The story of English Cheddar is both ancient and brand new, making it a perfect model for the history of food in the British Isles in general.
Cheesemaking in England begins with the invasion of the Romans, whose influence lead to the development of recipes for cheeses now considered English classics: Chesire, Cheddar, Wensleydale. Cheese production remained small-scale and linked to individual farms across England, Ireland, and Scotland until the Industrial Revolution began to reshape every aspect of British life. The advent of factories coincided with the rise of imperialism (and by extension, the transport of goods like milk across the country) and eventually cheese was being made on a much larger scale with milk from dozens of farms.
The gradual move from farmstead to industrial came to a head during the economic crisis that followed World War I. In an effort to guarantee dairy farmers that their milk would be purchased, the Milk Marketing Board was established. While the Board did provide a welcome level of stability to British farmers, it also established a series of standards and regulations for the cheese industry. These new laws made it virtually impossible for traditional cheesemakers to continue their craft and with the onslaught of World War II and subsequent rationing, farmstead cheese production nearly disappeared from the British Isles. Prior to the World Wars, 514 farms were producing their own cheddars; by 1974, just 33 were left.
It was in this context that Jeff and Chris Reade purchased a decrepit farmhouse in 1981 in Sgriob-ruadh (pronounced ski-bruah) on the Scottish Isle of Mull and decided to start making cheese. The Reades were more adventurous members of a growing movement in the British Isles returning the hyper-local, farmstead roots of British food and drink, including beer, baking, and cheese. They turned the ruins into a working farm, complete with a milking parlour, aging cellars, and cheesemaking room.
The Milk Marketing Board was dissolved in 1994 and traditional cheesemaking is on the rise. Isle of Mull cheddar is made through very old processes. Milk goes straight from the milking facility to the cheesemaking room, in order to preserve natural enzymes that help develop flavor later on. The milk is used raw. According to Chris and Jeff’s son Brendan Reade: “We believe pasteurisation to be unnecessarily brutal way of treating milk to be used for the making of Isle of Mull Cheese. Far too many of those organisms, which have the potential to create individualism and maturity of flavour, are indiscriminately sacrificed in the process.” The Reades have adapted some modern developments for the sake of the environment, like powering their facilities by hydroelectric plant and wind turbine.
Isle of Mull tastes the way cheese from the British Isles used to taste, which means it tastes like the land that it comes from. History informs its production, but its producers have been remarkably forward-thinking. It could not exist in any other time or place and we’re grateful that it’s here for now.