Cheese was one of the staple foods on a British man o’ war. Twelve ounces of cheese were issued per sailor each week.
According to Janet MacDonald in Feeding Nelson’s Navy, in the early part of the 18th Century the cheese favored by the Victualling Board was Suffolk cheese. Suffolk cheese was made from milk that had been “thrice skimmed” of cream. The resulting product kept for a long time, unfortunately, it was hard and inedible. A writer discussing English agriculture in the first half of the 19th Century observed:
“Suffolk cheese, from its poverty, is frequently the subject of much humour. It is by some represented as only fit for making wheels for wheelbarrows ; and a story is told, that a parcel of Suffolk cheese being packed up in an iron chest and put on board a ship bound to the East Indies, the rats, allured by the scent, gnawed a hole in the chest, but could not penetrate the cheese.”
When it did get old it became infested with red worms (Eisenia fetida). By 1758 the Victualling Board dropped Suffolk cheese from it list of foodstuffs replacing it with Cheshire, Cheddar, Gloustershire, or Warwickshire cheese. These cheeses did not have the shelf life but complaints about the quality of the cheese virtually ceased when Suffolk cheese went by the board.
Like most agricultural tasks, cheese was a seasonal activity. It could only be undertaken in spring and summer when cows, usually newly calfed, would produce the most milk.
It also had a limited shelf life. Regulations provided that if any batch of cheese did not remain good for six months the government would not pay for any of the batch and the producer would have to remove it at their own expense. Pursers were warned that if they did not issue all their cheese within three months they government would not give them credit for any unused portion.