Historically, Suffolk cheese doesn’t have a good reputation. The most infamous was Suffolk Bang, which was so hard it was reputedly stored hanging from the kitchen ceiling, so it could be swung over the fire to soften it enough to cut.
The Royal Navy used to issue rations of Suffolk cheese aboard its ships, but the sailors complained so much that it was dumped (possibly overboard) in the mid-18th century in favour of more edible rivals.
Or perhaps they used it as ballast. I am obliged to The Foods of England for a quote from The Hampshire Chronicle, dated 1825: “As characteristic of Suffolk cheese, it is said that a vessel once laden, one half with grindstones and the other half with the above commodity, on arriving at its destination it was found that the rats had consumed all the grindstones, but left the cheeses untouched.”
Happily, times have changed. A new breed of Suffolk cheese makers is redeeming the county’s reputation and we now have some superlative cheeses to grace our Christmas tables. Skip to the recipe if you’d just like to make the rosemary and walnut oatcakes, otherwise feast your eyes on these …
Expert advice on creating a cheese board suggests a mix of at least three: hard, soft and blue. You can expand that to include, for example, something crumbly, a washed rind cheese, and a goat’s cheese. Happily, Suffolk can provide all of these. In no particular order …
Dulcie and Jonny Crickmore of Fen Farm Dairy make the delicious Brie-style raw milk cheese Baron Bigod, which has won a rake of prizes and is a big favourite in the Portly household. I like it when it has ripened to the point where it’s nearly running out of the door.
Also made at Fen Farm, using milk from the Crickmore’s Montbeliardes, are Julie Cheyney’s award-winning St Jude and St Cera. Julie was one of the co-creators of the well-known Tunworth cheese, so she knows her curds from her whey.
St Jude is a soft, creamy cheese made in the St Marcellin mould and justly popular. I love its delicacy. St Cera is a washed rind cheese but is less alarmingly pungent than some. Julie describes its flavour as almost meaty, like ham or bacon. St Cera can only be bought through Neal’s Yard Dairy, which currently takes it through to maturation, though Julie hopes to be ripening it back in Suffolk from next year. St Jude is more widely available … ask your cheesemonger.
Susan Richards of Rodwell Farm Dairy at Baylham makes two well-regarded hard cheeses using unpasteurised milk from the family’s herd of dairy cows. Shipcord is available smoked or unsmoked. The extra mature, aged for 12 months, is a good alternative to an aged Cheddar. Hawkston, loosely based on what are known as ‘crumbly territorials’, can replace Cheshire or Caerphilly. It manages to be both sharp and creamy and is another Mrs P favourite.
Katherine and Jason Salisbury make fabulously rich cheeses from their herd of Guernseys at Suffolk Farmhouse Cheeses: Suffolk Gold, creamy and semi-hard, and the luxurious lightly veined Suffolk Blue.
They contrast very well with a harder, grainier cheese. Look at the colour on this …
And finally, a couple of good goat’s cheeses. The Suffolk Goat’s Cheese Company was set up fairly recently by Karen and Larry Martin, using the milk from their Toggenburg dairy goats (and vegetarian rennet). They currently have two cheeses on offer, with more in the pipeline.
Laxfield Choice is a semi-hard lightly pressed cheese, while Little Drum is semi-soft and mould-ripened, ready to eat fresh at two weeks or at up to four weeks for a fuller flavour. I like both and look forward to trying their extended range once it has passed the regulatory hurdles.
Meanwhile the entertaining and knowledgeable Vivia Bamford, forager and historic Suffolk cheese expert, has been trying to recreate the notorious Bang. I think her last experiment was called Thump and I don’t think she’ll mind if I say she met with, um, limited success.
I’m watching this project with interest and some trepidation. Good luck, Vivia, if all else fails we can try to sell it to the navy.
Rosemary and Walnut Oatcakes
This sounds like quite a lot of rosemary but the flavour is actually quite subtle. Do bear in mind yours might be stronger in flavour than mine, though, and proceed with caution. You can omit the herbs and nuts, if you prefer, to make a plain biscuit.
225g oatmeal (porridge oats are fine)
1/2 tspn salt
1 tspn baking powder
5 level tspn very finely chopped fresh (NOT dried) rosemary
25g finely chopped walnuts
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.
Put the oatmeal in a bowl and sieve in the flour, salt and baking powder. Add the chopped rosemary and nuts and rub in the butter. Add just enough cold water to mix to a stiff but workable dough.
Sprinkle more oats on a board and roll the dough out to 4mm thickness. Cut out circles with a cookie cutter or glass, place on a baking sheet and cook in the pre-heated oven for 25 minutes. They shouldn’t brown, but be buff coloured.
Remove to a wire rack to cool completely before storing in an airtight tin.