Red Leicester Info

What is Red Leicester Cheese?

The proper name for the cheese is spelled as Red Leicester, or Leicestershire, but it comes out sounding like "Red Lester when they say it.

This was actually a cheese I avoided until I saw and tasted it at Neals Yard's booth in Bra Italy, at the Slow Foods "Cheese" festival a couple of years ago.

I originally expected it to be more like a cheddar variation, but found it to be quite different in both texture and moisture, as well as a bit more tangy in flavor. Plus, it has that eye catching deep red/orange color.

Notice how that color darkens even more near the surface as it tends to age and dry a bit more.

Say what you will about colored cheese but this one really shows well.

Learn About Red Leicester Cheese

Leicestershire is a county that sits right about in the middle of England (maybe why it is referred to as the midlands).

If I mention the names of the largest towns in the county, you would probably not recognize the names unless you lived there, but I think you might know one of its most famous cheese as Stilton, and after reading this page hopefully Red Leicester will be on your radar.

Red Leicester is a deep and unusual russet red, with a flaky and silky texture quite different from cheddar. It may also show with a slightly open interior. The flavor is savory with a slight nutty edge that finishes quite smooth and rich.

The deep red/orange color is the result of a pigment called annatto, that is added to the milk. The color is derived naturally from the achiote seed found in South America and has none of the health issues associated with some other food coloring agents. The annatto colorant is also referred to as roucou.

Today's traditionally made Red Leicesters, from some of the better producers such as Sparkenhoe, Long Clawson and Quenby Hall dairies, will have a drier texture and a mellower flavor. Many of the more commercial examples seem to be more in line with the cheddars that they make.

This cheese was historically known, and in it's rebirth known again, for it's complex and intriguing flavor, but at the same time balanced and smooth. It has a very full body and a flavor that lasts long but has none of the bite of an aged cheddar. The texture is moist but chewy and firm.

Formerly known as Leicester, or Leicestershire cheese, this is a hard cows’ milk cheese, possibly predating the cheddar name, when regional cheeses were made throughout the British Isles. By comparison, it varies from Cheddar in that the Red Leicester has a moister, crumblier texture and a milder flavor.

Aged Leicestershire Red is normally larded, cloth-bound and matured for six months to produce a flaky, open texture cheese with a slightly sweet, caramelized flavor and rich golden orange color.

What makes the cheese so much different than cheddar (besides the red coloration) is the smaller cut and lower scald temp and cook time. The small cut reminds me more of the Italian Parma and Alpine style cheeses, but the cook temperature is much lower than cheddar, leaving a residual moistness in the final cheese. The scald or cook time is also much less for a higher final moisture. Red Leicester matures faster than Cheddar, and may be sold as young as two months old, although the handful of traditional Red Leicester producers who still remain, age their cheeses for somewhat longer (6-9 months and even longer).

Red Leicester method of making was influenced by traditional cheese-making practices. It came about as a means to use up surplus and leftover milk from Stilton production, as it was a cheese that could last a little longer. Traditionally it was made by the Stilton dairies and local farms (and sometimes it still is).

The History of Red Leicester Cheese

Leicestershire established its cheese making independence from the Cheshire-producing counties, sometime before the 1700's. In the south of the county, some villages were locally famous for the quality of their cheese. A 1790 report prized them above the newer cheese, Stilton, although Stilton itself had more national recognition.

The first factory to make Leicester was established in 1875, following which, farmhouse production slowly declined. Cheese making in Leicestershire mirrored that of the country as a whole, in that it diminished from about the 1850's as England became more industrial. It suffered further during the First and Second World Wars, to the extent that there were no farms documented in Leicestershire in the 1938-39 register. By 1938' there were no recorded farms making Red Leicester, yet local reports suggest that some small farm production continued until 1956. The final straw, however, was the inception of England's Milk Marketing Board which controlled what milk was to be used for cheese during, and well after, the two World Wars. Milk could not be used for most traditional cheeses such as Red Leicester.

