In general terms there were 5 kinds of cheese known in medieval England. These were classified in the 16th century by writer Andrew Boorde, but he was speaking of long tradition. There was ‘green’ cheese. This didn’t mean it was literally green, but it was new. It was made from either whole or semi-skimmed milk and was eaten in a fairly fresh state. It was pressed sufficiently to retain its shape but was still moist and probably akin to modern Lancashire and Caerphilly cheeses which ripen with a few weeks.
|Modern Caerphilly cheese|
Then there was soft cheese. One might immediately think of cream cheese, but not so. Soft cheese was again made from either whole or semi skimmed milk and turned out similarly to today’s regional cheeses such as cheddar, Cheshire and Double Gloucester. They were firm and waxy in texture and were called soft because they were in comparison to the next variety which hard cheese.
Hard cheese was the staple cheese of the poor. It was made from skimmed milk and therefore its low fat content meant that it kept well. The downside was that it was very tough and took some chewing. A dialect name for it was ‘whangby’ meaning that it was as tough as leather bootlaces! Not that I’ve had it authenticated, but I’d imagine its texture would be a bit like Parmesan!
A fourth cheese was spermyse, which was a cheese that was made with additions such as herbs and herb juices, and was pretty individual. The only survivor to today in Britain of that tradition is the Sage Derby cheese which has additions of sage which gives the cheese green mottling.
|Modern Sage Derby cheese|
Cheese number 5 was the Rowan cheese, which was produced from animals that had fed on grass that sprang up in the autumn meadows after summer mowing. The milk from this fodder produced a curd which retained moisture and had a particular flavour and texture.
Then of course there was curd cheese made from sour milk which was an overnight thing.
Provenance for the now famous blue cheeses is vague, but they must have formed part of the repertoire. There is a cheese of long provenance known as ‘Blue Vinny’ and the word ‘Vinny’ is suggested to come from an Anglo Saxon word meaning to go mouldy, so perhaps one can add blue cheese to the mainstream repertoire.
Of course with regional and local variations there were hundreds of cheeses available, but the above are the main types rather than the individual.
Wallace and Grommit would have needed a truckload of crackers!