Breed enthusiasts are sometimes their own worst enemies. Even at the level of livestock farming, it is possible to see how Christopher Guest’s film Best in Show was drawn from life. Rosettes at competitions are all well and good, but they ignore the harsh reality: rare breeds have been pushed to the brink of extinction as a result of economic systems that favour extreme unitaskers. Today most cheese is made with the milk of higher-yielding Friesian-Holsteins.
But thankfully the world is changing. We have called our new book on cheese, Reinventing the Wheel, because we are at a moment where cutting edge research in multiple different disciplines, from microbiology to herbivore nutrition, is revalorising old techniques and demonstrating the value of historic practice.
Our story is one of optimism. The more scientists research the link between grazing of marginal, biodiverse land – be it high Alpine pastures or the rugged moorland of the UK – and the flavour of cheese, the more these old-fashioned animals look like the breeds of the future. More likely to be small, hardy, and long-lived, they can thrive in places where a modern industrial cow would wilt and starve. See below for five delicious rare breed cheeses that are well worth seeking out.
Colwick – Alan and Jane Hewson make this fresh, young cheese with the milk of their 50 Red Poll cattle on the Vale of Belvoir in Nottinghamshire. Red Polls are descended from two now-extinct East Anglian breeds, the Norfolk Red and the Suffolk Dun, and they are hardy beasts: the Hewsons’ cows often milk well into their teens. Available from the fridge outside the Dairy next to the milk vending machine at Crossroads Farm, Eastwell, LE14 4EF, as well as a number of local shops and restaurants. Find out more here.
Single Gloucester – Charles Martell of Laurel Farm and Jonathan Crump of Standish Park Farm both make this greyish-rinded, milky-tasting British classic in its eponymous county using the milk of their Gloucester cows. Gloucesters are striking, with dark coats and distinctive white stripes that run down their backs and under their bellies. In 1972, only one herd remained, but conservation efforts are working: there over 700 registered females today. Available here when in season.
Cloonconra Cheese – Jim Gannon milks a small herd of Irish Moiled cattle in County Roscommon and makes a small range of raw-milk, semi-soft cheeses. The naturally-hornless, brown-and-white speckled breed, once widespread in Ireland, had dwindled to only 30 surviving cows and two bulls in the mid-1970s. The breed is also suited for conservation grazing, promoting plant biodiversity in wet and marshy grasslands. Available from farmers’ markets and slow food festivals in County Roscommon, Ireland, and the vicinity
Modenese White Cow Parmigiano-Reggiano – 70 years ago, the ‘Bianca Modenese’ breed dominated the province of Modena in northern Italy, but numbers dropped as they were traded out for higher-yielding breeds such as the Holstein. By the year 2000, only 300 cows remained, but the breed has been experiencing a rebound with the help of a Slow Food Presidium and attempts to commercialise Parmigiano-Reggiano made exclusively with the milk of the breed. Available to buy here.
Stonebeck Wensleydale – Andrew and Sally Hattan are reviving production of a true farmhouse Yorkshire Wensleydale on their remote farm in Nidderdale, milking Original Population Northern Dairy Shorthorns. Once the standard smallholder cow of the Yorkshire Dales, today only 150 females are left in the world, making it the only critically endangered breed used for cheesemaking in the UK. The Hattans aim to milk 15 cows seasonally, while grazing them in such a way as to promote the biodiversity of their upland hay meadows, which are almost as endangered as their cows. It will be available to buy from Neal’s Yard Dairy in spring/summer 2018