cheese began to decline and this can be seen even through the history of Sparkenhoe Farm. There are records of a Leicester cheese being made on the farm by George Chapman in 1745 but in 1875 production stopped. In the same year, the first factory began to make Leicester cheese. The Second World War saw colourings banned in cheese-making and, although a White Leicester cheese was made, it failed to gain popularity. Farmhouse Red Leicester was virtually non-existent, although it’s said that one local dairy farmer was making it until 1956. For the following fifty years farmhouse Red Leicester was as dead as the proverbial Dodo until the Clarkes began production.
The Clarkes use the milk from their own cows and pump it straight from the milking parlour into a vat in the cheese-making room, at the eye-aching time of 4am. Animal rennet is added, as is annatto, and the curds and whey are scalded gently and separated. After cutting, turning, milling and salting, they are pressed in moulds for 24 hours and then turned and re-pressed for a further 24 hours. Finally, they are wrapped in cheesecloth, smothered in lard and mould-ripened for six months on beechwood racks. They make the cheese three times a week in both the traditional 20kg cartwheel moulds, as well as a smaller 10kg version.
Sparkenhoe is a different creature from the block Red Leicester that fills the shop shelves. Dense but slightly crumby it’s sweet, slightly nutty and I particularly like the bit around the edge near where the speckly grey mould grows. And did it rekindle my childhood affection? Well, yes, I think it did; as well as being as cheese I’d cook with, I’d put it on a cheeseboard too.
I love the idea of being inspired to recreate a cheese because you think its current incarnation is so bad…artisan squeezy cheese with prawns, anyone?