Every now and then I see one of those posters advertising an eighties spectacular concert and I’m tempted. The line-up usually features any and all of the following: Rick Astley, Bananarama, Katrina and the Waves, T’Pau and Curiosity Killed the Cat. They sound like fun events, a mash-up of all the pop acts of my schooldays. How can you go wrong, combining all your favourite things together at once? Well, that, dear reader, is what I will explore in today’s post.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t plan to buy this week’s cheese. We’ve all been under the weather in this house (nothing to do with my cheesy cocktail, I can assure you) and anyway I seem to have spent much of my life this week waiting in for deliveries. So I haven’t had a chance to go anywhere other than my local supermarket, which is where I found this cheese. And I’ll admit, when I first saw it, my innate cheese snob rose up and said ‘no’. I did the rest of my shopping but kept thinking: ‘What’s your problem. Not all British cheeses are made from the milk of rare-breed pygmy llamas and pressed between the thighs of Morris Men in Neolithic caves. It’s a British cheese you’ve never tried before. Go and buy it. Then try it.’ So that’s what I did. And here it is, Five Counties:
Five Counties is a hard, pasteurised cow’s milk cheese made by Ilchester Cheese in Somerset. It gets its distinctive stripy appearance by combining five different English territorials: Cheddar, Cheshire, Derby, Double Gloucester and Red Leicester. Developed a decade ago, it’s undeniably pretty and the cheeses it features all have a noteworthy pedigree:
Cheshire is said to be the oldest named cheese in Britain, with a pedigree that stretches back to the Roman invasion and possibly beyond. Despite its name it’s produced in Cheshire and four neighbouring counties, two in Wales (Denbighshire and Flintshire) and two in England (Shropshire and Staffordshire). It’s made in three varieties: traditional white, red (coloured with annatto) and blue-veined. And – top Cheshire cheese fact ahoy – so renowned was the cheese in the nineteenth century that when General Tom Thumb passed through the county on his national tour he apparently allowed himself to be carried into dinner sitting on a Cheshire cheese.
Derby is a cheese you don’t see much of these days. Similar in many ways to Cheddar, it was traditionally sold at a younger age than Cheddar or Cheshire. It was also famously flavoured with sage to produce Sage Derby , originally for holiday-times such as harvest or Christmas. Its claim to fame is that the first cheese factory in England in 1870 was set up to produce Derby cheese.
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.
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. There are various theories as to the difference between Single and Double Gloucester cheeses: that the Old Gloucester milk was so creamy it had to be skimmed twice to make the double variety; that cream from the morning milk was added to the evening milk, or because a Double Gloucester cheese is twice the height.
Cheddar is perhaps Britain’s most famous cheese, although ironically it’s now made all over the world rather than in any particular county. It gets its name from a village in Somerset and gives its name to the ‘cheddaring’ process in cheese-making, which means that blocks of curds are stacked up together and turned to aid the draining of the whey and raise the acidity of the cheese. A giant wheel of Cheddar was famously presented to Queen Victoria on her wedding day. It weighed over a thousand pounds and used the milk from 737 cows but alas ended up as pigswill after its producers all fell out with each other.
I wasn’t quite sure where to start with eating it but I first of all decided to try and identify the layers. The different stripes fell away from each other fairly easily. The paler stripes at either end looked pretty much identical so I put those to one side for a minute, guessing that they were Cheddar and Derby. The middle layer was paler with a crumbly texture so I hazarded a guess at Cheshire; it tasted okay but a bit too sweet for me, rather as if someone had added fruit to it. I went for the brighter orange stripey next and I’m pretty sure this was Red Leicester; I didn’t like this chunk, I have to say, it tasted like it had been sweating on a cheese counter for too long. The other orange was next, the Double Gloucester, which didn’t taste too bad and had a bit of a tang to it. And next, to try and tell the difference between the Derby-Cheddar twins. And honestly? I haven’t the foggiest. They both looked, smelled and tasted the same to me (disclaimer: I have got a bit of a cold). I then did what I guessed I was supposed to do and crammed all the leftover bits into my mouth together in one big cheesy melange. It all tasted of cheese, unsurprisingly.
Would I buy this cheese again? Probably not (although it would be interesting to taste it fresh from the factory rather than after it had been suffocated in clingfilm for a thousand days). I have nothing per se against block cheese; you can find some tasty ones these days (Barbers and Davidstow spring to mind). Similarly, I have nothing against very cheesy eighties pop music; quite the contrary. But I just don’t get the idea of lots of different things all at once. I’d like to hear China in Your Hand followed by Never Gonna Give You Up followed by Robert de Niro’s Waiting. Just not all at once, okay.