Traditional types of cheese can be found all over Britain, though some have come close to dying out. Thanks, however, to the revival of interest in quality locally made foodstuffs craft producers are beginning to thrive again. Some farms have been inspired by the food renaissance to venture into production of the local specialties that had died out or been subsumed by industrial food manufacturers. Happily, such is the case with Red Leicester, now being made in the time-honoured fashion by the Clarkes of Sparkenhoe Farm in Upton.
While Upton is some distance from what many would regard as the heartland of Leicestershire cheese - the rich pastures in the Melton Mowbray area - it has similar natural resources, and there is a history of making the cheese on the same farm that dates back to the mid-18th century.
Strictly the cheese should probably be called simply Leicester as all Leicester Cheese is red. It is the second great cheese to originate in the county of Leicestershire, the other being its more famous cousin Stilton . Some believe it was originally made only when demand for Stilton had been met, but as the cheese has such different culinary uses this looks doubtful.
Red Leicester of any sort is made by methods recognizably similar to those found in other areas of Britain producing pressed cheeses. It uses a starter from a previous batch mixed in with fresh milk and the annatto that gives the finished cheese its characteristic orange hue. Annatto is a product of the Americas, and originally beetroot juice, or carrot juice, was used to give the colouring, though why this was done is not clear. Perhaps it was for a touch of added sweetness – the annatto still gives that benefit. Alternatively, perhaps it was an early aid to quality control – poorly mixed Leicester cheese can have a mottled appearance. Maybe it was just ye olde marketing ploy.
The process temperature is raised at various stages during the process from the warmth of the first mixing, the acidity rising with the temperature, rennet added upon the cheese attaining the desired acid level. Salt is added when the curds are milled and moulded, the traditional wheel shape being formed with a hoop, each cheese being enclosed in lightweight cheese-cloths changed regularly while it is pressed for a day or more properly two. The cheese cloth is important too in the maturing process, protecting the crust, though it may be removed a little before the cheese is to be sold to encourage a blue bloom to form.
A Leicester cheese can be eaten at four or five months, but the texture and bite will continue to improve until at least twice that age.
A top quality Red Leicester is far removed from the too easily sliced and innocuously flavoured orange bricks most of us are used to seeing. It will have a bit of crumble or flakiness to the texture, and some acid bite, while retaining a hint of sweetness. Good cheese is a great pleasure, enhanced in the case of Leicester if it is accompanied by a mouthful of bitter – Ruddles from the neighbouring county of Rutland could be a good choice – though any robust red wine would marry well with it too
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