The late Mary Holbrook, a white-haired maestro in the British cheesemaking world, was known for her soft cheeses and her sharp temper. Once a week, she made the trip from Sleight Farm, her home in the southwest of England, to London to check on her wares as they ripened in the maturation rooms of an upscale cheese shop. Holbrook’s apprentices, hardened to her singular style of mentorship, knew to brace themselves for reprimands when she returned. Occasionally, though, Holbrook would come back with bags of treats—yogurt, mangoes, sweets—which she spilled across the kitchen table of her cold mid-nineteenth-century farmhouse on the crest of a hill, and they knew that the cheese must be tasting good, and that Mary’s little world was in order.
Before turning to cheesemaking, in the nineteen-seventies, Holbrook had been an archeologist. Some forty years into her second career, she still had a way of getting history to rise to the surface. Sleight Farm was littered with relics, pieces of rusting machinery scattered across the rolling fields. “If they broke,” Julianna Sedli, who worked with Holbrook for a little over three and a half years, said, “they broke forever.” In one shabby outbuilding, alongside vats of oil and parts of a tractor, craggy wheels of hard Old Ford cheese aged in the cool, damp shade. In a room along a little track, French influences converged with old English traditions of goat’s- and sheep’s-milk cheesemaking. There, Holbrook made Tymsboro, an ash-rubbed pyramid of soft cheese, with bright, peppery notes. Her semi-soft washed-rind Cardo cheese, meanwhile, borrowed from Portuguese tradition, using a vegetarian rennet made from thistle stamens.
As Holbrook’s renown spread—as well as gaining acclaim for her cheeses, she made her name by supplying pork to some of London’s most famous restaurants—aspiring cheesemakers made pilgrimages to the farm, keen to learn from the woman who had built a reputation as one of Britain’s finest. Some journeyed down for only a week or two; others stayed for years. In 2004, Martin Gott and his partner Nicola Robinson moved to Sleight Farm from their jobs in Lancashire, in the northwest of England. They bought a flock of sheep and rented some grazing land and barn space from Holbrook, developing their own washed-rind sheep’s cheese—St. James—in snatched moments when they weren’t farming and cheesemaking for Holbrook. Their vision didn’t always align with Holbrook’s: Gott recalls that, much of the time, he was left to make his own mistakes, with his mentor only chiming in to express disappointment or dissent. But there were bright moments, too. In the evening, they would leaf through cheese-industry catalogues, laughing about the incredible strangeness of being able to buy starter cultures—packages of concentrated bacteria designed to help the milk sour safely and with the right flavor—with futuristic names like G017-B.
“I wouldn’t say that Mary taught us a huge amount of practical cheesemaking,” Gott said. “But she put us in a position where we could learn.” If the work of an archeologist is to let objects tell their own story, Mary carried this philosophy forward in her cheesemaking, too: smelling, tasting, observing, and touching the cheese as it was made and aged, letting it speak for itself.
Holbrook died in February, 2019, at the age of eighty, following a short illness. She left behind no children, and her cousin’s daughter, Catherine Ochiltree, was unable to continue the difficult work of farming and cheesemaking in her absence. Ochiltree and her partner were travelling nearly a hundred and fifty miles from their home in Kent to the farm on weekends, in addition to working full-time jobs. “We just didn’t have that resilience,” Ochiltree said. “We were running on a very skeleton staff. I took the decision that we needed to bow out, so we started to dry the goats off and started to sell the herd.”
By July of that year, the farm ceased production, and Holbrook’s cheeses—Old Ford, Cardo, Sleightlett, and Tymsboro—slipped out of the living tradition and into the pages of history. A cheese is just one small piece of the world—one lump of microbe-riddled milk curds—but each is an endpoint of centuries of tradition. Some disappear for months or years; others never return. The cheesemonger and writer Ned Palmer told me that, when a cheese is lost, “Your grief reaches back into the past—into decades and centuries and millennia of culture. You feel all of that.”
