The late Mary Holbrook, a white-haired maestro in the British cheesemaking world, was known for her soft cheeses and her sharp temper. Once a week, she made the trip from Sleight Farm, her home in the southwest of England, to London to check on her wares as they ripened in the maturation rooms of an upscale cheese shop. Holbrook’s apprentices, hardened to her singular style of mentorship, knew to brace themselves for reprimands when she returned. Occasionally, though, Holbrook would come back with bags of treats—yogurt, mangoes, sweets—which she spilled across the kitchen table of her cold mid-nineteenth-century farmhouse on the crest of a hill, and they knew that the cheese must be tasting good, and that Mary’s little world was in order.
Before turning to cheesemaking, in the nineteen-seventies, Holbrook had been an archeologist. Some forty years into her second career, she still had a way of getting history to rise to the surface. Sleight Farm was littered with relics, pieces of rusting machinery scattered across the rolling fields. “If they broke,” Julianna Sedli, who worked with Holbrook for a little over three and a half years, said, “they broke forever.” In one shabby outbuilding, alongside vats of oil and parts of a tractor, craggy wheels of hard Old Ford cheese aged in the cool, damp shade. In a room along a little track, French influences converged with old English traditions of goat’s- and sheep’s-milk cheesemaking. There, Holbrook made Tymsboro, an ash-rubbed pyramid of soft cheese, with bright, peppery notes. Her semi-soft washed-rind Cardo cheese, meanwhile, borrowed from Portuguese tradition, using a vegetarian rennet made from thistle stamens.
As Holbrook’s renown spread—as well as gaining acclaim for her cheeses, she made her name by supplying pork to some of London’s most famous restaurants—aspiring cheesemakers made pilgrimages to the farm, keen to learn from the woman who had built a reputation as one of Britain’s finest. Some journeyed down for only a week or two; others stayed for years. In 2004, Martin Gott and his partner Nicola Robinson moved to Sleight Farm from their jobs in Lancashire, in the northwest of England. They bought a flock of sheep and rented some grazing land and barn space from Holbrook, developing their own washed-rind sheep’s cheese—St. James—in snatched moments when they weren’t farming and cheesemaking for Holbrook. Their vision didn’t always align with Holbrook’s: Gott recalls that, much of the time, he was left to make his own mistakes, with his mentor only chiming in to express disappointment or dissent. But there were bright moments, too. In the evening, they would leaf through cheese-industry catalogues, laughing about the incredible strangeness of being able to buy starter cultures—packages of concentrated bacteria designed to help the milk sour safely and with the right flavor—with futuristic names like G017-B.
“I wouldn’t say that Mary taught us a huge amount of practical cheesemaking,” Gott said. “But she put us in a position where we could learn.” If the work of an archeologist is to let objects tell their own story, Mary carried this philosophy forward in her cheesemaking, too: smelling, tasting, observing, and touching the cheese as it was made and aged, letting it speak for itself.
Holbrook died in February, 2019, at the age of eighty, following a short illness. She left behind no children, and her cousin’s daughter, Catherine Ochiltree, was unable to continue the difficult work of farming and cheesemaking in her absence. Ochiltree and her partner were travelling nearly a hundred and fifty miles from their home in Kent to the farm on weekends, in addition to working full-time jobs. “We just didn’t have that resilience,” Ochiltree said. “We were running on a very skeleton staff. I took the decision that we needed to bow out, so we started to dry the goats off and started to sell the herd.”
By July of that year, the farm ceased production, and Holbrook’s cheeses—Old Ford, Cardo, Sleightlett, and Tymsboro—slipped out of the living tradition and into the pages of history. A cheese is just one small piece of the world—one lump of microbe-riddled milk curds—but each is an endpoint of centuries of tradition. Some disappear for months or years; others never return. The cheesemonger and writer Ned Palmer told me that, when a cheese is lost, “Your grief reaches back into the past—into decades and centuries and millennia of culture. You feel all of that.”
When you talk with cheese aficionados, it doesn’t usually take long for the conversation to veer this way: away from curds, whey, and mold, and toward matters of life and death. With the zeal of nineteenth-century naturalists, they discuss great lineages and endangered species, painstakingly cataloguing those cheeses that are thriving and those that are lost to history. In his classic “The Great British Cheese Book,” from 1982, Major Patrick Rance—a monocled founding father of modern British cheese—intersperses his tales of surviving regional cheeses with obituaries for those that never made it so far, going as far as to describe their disappearance as extinction. Under “Extinct cheeses of the Midlands and East Anglia,” Rance pays his respects to a lost Newmarket cheese, “a 40lb marigold-coloured cheese,” pressed under cloth and rubbed with salt and cream, the recipe for which was unearthed in a 1774 housekeeping manual.
There are countless ways for a cheese to disappear. Some, like Holbrook’s, die with their makers. Others fall out of favor because they’re simply not good: one extinct Suffolk cheese, “stony-hard” because it was made only with skimmed milk, was so notoriously bad that, in 1825, the Hampshire Chronicle reported that one ship’s cargo of grindstones was eaten by rats while the neighboring haul of Suffolk cheese escaped untouched. As Palmer has outlined in his book, “A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles,” the fate of a cheese is often entangled with economic and political circumstances, as well as the failings of its makers. During the Second World War, much milk was redirected away from cheese production and toward drinking. The small amount of cheese that was permitted to be made was strictly regulated, with only a small roster of cheeses—mostly hard cow’s-milk cheeses similar to Cheddar—approved for production. Soft and blue cheeses, which tended to contain higher moisture levels than those permitted in ration cheese, and which were less durable, didn’t make the cut. Within two decades, the number of farmhouse cheesemakers had plummeted from more than a thousand to less than two hundred.
Even if a cheese can be rescued, the act of bringing it back to life can be fraught. In 2004, when the founder of the artisanal-cheese retailer Neal’s Yard Dairy, Randolph Hodgson, and the cheesemaker Joe Schneider decided to make a raw-milk version of Stilton, the process was like trying to resurrect the dinosaurs using only a sketch of a Tyrannosaurus rex on the back of a napkin for reference. Although Stilton is celebrated as a jewel among British cheeses, a raw-milk version hadn’t been made since the late nineteen-eighties, when a health scare led the final few creameries making it to switch to pasteurized milk. To find a path toward an authentic Stilton taste and texture—the way it had been made for more than two hundred years—Schneider had to rely on the “taste memory” of people who had last eaten the cheese a decade earlier. “I felt like a blind man trying to navigate my way, while these guys shouted orders at me to move a little bit left or a little bit right,” he said. He found images in old books of wheels of Stilton stacked high at market: these scraps of information gave him vital clues about the size, moisture, and structure of the traditional version. “You could never do that with a modern Stilton,” Schneider said. “It would crush—it’s too broken down and soft.”