In terms of quality, the style of a cheese, for instance Cheddar, Cheshire or Red Leicester, often doesn’t mean much in the UK. In most cases the names for the territorial styles have been appropriated by large companies producing commercial bulk cheese. So, when Jo and David Clarke settled on calling their Sparkenhoe cheese a Red Leicester, it was with some trepidation. No unpasteurised farmhouse Red Leicester had been made since 1956, and for the cheese lover the name only conjured thought of pseudo-cheddar with a fake tan.
As with many producers, low milk prices set the pair searching for alternative ways to make money from their farm. Yoghurt, milkshakes and even selling their third-generation dairy farm and herd of award-winning pedigree Holstein Friesians were all on the table, but it was an encounter with a friend who reminisced about pre-war Red Leicester that sent them on a cheesemaking course at Reaseheath in Nantwich. The couple dug out a recipe used on their Sparkenhoe Farm between 1745 and 1875 and set about re-creating the classic. To be successful they realised they would need to put as much distance as possible between their cheese and the ubiquitous orange blocks lining supermarket shelves, and it would demand no compromise.
Sparkenhoe Red Leicester is made from raw milk and traditionally crafted by a passionate and knowledgeable team who are hands-on from milking to maturation. Annatto (the orange colouring derived from the seeds of the achiote tree) is first added to the milk. The rennet follows and then the curd cut to grain-sized pieces, whey drained, and curd again cut into blocks and stacked. The blocks are then milled, salted, moulded and then pressed for 24 hours before being cloth-bound. The process, known as cheddaring, the same used for making traditional cheddar, might just as well be termed Red Leicestering as it is also native to this style. 2005 saw their first cheeses launched on the market, and the reviews and accolades that followed quickly reassured them the choice of name was justified.
Leicestershire Handmade Cheeses has added other creations to their offering, one of these the brainchild of Jo and David’s son and fourth generation at the farm, William. Sparkenhoe Blue is similar in style to Stilton but unpasteurised and therefore unable to use the name despite being in one of the permitted counties. Blue Leicester might appropriately be a term that one day encapsulates the resurrected style. Then again, what’s in a name?