Selecting which cheese to try next is always a fairly random occasion. Sometimes I like the name (Baron BIGOD!), sometimes I like the history (Single Gloucester PDO), sometimes I feel guilty about not eating cheese from a particular area (Teifi) and sometimes, if I am feeling particularly organised, I try and tie it in to an occasion (Caboc). But, feeling devoid of inspiration a few weeks ago, I put out a plaintive call on Twitter for cheese suggestions. One was from someone who works at Neal’s Yard Dairy who suggested Cotherstone because ‘It’s a great cheese, often overlooked and pretty rare…May not be around for ever either. Go grab some!’ I then heard it described as ‘the closest that British cheese-making has to a living fossil’. All in all, it sounded like a cheese to hunt down.
Here it is, the shy, retiring, winsome beauty that is Cotherstone:
Cotherstone is a pasteurised, semi-hard, cow’s milk cheese made by Joan Cross of Quarryhouse Farm in County Durham. The name of the cheese comes from a nearby village which is famous for two things: Cotherstone cheese and Hannah Hauxwell. Hannah was one of the UK’s first reality TV stars, although back in the 1970s we’re talking in the sense of ‘sensitive documentary’ rather than ‘eating kangaroo penis with your boobs out in the jungle’. Hannah, then nearly fifty, lived alone, eking out a living as a farmer in the isolated and unforgiving High Pennines.
Hannah’s life seemed unbearable but it was farmers toiling in the same conditions who historically would have been responsible for Cotherstone cheese. In contrast to the North West of England, whose rich pastures support large herds of dairy cows, the North East is a more rugged and remote region. Smallholders there would have just a few cows and so the type of cheeses they made – cheese-cousins like Wensleydale, Swaledale and Cotherstone, all named for the areas in which they were made – were subsistence cheeses, made mainly for the household, and their slow and simple production methods came as a result of having to fit cheese-making around the many other daily chores that a farmer’s wife had to look forward to.
Wensleydale is the Dales cheese that everyone’s heard of and it’s been through its fair share of peaks and troughs. Meanwhile Cotherstone has quietly plodded on as a farmhouse cheese and Joan Cross, who has been making the cheese for thirty years, started with a recipe passed on to her by her mother. She is now its last remaining producer – hence its reputation as both rare and perilously close to extinction. Traditionally the cheese was made from May through to the first autumn frosts but the Cross family make it all year round – but only on a small scale and to order. The milk is sourced locally and the production process is simple: the milk is soured (these days using starter cultures but in Joan’s lifetime it was still simply kept warm overnight to let the bacteria do their thing), set with vegetarian rennet, milled and moulded. Locally it’s eaten fresh, at just two to three weeks old, otherwise it can be matured for up to three months.
Mine was the more mature version and it smelt old; not in an offensive way, I just mean that it reminded me of antiques, like the inside of your gran’s bureau, slightly musty but sweet. As to be expected from its lineage, it tastes similar to a traditional Wensleydale (although I have read accounts of Cotherstone makers of yore getting very put out if they are asked about their ‘making Wensleydale’). It’s slightly crumbly and acidic but not like a mass-produced Wensleydale. There’s a gorgeous squidgy layer just under the rind, reminiscent of a Gorwydd Caerphilly and the interior paste is tangy and buttery.
It would be a shame to see this cheese become extinct in my lifetime. Perhaps I should head up north, ready to take over with my extensive cheese-making skills (reference: Colin the Cheddar). Then again, that Hannah Hauxwell doesn’t look like the sort of woman whose cheese you’d mess with, even at eighty-seven…