What we call “Red Leicester” cheese today was formerly known as “Leicestershire Cheese” – named like so many of our traditional cheeses after the County from which it originated. The cheese can be traced back to 17th century and the style of cheese was much influenced by cheesemaking practices in other parts of England – notably the South West and the North West. Farmers recognised the need to make their cheeses look and if possible taste different from cheese made in other parts of the country and the convention of colouring cheese with annatto – a vegetable dye derived from the husk of the fruit of the annatto tree found in South America and the Caribbean – spread from Gloucester and Cheshire to Leicestershire. Leicestershire appears to have been a much deeper colour than either Cheshire of Gloucester and was traditionally made in the shape of a flat wheel – the size of which depended on how much milk the farm might have had during the cheesemaking season.
Cheese with a rich orange hue was much valued as it signified a high quality cheese – notably a Double Gloucester – made from rich creamy milk. Often farms would take the morning’s milk and add to it the cream from the previous evening’s milk. Milk produced by cows grazing on rich grass pastures would naturally have a high carotene content which gave it an orange hue. The cheesemaking process would have concentrated that colour. Other regions of the country then started to colour their milk to mimic Gloucestershire cheese and Leicestershire was routinely coloured.
Most of the cheese was traded in the county town of Leicester and so important did this become that a cheese market was established in the City in 1759 and rules and regulations put in place to determine quality. Henceforth the cheese became to be known as Leicester Cheese.
Leicester Cheese was a highly rated owing to the fine grazing conditions available in the County and although cheese was sent to other parts of the country – notably London – most was consumed in the county. Cheesemaking declined in the 20th century as demand for liquid milk grew and in the second world war production of all speciality cheese ceased and the addition of colouring agents was banned. This enabled all cheese to be made to a national recipe to suit the rationing system that was put into place. This was a white Cheddar style cheese which locals often referred to as "White Leicester" cheese. With the ending of wartime controls in the 1950s, production of Leicester cheese – made with Annatto - resumed and to avoid confusion with what was considered to be the inferior White Leicester, was commonly referred to as Red Leicester cheese.
Production of the cheese shifted to other parts of the UK as cheesemaking on farms all but disappeared in the County. Tuxford & Tebbutt in Melton Mowbray continued to make a traditional flat wheel Red Leicester until the early 1990s whilst most of the Red Leicester made outside of the County was made in larger creameries in a block form.
Traditional making of flat wheeled Leicestershire cheese resumed on a small farm – Sparkenhoe - in 2002 and has since been followed by Long Clawson Dairy and Quenby Hall – both Stilton makers. Long Clawson Dairy also made a Blue Leicestershire cheese on an experimental basis.
Flavours and Texture
Red Leicester is a russet red hard pressed cheese which will be sold at anything from 3 months to 12 months of age. The traditionally made wheels tend to be firmer and drier but have a friable texture and a slightly sweet mellow flavour that becomes stronger as the cheese matures. The block made cheeses are moister and are ideal for slicing and have a slightly sweet aftertaste and a creamy texture.
Red Leicester is a versatile cheese and is essentially a Cheddar alternative. It melts beautifully, adds colour to a cheeseboard and to sauces and makes a nice flavoursome addition to salads either grated or cubed. Farmhouse Red Leicester tends to have more complex flavours and is generally kept longer than many of the block versions made in larger dairies. But as ever, there is a price difference between the two types of cheese reflecting the higher costs of making a traditional cheese.