History of Red Leicester
The County of Leicestershire has been an important dairying County for centuries and, as was the norm, cheese was made on most farms as a means of preserving the goodness of milk. Farmers’ wives would make a variety of cheeses – some fresh and some long-keeping - particularly in the Spring and Summer flush of milk production.
Most counties had a cheese of the same name with typically the Southern and South Western Counties having recipes that evolved from Cheddar cheese (e.g. Gloucestershire, Berkswell) and the Northern counties having recipes that evolved from Cheshire cheese (e.g. Lancashire, Wensleydale).
Leicestershire cheese has evolved over many years with similar characteristics to those of hard cheeses made in other parts of England. It is sometimes described as a cross between Cheshire and Cheddar – and certainly as the County sits between the Northern and Southern Counties it is not surprising that Leicestershire’s county cheese bore some resemblance to the two main cheese types produced in England.
However, in order to differentiate itself from these other cheeses, farms in the County, probably as early as the 17th Century, developed the practice of adding vegetable dyes to the milk in order to give the cheese a distinctive red colour. This was done in other parts of England, as originally this colour was associated with the best quality cheese. Such cheese might have been made from a mixture of cream skimmed from the previous day’s milk added to the morning’s milking, with butter sometimes being added to the separated curds. The resultant cheese had a high fat content and the concentration of carotene derived from the cows’ diet of Spring and Summer grass gave the cheese a rich, deep colour; it was this colour that people associated with good quality cheese.
In the 18th century annatto was being routinely used as a colouring agent. The cheese factors, who bought some of the Leicestershire cheese directly from the farms, were often the suppliers of the annatto so ensuring an even, and consistently, coloured cheese.
Leicestershire cheese was thus distinguished from that of its neighbours (e.g. in Staffordshire and Derbyshire) by its rich red russet colour. However, it was also distinguished by its shape and size – typically a large flat wheel of about 45 lbs (20 kgs) being made from a day’s milk of an average sized farm. Smaller cheeses were also made but also in a flat wheel, the size being determined by the amount of milk typically available in a day. The stone presses still visible on some old farms, particularly in the South Western parts of the County, testify to the shape of the cheese that was being pressed. Because of its shape, the cheese was also referred to as Leicestershire Flat or Leicester Flat.
Leicestershire cheese was sometimes made on farms that were also making Stilton cheese. Being a pressed cheese with a longer life, Leicestershire cheese was used to balance the production of Stilton. The marketing of Leicestershire cheese almost certainly followed the same distribution channels as Stilton and this helped to develop its fame and fortune. There are records of cheese from Leicestershire being sent to London in the early 18th Century (1).
A Cheese Fair was held each Michaelmas in the City of Leicester and the volume of business became so great that in 1759 a full time cheese market was built. To ensure that standards of quality and weight were maintained, the town crier used to read the punishments that would befall anyone caught trying to pass off cheese that was not up to the mark(2). The importance of this market almost certainly led to the alternative name for this cheese – Leicester cheese – coming into use, even though there was little if any cheese made in the boundaries of the City of Leicester. Interestingly, other County cheeses – such as Lancashire, Cheshire and Staffordshire – have retained their county names, whilst others such as Derbyshire, Gloucestershire and Leicestershire adopted their respective capital City name – Derby, Gloucester or Leicester.
(1) Val Cheke – “The Story of Cheese Making in Britain” – Routledge & Keegan Paul – London 1959
(2) Patrick Rance – “The Great British Cheese Book” – Macmillan London Limited - 1982