James Aldridge is one of a new generation of British and Irish artisan cheesemakers who are taking on the French on at their own game - and winning.
Not only has he restored traditional British cheeses such as Cheddar and Lancashire to their former glory, but, using French classics as inspiration, Aldridge has created cow, sheep and goat's cheeses that hold their own on any restaurant cheeseboard.
A former garage mechanic and scaffolder, Aldridge first became involved with cheese after injuring his back in an accident at work. His partner, Pat Robinson, ran a cheese shop, Aldridge became fascinated in the subject, read everything he could lay his hands on and learned how to mature other people's cheeses like a true French affineur.
Aldridge's widely acclaimed Tornegus starts its life as a young, crumbly, unpasteurised farmhouse Caerphilly made by Chris Duckett in Somerset. Aldridge matures it for six to eight weeks, brushing the rind with white wine and herbs, transforming it into a rich, smooth, full-flavoured cheese.
He performs a similar miracle with a Welsh Gouda-style cheese, Teifi, which he washes with cider and turns into a full, fruity cheese called Celtic Promise.
Two years ago Aldridge started making his own cheeses from scratch. Trying a different recipe each week, he soon poured out a torrent of new British cheeses.
Few of them, however, reach large-scale production. To appreciate the full range of his talents you have to visit his partner Pat's cheese shop in Oxted, Surrey, which sells the best of his produce.
Other cheesemakers have gone down the Continental route. Robin Congdon of Ticklemore Cheese, Devon, has the most stunning range of blue cheeses, including a roquefort look alike, Beenleigh Blue.
Mark Robertson of Redesdale Dairy near Otterburn, Northumberland, makes Coquetdale, a grey rind cheese based on the French cheese tomme. After spending a couple of months researching in Corsica, Anne Wigmore of the Village Maid Dairy, Riseley, near Reading, produces a rich, nutty Mediterranean-style mature sheep's milk cheese called Spenwood.
Near Bath, Mary Holbrook makes a superb ash-covered goat's cheese called Timsboro', while at Neal's Yard Creamery near Sevenoaks, Kent, Charlie Westhead is making Finn, an enriched creamy cheese similar to Explorateur.
Irish cheesemaking has also taken off in a big way - particularly favouring washed rind cheeses with a rich flavour and creamy texture, similar in taste to a Pont L'Eveque.
Two names to look out for are the similar sounding Gubbeen and Milleens, both made on farms in County Cork.
"It used to be quite difficult to put together an exciting cheeseboard of British cheeses," says Ann Marie Down of the Fine Cheese Company, suppliers to West Country hotels and restaurants including Lucknam Park, Wiltshire, and the Hole in the Wall, Bath. "But the new French-style cheeses have transformed the cheeseboard."
"We used to have slabs to contend with - now there are all these small squares, rounds, pyramids and logs it can be every bit as exciting as a French chariot."
For the chef, stocking the cheeses is only half the battle. What is important is to get the front of house to sell them, she says.
"The worst thing you can do is to offer 'a selection of British and Continental cheeses'. Customers think you're talking about a slab of Cheddar, a piece of Edam and a bit of Danish Blue. People should be inspired to choose their cheese the same way that they would a dessert - they need a cheese menu."
London chef Sally Clarke has taken this approach a stage further. For the cheese course of her set evening menu she offers two contrasting British cheeses which are hand-picked from her next- door shop. "We can select the cheeses which are in the best condition and which suit the menu. For instance, if we're having a pasta dish with parmesan shavings then we wouldn't choose a hard ewe's milk cheese as the third course."
The cheeses are usually served with a garnish that can range from a halved fresh fig to a small salad of fennel and pecan nuts and with the restaurant's own home-baked oatmeal biscuits.
Peter Papprill, of cheese wholesaler Pendrill, takes a similar approach to the chefs he supplies, including Paul Heathcote and Nigel Howarth of Northcote Manor. "We've returned to the idea of the cheeseman calling twice a week so that the chef can personally select from the basket - it's not like the 1980s when everything was done from a list."
Papprill finds chefs are keen to build up a local cheeseboard of regional cheeses. "Making a virtue of British cheeses always pays off. Once customers have tried them, they're fired up and want to go and buy them themselves. There's a revolution taking place on the cheeseboard - chefs are leading the way."
A comprehensive guide to British and Irish cheeses is produced by the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, PO Box 256a, Thames Ditton, Surrey KT7 OHR, £2 inc. p&p. The Bridgestone Irish Food Guide (Estragon Press, £11.99) isa first-class guide to Irish cheeses - plus other Irish food.
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