This is the same pattern that occurred here in America after the first cheese factory was built in New York State in 1851, which resulted in a steady decline in farm made cheese from the 1920's until the 1980's. Fortunately, with the resurgence of artisan and farmstead cheese making following the "back to the land movement" of the 60's and 70's, things have been steadily changing in America. This dry period entailed several generations of farm folks not practicing the skills of cheese making on the farm, skills that had been brought to the New World by their family. Much of what was known had been forgotten by the 1980's, leaving it up to today's cheese makers to lay out a new and richer table of cheeses crafted by artisans. The same as in England.

The Rebirth of Red Leicester

Fortunately, on the Sparkenhoe Farm situated in the Leicestershire area of England, David and Jo Clarke seem to remember that production of this cheese continued, although unrecorded. They remembered local reports of farm-made Red Leicester from about 1956. Some Leicester was still made in factories during the Second World War, but as coloring was not permitted, it became a pale shadow of its former self.

Factory Red Leicester continued in the latter half of the 20th century, but by the time Patrick Rance (one my favorite champions of real cheese) was writing his Great British Cheese Book in 1982, the Red Leicester was only produced as a pasteurized cheese, and in many cases not very inspiring. However, there were some cases from high quality farms that did produce good examples for a while but they were hard to find in shops.

All this was to change in November 2005, because David and Jo Clarke from Sparkenhoe Farm (the good looking folks in the pictures here!) decided to revive cheese making on their farm and make a traditional, cloth bound Red Leicester.

Their research had shown that Red Leicester had been made on Sparkenhoe Farm back in 1745 by a Mr George Chapman. The Chapmans ceased cheese making in 1875, and the farm did not produce cheese again until David and Jo revived the tradition. David and Jo Clarke both have a dairy farming background, since their families have farmed in the area for generations. They have a herd of 150 Friesian-Holsteins, whose unpasteurized milk they used for this cheese.

They make cheese using traditional animal rennet and the cheeses are molded to the traditional shape (roughly 20 inches across and 6 inches deep) and bound in cloth and lard.

Even though it might have been possible to find a Red Leicestershire (or maybe not so Red), it took the one I saw at the Slow Foods festival in Bra Italy made by David and Jo Clarke to make me stop and pay attention to the Red Lester.

In my book, that makes the Sparkenhoe cheese a piece of history and you have to love and respect that.

Why is Red Leicester so Red?

Why do they make a RED cheese?? People knew that when the best cows were out at pasture, in the spring and summer the fat in their milk would pick up a pigment from the grass called beta-carotene (which is abundant in fresh pasture, but not so much in winter feed such as silage and hay).

The beta-carotene gives full-fat pasture-fed cows’ milk a yellow/red tinge. And not only does this mean full-fat pasture-fed milk is the best, most flavorsome milk, that flavor translates into better more flavorful cheeses. And with it, goes the yellow color. Hence, the best cheeses were considered to be richer yellow in color, and this was something the discerning cheese buyers were looking for. It was said, “White Leicester was not to be accepted by London customers”.

So that traditionally, highly colored cheese indicated 2 specifics that quality customers desired:

  1. That the cows had been raised on good pasture, since it was the beta carotene from the grasses that made that natural color.
  2. That the milk was higher in fat, since the natural coloring is only carried by the butterfat. So originally, (before color additions) more color indicated more fat and a richer tasting cheese.

So, before long, more and more color was added so as not to be outdone by their neighbors, until actually a deep red hue was achieved. Although this is obviously not the same as the yellow hue from pasture fed animals, this red tinge helped them stand out from the crowd. It also distinguished them from their other territorial counterparts. And so it became that certain cheeses became synonymous with this color, resulting in a demand for ‘red’ cheeses and thus was born the Red in Leicestershire.

There's evidence of coloring cheeses found in many of these counties dating as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries. These counties traditionally used all sorts of coloring agents to add color to their cheese: carrot juice, turmeric, marigold petals and even homegrown saffron.

Red Leicester is colored with a vegetable dye called annatto, which gives the cheese its distinctive deep-orange hue. This practice, which is not unique to Red Leicester (Cheshire, Shropshire Blue, etc), originated in the days when a deep color was held to denote a cheese made from rich, creamy milk. Annatto is used to give the impression of a high quality cheese which has a high cream content and summer pasture raised herds.