Derby cheese is a traditional cheese originally made in Derbyshire, England. The cheese has been made since at least the 16th century, and there are several major variations on the cheese including a version which includes herbs. The cow's milk cheese has a mild flavor and a semi-firm texture which make it suitable for a wide range of foods, including sandwiches and cheese plates. Some grocers stock Derby cheese, and it is also available through specialty importers who focus on foods from England.
By tradition, regular Derby cheese is available year round. The color of the cheese is naturally a creamy ivory to a rich yellow, and the mild flavor makes it suitable as an all around table cheese. The cheese is sometimes compared to mild cheddar, and has a similar texture but lacks the unique cheddar flavor. It does tend to have a buttery, creamy flavor, and it melts reasonably well.
In the 17th century, cheesemakers started to add sage to the cheese. The sage was added as a health tonic, rather than a flavoring, as sage was believed to be highly beneficial to general health. A special “sage derby” with green marbling began to be popular, especially around Christmas, and other herbed variants of the cheese emerged as well. The unique look and flavor of sage Derby can make it a great topic of conversation and interest at the table, and the cheese pairs well with fresh fruit and many wines as well.
When herbs are added to Derby cheese, they are cut in with the cheese curds. Therefore, they are pressed with the cheese and they age with it. As a result, the flavor of the herbs is able to develop and suffuse the cheese, rather than being an afterthought as is the case in some blended herbed cheeses. To achieve the traditional marbled look, producers usually blend herbs with part of the curd, and then mix plain and herbed curds together. Sage Derby can indeed look bizarre, thanks to the marbling, but consumers should not let the strange appearance put them off.
Sometimes, solid green Derby cheese is produced, often with the assistance of vegetable dyes such as spinach. This Derby cheese may or may not include sage, depending on the producer, but it does tend to have a strong vegetable flavor, thanks to the plant-based dye used to color it. Solidly dyed cheeses are usually reserved for the holiday season, when they add to general festivities.