A very concise history of British cheese
Today, Britain’s cheese industry is worth £4 billion, a big business that is only possible thanks to the hard work of Britain’s cheesemakers and mongers. The industrialisation of cheesemaking – driven in large part by the supermarkets’ (who needed cheap produce and uniform product) – put the survival of some of Britain’s famous territorial cheeses in jeopardy. Thankfully, there are a small number of independent, artisan cheesemongers in the UK whose priority is to support and improve the British cheese industry.
Traditional cheesemaking is hard work, and is a job for early risers: it starts with milking the cows very often as early as 3am. Milk is then brought into a milking parlour where it is gently heated (for raw milk cheeses, to no warmer than 40ºc), and then rennet (and sometimes starter culture) is added to turn it into curds and whey. The curds then get pressed, and folded, (maybe ‘cheddared’) and the rest of the recipe is followed in which curds are cut and layered, salted, and moulded to create all of the many incredible British cheeses we know and love today. Many of these are known as ‘Territorials’: Cheddar, Lancashire, Wensleydale, Cheshire, Caerphilly, Stilton and so on.
More recently, Britain’s cheesemakers have been experimenting with more continental style cheeses, such as Suffolk’s Baron Bigod, made in a Brie style, and Hampshire’s Tunworth (a Camembert style cheese). Whichever style they choose, all the cheesemongers in our list of Britain’s best cheese shops prioritise selection, maturation and provenance over uniformity, and this results in the most delicious tasting cheese, and the most unique experience for the visitor.
Why does the milk matter?
The best cheese is made from the best milk, which comes from healthy animals, eating grass on soil that is properly looked after. Cheese is mostly made of milk, after all. When milk gets pasteurised, all germs are killed, but with that, milk is stripped of beneficial natural flora, and also of flavour.
It follows that pasteurised cheese will never carry the complexity of flavour of raw milk cheeses, which might nod to the kind of grass a cow or goat was eating or what time of year the cheese was made. We recommend looking out for these raw milk cheeses and seeing what they have to offer on your next cheese shop visit. However, there are many very good pasteurised cheeses made in the UK and abroad, and you can also find them at the below outlets. Finally, use your monger’s knowledge! The below cheese shops are run by people who know a LOT about cheese, so don’t be shy to tell them what you’re looking for. They will be more than happy to help you find the right cheese for you.
Britain’s best cheesemongers
Chorlton Cheesemongers, Manchester
Chorlton Cheesemongers is Manchester’s own specialist cheese shop. Owners Chris and Dan, along with cheesemaking royalty Graham Kirkham (of Kirkham’s Lancashire fame) set up the shop in 2019. Their primary criteria for cheese selection is single source milk (meaning cheese produced from milk from a single herd of cows, sheep or goats) which helps to guarantee quality, gives traceability and encourages the best animal husbandry from cheesemakers. Visit Chorlton Cheesemongers for seasonal cheese, beers, juices, baked goods, and more.
The Courtyard Dairy, Settle, North Yorkshire
You won’t find a more rural cheese shop than the Courtyard Dairy near Settle. Voted Cheesemonger of the Year at both the World Cheese Awards and the Farm Shop and Deli awards, Courtyard Dairy is owned and operated by Andy and Kathy Swinscoe. In 2017 the shop took up the premises they are in today, where it is annexed by a museum telling the history and story of farmhouse cheese, and a café serving cheesy dishes, cakes and hot drinks. Each cheese has been personally selected, aged an is cut freshly from it wheel, each-day, so you can be sure that you are in for a real treat with a visit to this Yorkshire cheeseshop.
Neal’s Yard Dairy, London
Opened in 1979, Neal’s Yard Dairy have been supporting British farmhouse cheese makers for over 40 years. Owner Randolph Hodgson’s encouragement of traditional cheesemaking in Britain has lead to the production of many cheeses, and the saviour of others, and his legacy continues on with the company continuing to mentor and help new cheesemakers (in recent years Baron Bigod, Sparkenhoe Blue and Pevensey Blue are some of the cheeses Neal’s Yard Dairy have had a hand in getting off the ground). Neal’s Yard Dairy specially selects theirs wheels of cheese on monthly visits to the cheesemakers, and with three shops in London in Covent Garden (the original shop), Borough Market and now Islington, this is a must-visit location for any lover of good cheese.
Mellis Cheesemongers, Scotland
Mellis Cheesemongers have been trading for over 27 years, and have 3 shops across Scotland, in Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews. With a broad selection of cheese from Britain but also France, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, Mellis also work with local Scottish suppliers to offer the best artisan Scottish cheese, oatcakes and preserves. Cheeses are matured by Mellis’ trained affineurs in their Edinburgh Maturing Rooms, enabling them to supply cheeses exactly when they are ready to be eaten.
Magdelen Cheese, Exeter
Opened in 2021, an offspring of Neal’s Yard Dairy former mongers and maturers Jacob and Rachel, Magdalen Cheese in Exeter sell British, Irish and French cheeses which they look after to exacting standards. You’ll also find eggs, accompaniments, Pump St chocolate, baked goods and booze on the shelves. Stop in to find out what’s tasting good on the counter!
The Fine Cheese Company, Bath, Somerset
Founded by Ann-Marie Dyas, a judge at both the British and World Cheese Awards, like Randolph Hodgson and Iain Mellis, Ann-Marie was committed to the survival of traditional British cheesemaking. The Fine Cheese Co. is a maturer, wholesaler, retailer and exporter of artisan British cheeses, but the shop also sells an impressive array of French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch cheeses. Look out for the Fine Cheese Company’s own range of products including crackers and chutneys.
Jericho Cheese Company, Oxford
With two shops in Oxford, on Little Clarendon and Ship streets, Jericho Cheese Company has an emphasis on British farmhouse cheeses, and is another business set up by a former Neal’s Yard Dairy monger, Adam Verlander. Look out for local Gloucestershire cheeses Rollright and Ashcombe (a Morbier style cheese) made by King Stone Dairy, and the cured meats and pickles are worth seeking out too.
Paxton & Whitfield, London
Paxton & Whitfield has been in business since the 1700s, and the company’s reputation as purveyors of fine cheese saw them appointed cheesemonger to Queen Victoria. Because everyone needs their own personal cheesemonger… Jokes aside, Paxton & Whitfield have been sourcing and maturing cheeses for 225 years, it stands to reason that they know a bit about what they do! The flagship shop in Jermyn Street will not disappoint: go to them for exceptional British and European cheeses, from Mimolette to Ogleshiled (the UK’s answer to Raclette), and everything in between. If you can’t get to London, you can now order the range on Ocado too.