Orange cheese has a bad rap right now. But not all orange cheese is created equal.
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, orange cheese came about in order to stop customers from exclusively choosing summer-milk cheeses over winter-milk cheeses. Since winter milk tends to be lighter in color and more subdued in flavor, and summer milk is brighter and more flavorful, a side-by-side comparison by customers-in-the-know left winter milk cheeses to rot on the shelf.
Of course, American industrial producers of cheese and cheese-like products have taken orange cheese a bit too far, and the color has become synonymous with processed slabs of rubber that only look like cheese, and aren’t even technically classified as cheese.
There’s gross, fake “cheese” that comes in a radioactive orange color, and then there’s delightful, artisanal orange cheese that has a long-standing tradition of deriving its color from the seeds of the South American achiote tree. Annatto may be employed in both types of cheeses, but it is only used to bolster the imposter that is the former.
English cheeses, especially, have an old history with annatto, dating back to early colonial trade in the new world. Gloucester, Red Leicester, Cheshire—all old English cheeses that employ the orange colorant.
And then there’s Shropshire.
Now, that in itself is enough to please any Denver Broncos football fan (like this girl!). But the colors aren’t the most interesting facet of this gem of a cheese.
Named for the English county Shropshire—in what is considered the English Midlands, on the border with Wales—this cheese has a slightly confusing history. The cheese we call Shropshire was actually first made in Inverness, Scotland, in 1970.
The creator of this new cheese had studied Stilton-making in Nottinghamshire, England, a hot-bed of Stilton production, and hoped to put his skills to good use at his Castle Stuart Dairy. This Shropshire was originally called Inverness-shire Blue, or Blue Stuart, after the location where it was made. Castle Stuart Dairy went out of business in 1980, and the cheese was about to be lost to us all.
At around the same time as Andy Williamson was coming up with Inverness-shire Blue in Scotland, a woman named Jill Hutchinson-Smith was making Blue Cheshire in Shropshire, England. Blue Cheshire is still called that, but Inverness-shire Blue/Blue Stuart is now called Shropshire after the place where Blue Cheshire is made.
What? (I know, right?)
Well, after the Scottish Shropshire looked like it was about to die out, the heavy-hitters of the Stilton industry took up the cheese that had hoped to carry on their legacy in the north. Long Clawson, Leicestershire, Cropwell Bishop, and Colston-Bassett all started to make their own Shropshires.
So a cheese that was created in Scotland, based on a cheesemaker’s training in Nottinghamshire, returned to Nottinghamshire to be made by the people who trained its creator. What comes around, goes around, right?
Shropshire is made with pretty much the same recipe as Stilton, but with the addition of annatto for its bright orange color. Steven Jenkins makes the distinction that Blue Cheshire is “more muted” in color than Shropshire (Cheese Primer, 311).
Unlike Stilton, Shropshire is more creamy than crumbly. It is salty, sharp, and not quite as earthy as Stilton. It goes well with bold red wines, dessert wines, and English-style beers.
Shropshire is another cheese I like to eat by itself, but goes just as easily with salami, fig jam, cherry preserves, and bread or crackers as the next blue. Taking a bite of the cheese, especially when it is the first morsel to come from a fresh wheel, is a luscious, tongue-pleasing experience.
Shropshire is everything Stilton promises, only with a weirder history and a more striking appearance. It is also a better choice for people who believe Stilton to be “too strong” a blue.