It’s Burns Night on Sunday and so what better excuse to
mail-order a mahoosive haul of cheese explore another historic Scottish cheese? This time last year I plumped for Caboc, which even its own producer describes as having ‘a taste which should stay in the 1970s’. I have to say I couldn’t disagree with him and so I was hoping for something a little less…ahem…idiosyncratic this time around. The big question though of course remains: will I be able to shoehorn a mention of Robert Burns into this week’s post? So, settle down on your hurdies and get a load of this week’s cheese down your weel-swall’d kytes: I bring you Dunlop.
Traditional Ayrshire Dunlop is a hard, pasteurised, cow’s milk cheese produced by Ann Dorward of Dunlop Dairy in Ayrshire. Ayrshire is the lush green heartland of Scotland and has long been famed for its cattle production. Cheese was being made in Scotland as far back as the thirteenth century but most mainland cheeses were made from skimmed milk. They were likely pretty tough but if all else failed you could apparently use them to pay your university fees.
The invention of the first full-fat, hard cheese is credited to Barbara Gilmour, a farmer’s daughter from Dunlop. During the seventeenth century when religious troubles were rife, she crossed the sea to Ireland to escape persecution and when she returned she had learned the cheesemaking techniques that saw her pioneer a new kind of cheese, made from full cream milk and pressed. The cheese was made from the milk of Ayrshire cows and in 1788 Robert Burns wrote to a Mrs Dunlop of Dunlop to express his gratitude at her husband’s gift to him of the ‘finest quey [heifer] in Ayrshire’. (See what I did there?)
The reputation of the Dunlop cheese spread such that by the end of the eighteenth century it was being made in many parts of Scotland, even where cheese had traditionally been made from skimmed ewe’s milk. William Cobbett, farmer, political journalist and horse-riding Russell Brand of his time, pronounced it ‘equal in quality to any cheese from Cheshire, Gloucestershire, or Wiltshire.’ However, like so many British cheeses, it suffered from the economic and social changes of the nineteenth century and was finally polished off by the Second World War and its aftermath.
In the 1980s, Ann Dorward and her family moved to West Clerkland Farm, which is situated just half a mile from where Barbara Gilmour started making Dunlop cheese. As well as producing goat and sheep’s milk cheeses, Ann realised that Dunlop was the ‘obvious’ cheese to make and revived the once-famous cheese from the fromage netherworld. Milk is taken from their own herd of Ayrshire cows and starter cultures, followed by rennet, are added. The resulting curd is cut into small pieces and ‘pitched’ (allowed to settle on the bottom of the vat) before the whey is drained away. The blocks of curd are cut, stacked and turned (‘cheddared’) to release more whey and increase acidity before being milled into small pieces. The curd is then salted and packed into moulds before being pressed. Finally the cheeses are bound in cloth before being pressed again and sent for maturing.
Matured for at least six months, my slab of Dunlop looked to be a summer cheese, all buttercup-glow-under-the-chin yellow. It smelled milky and musty from the cloth rind. It’s often compared to cheddar but the texture is quite different as it’s far more fudgy. Tastewise too it lacks the sharpness of cheddar and is instead mild and sweet. I swear there is a slightly fruity aftertaste, a bit like chutney. It’s not hard to understand why people turned to it instead of rock-hard skimmed milk cheeses.
Additional research from The Great British Cheese Book by Patrick Rance and The List.