Cheshire Cheese and the tradition of the Bog Oak Chest

Tradition has it that if a girl wished to be a farmer’s wife she should be able to lift the oak chest lid with one arm. It is said that this tale originated because a farmer’s wife in those days had to be strong enough to be able to produce and handle the famous cheeses made in Cheshire.

Women on the farm were recognised as having highly valued skills in the dairy. These skills often based on the handed down, typically from mother to daughter, methods of making quality cheese. Men traditionally played virtually no part in the production or processing, which from milking the cows to selling the products at market were controlled by women. Before the industrial revolution and the resulting growth of cities and the coming of the railways milk produced on the farms was turned into butter and above all cheese. The sale of cheese for many years was the principal source of income for many Cheshire Farms.

Cheshire cheese was originally the generic name for cheese produced in the county and surrounding counties. The first cheese produced in Cheshire was probably during the period of the Roman occupation. One of the oldest recorded named cheeses in Britain; Cheshire cheese was first mentioned with Shropshire cheese in Thomas Muffet’s Health’s Improvement in 1580. While there are no other specific mentions of the cheese, the importance of Cheshire as a major diary-producing region in England was highlighted in William Malmesbury’s Gesta pontificum Anglorum (‘History of the Bishops of England’) in the mid-twelfth century.

Cheshire Cheese eventually became traded across the country starting in the early 17th Century. It was one of the most popular cheeses available on the UK market during the late eighteenth century. So sought-after was the cheese that by 1739 it was the only one bought by the Royal Navy for consumption on its ships. By 1758, the Royal Navy ordered all ships to be stocked with Cheshire cheese. Sales of Cheshire cheese continued to grow into the 19th century, as it became a favourite in industries towns and cities across the Midlands and the North of England. At the time it was sometimes referred to as “a poor man’s meat”’ given it was an affordable source of protein.

From the late 1600s cheeses grew steadily in size until by the end of the century an average weight of 20-24 lbs. became standard. This implies an average herd of to ten to twelve cows. It was reckoned that one dairymaid could handle cheese production from a 10-cow herd. A herd of 30 cows was therefore full-time work for at least 3 women.  Daily hand milking and making standard sized round cheeses of around 20lbs weight kept dairymaids busy. These smaller cheeses though, brought lower prices in the London markets.

Around 1729 new technology was introduced in Cheshire involving stone presses, which enabled 40 lbs cheeses to be hardened. These cheeses were world-beaters, less prone to drying out and with delicious centres. The larger cheeses were products of the larger herds. The thin cheeses rapidly became second-class produce.

By 1750 improved techniques and better quality fodder had reduced the farm acreage required per cow so an economic farm was now pushing 100 acres. Around this time a cheese of say 60 lbs weight could bring in circa £80pa. (£80 equivalent to £6,500 in today’s prices)

In 1870 according to the Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales it was estimated that 12,000 tons of the cheese was produced each year. Until the late nineteenth century, Cheshire varieties were aged to harden in order to withstand transport by horse and cart and later by boat to markets further afield like London and Royal Navy. At the end of the century, a fresher and younger variety of the cheese made for shorter storage grew in popularity.

There are three main varieties of Cheshire cheese. The most popular variety of Cheshire is white. Young Cheshire is bright and white in colour as well as firm and crumbly. Red Cheshire is coloured with annatto vegetable dye and was developed mainly in North Wales. The dye is added to the milk when producing the cheese. Blue Cheshire has blue veins but is less creamy than similar cheeses like Stilton. A longer aging process allows edible blue mould to develop on the cheese. Despite the differences in colour, Red and Blue Cheshire retain the same taste as the cheese’s white variety.

Along with some large scale commercial manufacturers there are still some dairy farm based cheese makers producing quality cheese active in Cheshire.  All examples of the ability to adapt over the centuries to new technology, to changing markets and to changes in society. A lesson perhaps for many other organisations faced with the challenges of an ever-changing world. According to the British Cheese Board, Cheshire cheese remains the UK’s largest selling crumbly cheese with approximately 6,000 tonnes sold each year.

So as you take a good look at the old oak chest in the Shakerley Chapel you might perhaps wonder, could I lift that lid?