Some cheeses come with such a history and pedigree that I’m almost afraid to try them in case they taste like dust or tom cat’s spray. And so it was with this week’s cheese which manages to combine coming back from the dead with gaining the coveted PDO status and being cheese-sibling of ‘Britain’s smelliest cheese.’ It also has the distinction of being the nicest-smelling cheese I’ve yet to come across. If this cheese were a person, I’d be handing them a big red book and so, in the style of Michael Aspel (or Eamonn Andrews if you’ve got a couple of years on me): ‘Single Gloucester, This Is Your Life’…
There are a handful of cheese-makers producing Single Gloucester but it seemed only right to try the one made by Charles Martell on Hunts Court Farm in Gloucestershire, as without Martell it’s doubtful that anyone would be making it at all. Single Gloucester (or Single Gloucester PDO if you’ve just been introduced) is a hard, unpasteurised, cow’s milk cheese, made specifically from the milk of Old Gloucester cows. I don’t always talk about the breed of cattle used to make a cheese but in this case the story of the breed and the cheese are so intertwined that it’s impossible to talk about one without the other – and impossible not to mention Martell in the same breath.
Cheese-making in Gloucestershire can be traced back to the seventh century but cheese called by the name of the county emerged around the fifteenth century according to records (although it was probably being made from sheep’s milk at this point). By Tudor times the cheeses were being made with the milk of Old Gloucester cows, a handsome breed thought to be a descendant of the wild ox. Single Gloucester cheeses were ‘two meal’ cheeses, made from the skimmed evening milk (the cream being used to make butter) which was set aside and used to ripen the full-cream milk of the next morning’s milking. It’s thought that they were made in a flat circular disc shape because the moulds were turned on a lathe from a solid block of elm, a plentiful tree in the county.
Because of the skimming, it was paler than Double Gloucester cheese (which used just full-cream milk) and so it was pooh-pooh-ed by urban turophiles who associated only rich colours with good quality cheese. As a result, Single Gloucester was a household cheese, rarely consumed outside of the county. This isn’t to say it was a terrible cheese though, as many people found it superior to full-cream cheeses made in areas with inferior soils and cattle breeds.
Alas though, both the cows and cheese were to fall on hard times. An infamous cattle plague in 1745 decimated stocks of Old Gloucester cows and the breed was replaced by Longhorns. In the eighteenth century, the advent of cheese factories and cheap imports dealt a further blow to the cheese as many farmhouse cheese-makers threw in the towel. The coming of the Second World War and a demand for liquid milk ensured the extinction of Single Gloucester altogether.
By 1972, the Old Gloucester cow was also on its last legs (collectively, that is), numbering just 68 worldwide. Fortunately she was to meet her saviour in the form of Charles Martell, then a livestock driver. He decided there and then to save the breed, bought a bull and half a dozen cows and started making first Double Gloucester and then Single Gloucester cheese. In 1997, Martell managed to obtain PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status for Single Gloucester, which means it can only be made in that county and preferably with the milk of the Old Gloucester cow. Cow and cheese alike were saved (although admittedly both were eclipsed somewhat by Martell’s later creation, the infamous Stinking Bishop).
And the smell I mentioned in the opening? Well, I don’t claim to have a great nose for these things but when I sniffed my hunk of Single Gloucester (which I realise makes it sound like something off a dodgy Cotswolds dating site) there was a definite whiff of butterscotch, all sweet and custardy. The taste has more of a tang to it but still an undertone of something sweet and buttery. It’s fair to say that it was consumed much faster than its stinky stable-mate, the Bishop.