The English village of Streatley lies on the upper Thames River, near Goring and Henley, an area known for its pleasure boating, pastoral walks, and a history reaching back to the Romans. Today it's also celebrated for a cheese shop called Wells Stores and the store's idiosyncratic owner, Patrick Rance, known to some as the ``apostle'' of farmhouse cheese.
Major Rance -- the son of a clergyman, an Army major in World War II, and an opinion researcher for the Conservative Party briefly after the war -- has long befriended and championed individual, traditional British cheesemakers. Many of them, with their cheeses on the brink of extinction, have been encouraged back into production by his help.
He has been called the Hercule Poirot of cheese, so avid have been his efforts to track down and find cheesemakers who follow their craft in the old-fashioned way.
Upon entering Wells Stores, the visitor cannot mistake the shop's purpose. It's clear why this is the mecca for connoisseurs of British cheese. Counters running the shop's whole length are covered with scores of cheeses arranged by country and region. No adornment is needed. There's Italian Gorgonzola, Dutch Gouda, Swiss Gruy`ere, and dozens of others.
Although best known for British cheeses, Rance is no xenophobe and carries an exceptional assortment of foreign cheeses. For 30 years he has been adding cheeses to the stock of his general store, named for the family who founded the business 150 years ago.
While cheese is Patrick Rance's passion, finding the ``real'' thing is more difficult than it may seem. .
Two world wars greatly disrupted the old patterns of dairy farming in Britain. Continuity was lost as people who knew the traditional cheesemaking methods were not able or interested in passing them on to the next generation. Even herds of cattle were dispersed, with some, such as the old Gloucester breed, allowed nearly to die out.
In addition, as farmers began to sell more milk from their animals for use in mass production foods, general farmhouse cheesemaking declined.
In 1939, in the southwest of England, 333 farms still made the indigenous Cheddar cheese by traditional farmhouse methods. World War II decreased this production considerably. Today only three farms produce Cheddar.
Factory-made cheese is cheaper and easier to make, of course, but traditional cheesemaking gives the dairy farmers control over their product. They can use their own techniques with the milk of their own animals, from their own fields.
The unpasteurized milk cultures definitely taste richer and using cloth rather than plastic wrapping allows the cheese to breathe and mature during the important final part of the cheesemaking procedure. These and other small details result in a cheese with more character and complexity.
Recently I made the pilgrimage to the unspoiled village of Streatley with a cheese-loving friend. After pausing to watch the pleasure boats passing through the Goring locks, we made our way up the hill from the Thames, past stone and brick houses built close to the road centuries ago, their colorful gardens filling the little yards in back.
Upon arrival we learned that Major Rance was away in the south of France writing a book on French cheese. Hugh Rance, the eldest of his seven children and a sculptor, showed us around most obligingly.
In his book ``The Great British Cheese Book'' (Macmillan, 1982), Major Rance counsels that ``the tasting should never be skimped, let alone skipped.'' And so we sampled.
Many of the cheeses were identified by the maker's name, as with the unpasteurized Cheshire from Appleby's farm that we tasted first, the only farm that still binds this cheese in cloth.
Two farmhouse Cheddars followed, both 15 months old, one pasteurized and the other unpasteurized for a direct comparison. What Americans know as Cheddar is quite different from true Cheddar. As Rance writes, most people ``meet it in name only.'' Those we sampled in his shop were deliciously nutty, but the unpasteurized did indeed taste fuller and richer.
We tried Swaledale from Yorkshire, made with the help of two shorthorn cows. Now that that farm's owner has retired, only one other farm makes this remarkable cheese from the Swale River Valley. We also had a taste of Belvoir (pronounced ``beaver'') Blue, Cotherstone, Llongloffan, and two Stiltons, plus a Bonchester. This is an unpasteurized full-fat Jersey milk cheese from just across the Scottish border, a soft Camembert-style cheese but definitely not French in character.
Hugh Rance showed us other kinds: English, Welsh, and Scottish, some strictly traditional, others experimental. The store carries, for instance, a full-fat sheep's milk cheese from Cornwall flavored with cider, and Devon garland, a goat cheese pressed with a central layer of herbs.
It was surprising how different cheeses of the same kind, but from separate farms, could taste. We tried two Single Gloucesters, each a rarity since not long ago this cheese wasn't made at all.
Patrick Rance has helped the makers of these cheeses and others with his technical knowledge, which is vast. Sometimes a maker will call in the middle of a batch of cheese that isn't turning out right, asking for help to correct it.
In his book, Rance explains what motivates him in his cheese crusade when he writes: ``I want to revive England's pride and pleasure in her great dairy tradition and in the tranquil countryside from which it stems.''