Ned Palmer: A Cheesemonger’s Tour of the British Isles

21 October 2019

Do you love cheese? Then get yourself to one of expert cheesemonger Ned Palmer’s events, where he’ll be discussing the finest cheeses and how they tell our history in a delicious journey across Britain and Ireland.

Revisit beloved old favourites like Cheddar and Wensleydale and meet fresh innovations like the Irish Cashel Blue or the rambunctious Renegade Monk. Along the way we learn the craft and culture of cheesemaking from the eccentric and engaging characters who have revived and reinvented farmhouse and artisan traditions. And we get to know the major cheese styles – the blues, washed rinds, semi-softs and, unique to the British Isles, the territorials – and discover how best to enjoy them, on a cheeseboard with a glass of Riesling, or as a Welsh rarebit alongside a pint of Pale Ale.


1st Nov – Stratford Literature festival
8th Nov – Nantwitch Bookshop
12th Nov – Cambridge Heffers Bookshop 
13th Nov – Chorleywood Bookshop
19th Nov – Richmond Literature festival 
21st Nov – Atkinson-Pryce Books
22nd Nov – Toppings Edinburgh 
6th Dec – Toppings Bath 
7th Dec – Blackwells Oxford 
11th Dec – Red Lion Books, Colchester




Working as a cheesemonger, you get to hear the Monty Python cheese sketch a lot. You know the one: John Cleese attempts to buy cheese and reels off a list of forty-three varieties, only to be cheerfully rebuffed on each request by Michael Palin as Mr Wensleydale the cheesemonger (‘I’m afraid we’re fresh out of Red Leicester, sir’). People often feel moved to perform a bit of it when they enter a cheese shop. Fair enough – some of them do it quite well, and I’m happy to wait. But the curious thing is that, when the sketch was first performed in 1972, it wasn’t far off the mark.

For, back in the Dark Ages of the early 1970s, you would have been hard-pressed to buy a decent piece of British cheese. Of course, there was Stilton for Christmas, and blocks of Cheddar the rest of the year, maybe even some Cheshire or Lancashire. But that was pretty much your lot. British cheese had become virtually extinct, as had the tradition of ‘farmhouse’ dairies. Stilton aside, the cheese of Britain and Ireland was virtually all factory produced – acceptable perhaps for a Welsh rarebit, or as a cube on a cocktail stick poised between a bottled olive and a pineapple chunk. But if you wanted ‘fancy cheese’, for a cheeseboard, it was French or Italian – and even then only half a dozen kinds.

Which makes this book something of a miracle. The British Isles today boasts more than eight hundred named cheeses, from soft cheeses like the fresh and delicate goat’s milk Perroche to full-on, funky washed-rinds like the aptly named Renegade Monk. 8 Introduction Fresh out of Red Leicester Renegade is also a great example of a new current in cheesemaking – as a combination of washed-rind and blue, it’s a modern mash up of two distinct cheese styles. At the same time there has been a revival of some classic farmhouse varieties, which had all but disappeared. Rich, smooth and earthy, Sparkenhoe Red Leicester is a great example of this resurgence of tradition. You can buy these local, artisanal cheeses at farmers’ markets and dedicated cheese shops, and there are decent arrays at any respectable supermarket. Charles de Gaulle famously asked, ‘How can you govern a country that has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?’ Well, we too have become that country.

But how did all this happen? How did we create dozens of regional varieties, in farmhouses across the British Isles? How did the first British cheese get made, for that matter? How was the world of cheesemaking revolutionised in the Middle Ages by the labours of monks? Why did we then allow our cheeses to disappear, in the first half of the twentieth century, and just how did we get them back in its last decades? That is the subject of this book, and, as you read on, I hope to reveal that its title is not as fanciful as it might first appear. You can, in a very real sense, explore the history of the British Isles through the cheeses its people have made, from the arrival of farming in Neolithic times right through to the present.

I have divided the history of the British Isles into ten periods, each of them accompanied by a cheese that characterises the era. Of course, I’m not saying that Stilton is the only cheese that mattered in the eighteenth century, nor that the only way to look at the Industrial Revolution is with a ploughman’s lunch of Cheddar. But the cheese that heads each chapter has something to tell you about that time. I’ll recount the stories of how these cheeses came to be, why they were popular at that time, how they might have tasted or looked, who made them, who ate them, what those people’s lives might have been like, and how they and their cheeses were shaped by the currents of history, religion, war, plague, supermarkets and the Milk Marketing Board.

Along the way, we’ll meet cheeses that have been lost and found, revived, reinvented, industrialised, or returned to farmhouse traditions. I’ll share my own cheesemonger lore and show how to pick a really great example of a particular cheese – and what you might want to consider drinking with it to enhance its flavours. I will also, I hope, explain something of the magic of cheesemaking. How a liquid as bland as milk can be transformed into a rich, savoury and complex food that has graced the tables of the British Isles for thousands of years.

G.K. Chesterton lamented that ‘poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese’, but one at least wasn’t. In November 1935, T.S. Eliot wrote to The Times in response to a letter by John Squire, suggesting that a statue be erected to the inventor of Stilton cheese. While Eliot appreciated Squire’s ‘spirited defence of Stilton’, he thought that putting up a statue was not going far enough. ‘If British cheese is to be brought back from the brink of extinction, a Society for the Preservation of Ancient Cheeses must be formed without delay’, he wrote. Eliot was a big Cheshire fan, prizing a ‘noble Old Cheshire’ against a Stilton any day, but quite rightly he finishes his letter with this stirring call: ‘this is no time for disputes between eaters of English cheese. The situation is too precarious and we must stick together.’ Happily for us, the situation is no longer quite so precarious…

Follow Ned Palmer on Twitter and Instagram @cheesetastingco, and search #ACheesemongersHistoryoftheBritishIsles for cheesy goodness.