Britain's Stinkiest Cheese Was Inspired by Monks and an Alcoholic Farmer
Former lorry driver and amateur conservationist Chris Martell began producing Stinking Bishop as a way to keep a dying breed of cow alive.
Chris Martell. Photo by the author.
Sometimes things collude to create beauty; components merge and hatch at just the right moment and excellence is born.
Stinking Bishop belongs in this bracket. Each circular slab hums like a sweaty codpiece but smacks of delicious, complex creaminess. It hammers on the senses with foul-smelling lusciousness. The Gloucestershire cheese is a stunning deity dragged through the quagmire, and boasts far more than a fetid injection of flavour. Monks, a wife beater, the threat of extinction, and a monstrous rabbit have all played a hand in its status. It's officially the smelliest cheese in Britain and surely only a matter of time before someone starts an e-petition to have it embellished on the St. George's Cross.
Stinking Bishop is so bloody English, in fact, that its creator professes he "still doesn't know how to make cheese," demonstrating the archetypal false modesty that Americans find so bewildering. Charles Martell, a distiller and former lorry driver, creates the stuff in a village outside Gloucester. The setup is simple enough but the backstory is one of mystery, fortune, and intrigue.
"The name is evocative and even a cursory amount of research into the cheese shows that Martell is an artist and someone who is incredibly interested in the UK's lineage," Joseph Yeager from London cheese shop La Fromagerie tells me. "Stinking Bishop is one of the top five cheeses that, when people see the name, they instantly have a pang of recognition."
Less of a pang and more a putrescent spasm; Stinking Bishop's heady aroma besieges my nostrils outside the small factory on Martell's Hunt's Court Farm. That's before he even invites me into his kitchen, which looks out onto an aviary occupied by three rare turtle doves and two mandarin ducks.
"Keep a breed because it's rare and you'll keep that breed forever rare," Martell quips. A conservationist at heart, in the past he has travelled in search of Tibetan pink-headed duck and the Falkland Islands' Greater Kelp Goose.
But it was a West Country breed that truly captivated Martell's imagination: the not-so-exotic Old Gloucester cow.
"I came to Gloucestershire to work at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge and one of my jobs was to go to farms to buy broody chickens to sit on duck eggs," Martell says. "I went to one farm and there was a funny-looking bull in the shed, I asked the farmer what it was and he said, Boy, that's an Old Gloucester. I tell you what, something clicked in my head then."
Old Gloucesters were originally bred for milk and draft work as early as the 13th century, but disease and fading fashions whittled numbers down to near annihilation. Martell made it his mission to bring the breed back from the precipice but found it hard to track any down. By 1972 only one herd remained and they were classified as endangered.
"There was this incredibly rare animal—like a myth, a legend—it was in the mist and you couldn't quite get it," he says. "I thought, I'm going to get these cattle and make cheese. Don't just put them in a field and look at them, put them back to their original purpose. That was the philosophy, and we did it."
With the help of his first wife, Martell started producing Double Gloucester and peddling it at nearby Ledbury market during the 1970s. Serendipitously, he discovered that the ten-acre farm he had purchased around the same time stood on the foundations of an old haunt frequented by Cistercian monks ("the last manor of Rylands"). The idea for Stinking Bishop was born.
"I thought, Right, I'll make monastic cheese, something similar to Reblochon, with a washed rind. I'd never been taught to make such a cheese but I read a few books and faffed around a bit, taking inspiration from the techniques used by the monks in the 17th century," Martell explains. "I washed the rind in perry while the cheese was maturing. It turned out to be pretty smelly."
So, Martell had a reeking, delectable, and nameless cheese on his hands. Coincidentally, one of the varieties of pear growing on his orchard had been bestowed with a bizarrely appropriate nickname thanks to "a terrible farmer called Frederick Bishop who used to beat his wife." A drunk who didn't wash, Frederick soon became known as "Stinking Bishop."
Martell alleges that the tight old git lived directly opposite Hunt's Court Farm during the 19th century. Because the variety of pear originated on his land, it was also laden with the unfortunate moniker.
"I asked a few people and they said, Oh no, you can't call it that! It's not serious, it's not proper. But I did," says Martell proudly.
Carole Faulkner, owner of The Cheese Shop in Chester, has sold Stinking Bishop since its inception.
"There really isn't anything like it made in this country," she says. "People come into the shop and say, Have you… and I look at them and think, I know what they're going to say: Have you got any Stinking Bishop?"
Fate had one more hand to play for Martell. A decade ago, Aardman Animations came knocking to ask if they could feature Stinking Bishop in their new film, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. It was a no brainer and sales shot through the roof.
"We were already full capacity before they phoned us up, producing about 5,000 liters a week. My solicitor put a press release out and the Ledbury Reporter picked it up on the Thursday," remembers Martell. "On Friday—bloody hell—we had a queue of journalists in the drive, TV cameras, the phone ringing off the hook. I had interviews with people in Canada, Japan. There was this small Gloucestershire farmer who was going to be a multi-millionaire, that was the story the press loved. They asked me what I was going to do, and I said quite genuinely: Nothing. Partly, I'm lazy and I'm also happy here—Stinking Bishop is a premium product, I don't want to start selling it in Tesco."
It's easy to trust Martell. He's unassuming, kind, and reflective; a mild Camembert of a man. There's nothing profane about him. His cheese on the other hand…
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2015.