The British cheese industry was until relatively recently much maligned and more often than not its artisan producers were overlooked. In the aftermath of the second world war the art of the farmhouse cheesemaker started to die out, leaving barely one maker per county.
Thankfully the 1980s heralded a turning point for food in Britain, this in part was largely due to the rise of the farmers market, increased economic prosperity and the accessibility of foreign travel, all of which played a part in British people beginning to take more of an interest in the origins of their food and in particular artisan produce.
Another significant factor in the resurgence of artisan cheese making came when the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) was dissolved. Until the early 1990s the MMB controlled the milk price in the UK, with this no longer being the case milk prices tumbled. Farmers were forced to diversify and thankfully some chose to supplement their incomes by making unpasteurised cheeses. So began the cheese revolution, and now UK cheese makers are creating some genuinely great products, crafting cheeses comparable to the greatest found in Europe.
Despite the UK wide cheese revolution, we don’t have many cheese makers in Cumbria, and the contrast is often stark, Lake District Cheddar is mass produced and the once great Appleby Creamery seems to have taken its eye off the ball. That said it’s not all doom and gloom as there are several great artisan producers doing themselves and our county proud.
One such character is Martin Gott based at Holker Farm, where he has created a genuinely exciting cheese called St James. Martin is the only UK producer of washed-rind ewe’s milk cheese, which he makes from his own sheep and with his own starter culture – a rarity in Britain’s commercial cheese-making circles.
We always look forward to featuring this cheese as part of The Old Stamp House cheese board. St James’s taste alters according to the weather and season, turning from fresh and yoghurty in spring, to herby in summer, to muttony and bacon fatty in autumn.
Another maker of note is Leonie Fairbairn and her mother Carolyn who hail from Thornby Moor Dairy near Wigton, where they produce Blue Winnow, the cheese featured in this recipe.
I love this dairy more than most, perhaps it’s because of their passion, commitment and knowledge or perhaps it’s because of the welcome you receive when you turn up at the dairy door to collect your cheese, or perhaps it’s their relatively undiscovered corner of Cumbria that appeals. Whatever the combination I highly recommend you pay a visit to this quiet and under-rated area of the county, and if like me you get the cheese bug maybe to even take part in one of the cheese making days they offer.
Carolyn Fairbairn started making cheese in 1979, using milk produced from her own herd of goats as a way of spending more time with her young family. They started to make Blue Whinnow named after a beck that runs close to the dairy a few years later, using raw cow’s milk from a local shorthorn herd. Now they offer a range of cheeses made using both goat’s and cow’s milk, as well as a remarkably interesting and at the time innovative cheese called Crofton, a subtle blend of both milks creating a unique favour and texture.
This month’s recipe sees a pairing between cheese and an updated version of a traditional Cumbrian fruitcake, Westmorland Pepper Bread and my favourite accompaniment, figs. We also add a little indulgent note in the form of truffle honey to for the restaurant version, but in this instance it’s an optional luxury.
Hopefully, this brief insight may just inspire you to try cheeses made by both Martin Gott and Leonie Fairbairn. Artisan cheese makers have had a difficult time of it of late but we can all play a small part in their continued survival by buying their products from cheesemongers such as Cartmel Cheeses, or dare I say it pop over the county border into God’s own 2nd county (obviously Cumbria is his first choice) and pay a visit our supplier Andy Swinscoe at Court Yard Dairy, Settle, one of the UK’s leading cheese mongers. When things settle down pop into their cafe and tuck into their version of Raclette… it’s an experience and you will probably find me and my wife on the table next to you!
The Westmorland Pepper bread featured in this recipe is also delicious severed hot with butter and jam, that’s if you have any left! The fig puree recipe is best made in big batches and then allowed to mature. A wee bit of a tip… to get a really smooth consistency you’ll need a powerful blender.
Westmorland Pepper Bread
75g Raisins 75g Currants 100g Caster sugar 75g Butter 225g Self-raising flour A pinch of salt 5g Five spice 5g White pepper 60ml (4 tbsp) fresh milk 1 Egg, beaten
Grease the base of a loaf tin and line with greaseproof paper. Put the fruit, sugar, butter, and 150 ml (1/4 pint) water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, then leave to cool slightly. Put the flour, salt, spices and pepper in a large bowl and gently stir in the fruit mixture, milk and the egg. Mix thoroughly together without beating. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and bake at 180°C (350°F) mark 4 for about 50 minutes or until firm to the touch and golden brown. Turn out and leave to cool on a wire rack.
375g Dried figs
300ml Red wine
30ml Sherry vinegar
Slice up the figs and place in a pan with the other ingredients.
Simmer gently until reduced by half and the figs are tender.
Blend until smooth. Place in a sterilized kilner jar and once cooled keep in the fridge.
To serve four people
4 slices of pepper bread
2 fresh figs sliced into 12
120g Blue Whinnow sliced in to 12
Place a slice of the pepper bread on to a plate, spread the fig puree on the pepper bread.
Layer up the fig and cheese slices as shown in the photo. Finish with a drizzle of the truffle honey.