When you talk with cheese aficionados, it doesn’t usually take long for the conversation to veer this way: away from curds, whey, and mold, and toward matters of life and death. With the zeal of nineteenth-century naturalists, they discuss great lineages and endangered species, painstakingly cataloguing those cheeses that are thriving and those that are lost to history. In his classic “The Great British Cheese Book,” from 1982, Major Patrick Rance—a monocled founding father of modern British cheese—intersperses his tales of surviving regional cheeses with obituaries for those that never made it so far, going as far as to describe their disappearance as extinction. Under “Extinct cheeses of the Midlands and East Anglia,” Rance pays his respects to a lost Newmarket cheese, “a 40lb marigold-coloured cheese,” pressed under cloth and rubbed with salt and cream, the recipe for which was unearthed in a 1774 housekeeping manual.
There are countless ways for a cheese to disappear. Some, like Holbrook’s, die with their makers. Others fall out of favor because they’re simply not good: one extinct Suffolk cheese, “stony-hard” because it was made only with skimmed milk, was so notoriously bad that, in 1825, the Hampshire Chronicle reported that one ship’s cargo of grindstones was eaten by rats while the neighboring haul of Suffolk cheese escaped untouched. As Palmer has outlined in his book, “A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles,” the fate of a cheese is often entangled with economic and political circumstances, as well as the failings of its makers. During the Second World War, much milk was redirected away from cheese production and toward drinking. The small amount of cheese that was permitted to be made was strictly regulated, with only a small roster of cheeses—mostly hard cow’s-milk cheeses similar to Cheddar—approved for production. Soft and blue cheeses, which tended to contain higher moisture levels than those permitted in ration cheese, and which were less durable, didn’t make the cut. Within two decades, the number of farmhouse cheesemakers had plummeted from more than a thousand to less than two hundred.
Even if a cheese can be rescued, the act of bringing it back to life can be fraught. In 2004, when the founder of the artisanal-cheese retailer Neal’s Yard Dairy, Randolph Hodgson, and the cheesemaker Joe Schneider decided to make a raw-milk version of Stilton, the process was like trying to resurrect the dinosaurs using only a sketch of a Tyrannosaurus rex on the back of a napkin for reference. Although Stilton is celebrated as a jewel among British cheeses, a raw-milk version hadn’t been made since the late nineteen-eighties, when a health scare led the final few creameries making it to switch to pasteurized milk. To find a path toward an authentic Stilton taste and texture—the way it had been made for more than two hundred years—Schneider had to rely on the “taste memory” of people who had last eaten the cheese a decade earlier. “I felt like a blind man trying to navigate my way, while these guys shouted orders at me to move a little bit left or a little bit right,” he said. He found images in old books of wheels of Stilton stacked high at market: these scraps of information gave him vital clues about the size, moisture, and structure of the traditional version. “You could never do that with a modern Stilton,” Schneider said. “It would crush—it’s too broken down and soft.”
Matters were complicated further by the very P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin) status that is supposed to protect traditional Stilton-making. With existing producers having switched to pasteurized-milk production in the nineteen-nineties, pasteurization became a protected trait for all Stilton cheeses, leaving Schneider and Hodgson’s cheese—made by the same methods, in the same place, and with the same microbial cultures as Stilton had been for centuries—unable to use that name. Not deterred, however, they leapfrogged back through history and secured the name Stichelton—which is, according to Schneider, the Old English name for the town of Stilton—for their cheese. Because it wasn’t Stilton, the cheese was more itself than ever.
These existential wranglings are familiar to Harry G. West, an anthropologist who has spent much of his academic life interrogating the way cheese is shaped by tradition, technology, and legislation. In Stichelton cheese, Schneider and Hodgson re-created the unpasteurized Stilton piece by piece, accounting for biological and environmental factors, in order to revive an old cheese in a new time. But West said that overly exacting approaches can be beside the point. “I think the question isn’t ‘Is it the same?’ but ‘Is it connected?’ ” he said. “And I think those connections can be made in so many different ways.”
