..Barry Napier..

England's House of Cheese

Tetbury was built around a crossroads, with a magnificent market hall on stout barrel-columns as its central feature. The major historical sights radiate from this central hall, along its four old roads.

Historic Tetbury is what all ancient villages were like, a happy weave of small businesses and housing. These keep the fabric of a village alive - once the businesses go, the fabric deteriorates and the village dies.

One business in Tetbury determined to keep tradition alive is the local award-winning "House of Cheese" shop, owned and run by Jenny and Philip Grant. As suppliers to Charles, Prince of Wales, their shop is entitled to display the Royal assent coat-of-arms.

The couple moved to Tetbury in 1982 to escape the frantic pace of London. They both worked for a music publisher but wanted something with a gentler life; their own cheese shop with the emphasis on quality fitted the bill, so they started to play another tune. Today, their shop is supplemented by internet sales (sorry - within the UK only). They get 3 million hits a year. Not bad for a shop the size of a small lounge!

As they soon discovered, changing location doesn't necessarily mean working fewer hours! They work even harder now - but at least they live above the shop in an ancient English village.

Opposite is a craft shop specialising in making cupboards. Up a bit on the same side is the local bookshop, which also has a Royal assent coat-of-arms on the wall. Right opposite is the old market hall, still used most days for local-produce markets. The location is wistfully superb.

Husband Philip was on his rounds, visiting local farms. So, Jenny kept me company with evocative stories and factual information that only a specialist cheese supplier can offer.

The shop is extremely small, but if that's good enough for Royalty, it's good enough for me! I asked if they still sold the beautifully named "Stinking Bishop." No, they don't. An animated film put paid to its attraction...

Wallace & Gromit's "Curse of the Were Rabbit" made the smelly cheese popular and sales started to climb. The name comes from a type of Gloucester pear that makes the perry used to wash the cheese rind (there are 84 types of Gloucester pear!). The master cheese-maker, Charles Marcel of Dymock, Gloucestershire, warned that he could not cope with demand, and so the price went up...and up and up.

Finally, the House of Cheese stopped stocking it as prices rocketed beyond the pockets of ordinary folk. Now, you'll find a Stinking Bishop in boutique food shops in London and on other, more expensive, internet sites.

Jenny is bound by the terms of her Royal assent not to divulge details of Royal purchases, but I do know from other sources that Prince Charles used to eat Stinking Bishop. He commissioned the maker, Marcell, to produce special batches from the milk of his own Royal herd of Ayreshire cattle. The cheese is called Starvall Royal, but it is really a Stinking Bishop taste-alike. (It's not for sale to the public, so don't try to order it).

The House of Cheese is delightfully stocked with 120 British and foreign cheeses. If it's tasty, good and hand-made, it's sold in Tetbury. Of course, a large proportion is British, as can be expected, because the purpose of the shop is to sell traditional fare. And, for such a small shop, its content is vast. Jenny quoted the website: "We specialise in the very best farm-made cheeses as opposed to factory-made characterless imitations so often seen in supermarkets."

The oldest cheese in England is Chester, or Cheshire. It existed in pre-Roman times, and Roman soldiers carried wedges of it in their back-packs. The unusual taste comes from cows feeding on salty pastures. At the time of Cromwell's civil war, 300 tons of Cheshire was ordered in one year alone to feed the troops on the battle-fields.

Gloucester is another old cheese. The coloured Double Gloucester is common but the plain Single Gloucester is not so well known, as it can only be made in the county of Gloucestershire. Other cheeses are available with equally old ancestry, including those with exotic additions, like herbs, fruit or alcohol. These are not something invented by supermarket chains; added flavours and fillings have been used for centuries.

Double Gloucester rounds are used in the annual Cheese Race held at Cooper's Hill, Gloucester, when cheeses made locally are rolled downhill and insane people rush down after them. These cheeses are made locally, so even after being bashed about bouncing downhill they still taste wonderful.

The House of Cheese buys as much as possible from local cheesemakers, to keep old English traditions alive. The cheese is sold in the usual wedges as well as in a variety of whole rounds. Jenny said "Last Saturday alone we had six couples in here ordering cheese wedding cakes. They are becoming so popular this side of things is becoming a big part of our business!" The "cakes" are rounds of different cheeses, one on top of the other in decreasing sizes, and decorated with all kinds of things - fruit, flowers, even leaves.

"When ordering our Cornish 'Yarg' and customers roll their 'r's like Cornishmen, we have to break the illusion by telling them that 'Yarg' is just the word 'gray' backwards. It's not a genuine Cornish word at all!" When making the cheese, grey ashes are sprinkled on top of the first layer to protect it. Next day, more cheese is put on top to complete the round. When ripe, it's covered in green nettle leaves. The grey ash runs through Cornish Yarg like a vein, giving it its name.

Jenny and Philip won't be fooled by big business orders. Jenny told me of one small cheesemaker seduced by the promise of large orders from a multiple superstore. He invested heavily in new equipment and ignored smaller specialist shops. Sadly, the superstore dropped orders altogether, and the cheesemaker went bankrupt, as he could not regain orders from the smaller shops. "To be traditional, a shop has to remain traditional," says Jenny.

The shop also sells a big range of cheese accompaniments. They are hand-made tastes to die for: quince jellies, pates, foie gras, chutneys, honey, and more...and all available by internet. Jenny quotes an old saying: "An apple-pie without a cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze!" as she lists what different cheeses taste good with.

Cheesemaking and cheese-shops have been a staple of British life since historical records began. Jenny and Philip intend maintaining the traditions that keep "essential" Britain what it is, because to stay alive as genuine Britain its ancient heart must keep beating as it always has.

Contact details:
House of Cheese
13 church Street
Tel: 01666 502865
email: enquiry@houseofcheese.co.uk
Website: www.houseofcheese.co.uk

© December, 2013, Barry Napier.

# # #