Cotherstone, made in Co. Durham in the north of England, is one of only a handful of traditional types of Dales (valley) cheese still in existence. Joan Cross, its last remaining producer has been making the cheese at Quarryhouse farm for over 30 years.
Named after a local village, Cotherstone is related to Wensleydale as well as the lesser known Swaledale.
The scale and type of farming in this area of the Dales is not suited to large dairy herds, and traditionally cheese production was always small-scale, with milk coming from the farm's own small number of cows. The cheese was often produced in the kitchen as part of the daily routine, primarily for home consumption and consequently the “make” had to fit in around the daily chores on the farm.
Joan Cross learned the recipe from her mother. Although there have been a few changes over the years, namely with the starter culture, advent of pasteurization, and the use of vegetarian rennet, the basic cheese recipe remains similar to when her mother used to make it.
Traditionally, no starter culture was used. Instead, milk was allowed to sour naturally overnight in a milk can that was kept at the correct incubation temperature by placing a container of hot water into the milk, and covering the can with heavy coats or blankets to insulate it.
Things have moved on a bit since then. Joan now makes cheese in a vat with occasional help from her two sons, and milk for production is sourced locally. The traditional season for making Cotherstone was from May through to the first frost in the autumn, however today the Crosses make it almost year round.
Cotherstone seems to embody several different textures at once, which is perhaps partly why it is so delicious. Although moist, the texture is unmistakably crumbly and dense and yet light at the same time. Locally it is eaten as a fresh cheese, at two to three weeks old, but away from the immediate vicinity of County Durham, it is most likely encountered as an aged cheese, at which point it develops a delicate natural rind. Even then, the cheese is dominated by the fresh citric flavors of soured milk.
Flavors are deliciously bright and lemony with notes of earth and cellar. It's excellent with oatcakes or next to a bowl of hot oatmeal for breakfast. Put it out with a pint of stout before dinner. Or eat it for a snack, as part of a Ploughman's lunch with a bit of pâté, pickled onions and country bread.