For some cheesemakers, like Schneider, the quest to save a cheese will bear down on the minutiae of environmental terroir: the land, the biodiversity of the grazing pastures, and the microbial communities present in the raw milk. For others, continuity has a more human dimension, drawing a link between past and present through family lineage: the Lancashire cheese produced by the Kirkham family, for example, is widely considered to be the last remaining raw-milk farmhouse Lancashire in production. Regardless of titles and official designations, cheeses will always reflect the people who make them. (Gott, who remembers Holbrook’s obsessive attention to detail—sourcing starter cultures from the Loire Valley, in France, and thistle stamens from Portugal—likes to say, “If you want to change a cheese, change the cheesemaker.”) But the human factors also extend further afield, to the hands that will package the cheese, the money that will purchase it, the shelves it will fill, and the mouths it will feed. Stilton cheese is a case in point: as West points out, Stilton was named not after the place that it was first made, but the town where it was first marketed and sold. In fact, Stilton cannot legally be made in the town of Stilton, which sits outside of the geographical area specified in the cheese’s P.D.O. What irony, that a cheese now defined by where it comes from was initially defined by where it went to—brought to life not in the farmhouse or the dairy but in the marketplace.
Such conversations have taken on particular resonance today, as the coronavirus reshapes the ways we shop, dine, and cook. The food writer Jenny Linford was among the first to document the challenges faced by cheesemakers when the pandemic struck, with some makers seeing restaurant and wholesale orders dry up virtually overnight, and others having to put production on hold for now—and maybe even forever. “We need to put our arms around our cheese world and understand how precious it is,” Linford told me.
There have already been casualties of the crisis. Innes Cheese, based at Highfields Farm Dairy, in Staffordshire, has been a site of goat’s-milk cheesemaking since 1987. Their signature cheese, Innes Log, with its grassy, sometimes nutty flavor and fudgelike texture, was singled out by Neal’s Yard Dairy as an alternative to Holbrook’s Tymsboro, after she had died. Their Highfields cheese—crumbly, Caerphilly-inspired—was billed as a successor to Holbrook’s Old Ford. Before the pandemic hit, Joe Bennett and his partner, Amiee Lawn, the joint owners of Innes Cheese, found themselves on the brink of investing a lot of money in a new milking parlor and improved facilities at the farm. “We were talking to the bank, and literally the next day everything stopped,” Bennett said.
When the lockdown started and restaurants—Innes Cheese’s principal buyers—were shuttered, the dairy’s plans were upended. “For three weeks, we had virtually no sales at all,” Bennett said. “It just all stopped pretty much overnight.” With one young child and a second on the way, Bennett and Lawn felt they had no choice but to stop cheesemaking and sell their herd of goats. On June 15th, the pair drove down to London with the last of their cheeses. Soon, the last of them will have been sold and eaten, and a thread of tradition after thirty-three years in the goat-cheese business will be lost.
Last month, Bennett and Lawn’s flock of three hundred goats were driven over a hundred and fifty miles north to a new home at Holker Farm, in Cumbria, where Gott and Robinson have lived and made cheese since their year-long apprenticeship with Holbrook. They had been considering making their own goat’s-milk cheese since Holbrook died, so when they got a call from Bennett to let them know that he and Lawn would be bowing out of the business, they took it as a sign. Within a week, the first Holker Farm kids were born. With the population of their farm having more than doubled, Gott and Robinson are busier than ever. The traditional dry stone walls that crisscross the farm have to be safeguarded. (“To the goats,” Gott noted, “they’re like climbing frames!”) Fences and hedges need to be checked and checked again in order to goat-proof the paddocks. But there’s excitement, too. The goats are mostly British Saanen crossed with Golden Guernsey, which means that they yield smaller quantities of richer milk—perfect for making cheese.
Gott and Robinson have started by making a hard goat’s-milk cheese. Like their Crookwheel sheep’s-milk cheese, which they rushed into production after the start of lockdown, in March, this new offering will be a firm, reasonably dry cheese: less labor-intensive to produce and durable enough to weather uncertain market conditions over the coming weeks and months. With Innes Cheese’s goats, transplanted to the rolling Cumbrian countryside, and using cheesemaking techniques that they learned at Sleight Farm, in Somerset, Gott and Robinson are making something entirely new from old parts. They have called the cheese Holbrook.