Last Updated on May 5, 2021
British artisan cheesemakers creatively survive lockdown challenges
Blessed are the Cheesemakers was predictably the title of a talk at the recent three-day-long British Cheese Weekender. Memories of Monty Python aside, the line-up of inspiring talks by cheesemakers, cheesemongers, and cheese specialists conveyed me much further back in cultural history. The Ancient Greeks opined that the gods help those who help themselves and this motto sums up the success with which the British artisan cheese industry has survived and thrived over the past year of Covid lockdowns. Could this herald the Golden Age of British Artisan Cheesemaking?
Not only have cheesemakers bravely weathered the storm by changing tack with regards to the cheeses they make, but many have transferred their sales online and now increasingly engage directly with consumers, thus continuing to make their businesses viable despite the closure of much of the hospitality sector. Many consumers have felt safer shopping in small, local specialist outlets or delis where they have access to a growing range of artisan cheese. There has been a huge increase in attendance at online training courses and the public is becoming more confident, through cheese tasting boxes, to expand its repertoire. Virtual cheese tasting could provide a gentler introduction to new cheese for some who may feel intimidated at the cheesemongers by the sheer variety or afraid of making the wrong selection on what is, for most people, a reasonably expensive purchase.
Another significant silver lining has been the advent of the British Cheese Weekender itself. It was established in record time in 2020 during the first lockdown when, with restaurants shut and orders cancelled, thousands of soft cheeses with a short shelf life faced ruin in cheese rooms around the country. While cheesemakers drove round to their local delis and farm shops to sell off this cheese, others leapt into action in other creative ways. Within six weeks of the lockdown, the first British Cheese Weekender brought artisanal cheese into focus through an online programme for enthusiasts around the country and beyond.
This was the brainchild of journalist Patrick McGuigan, who has been writing about cheese for some 15 years, and Tracey Colley from The Academy of Cheese, the not-for-profit organisation that runs courses leading to professional cheese qualifications. Jamie Oliver made a series of videos with Neal’s Yard which helped shift 17,000 tons of cheese.
Some Cheesemongers began to send out themed cheese tasting boxes which grew in popularity as consumers learned to celebrate events remotely with friends and relatives they could only see online. Other producers opened up small shops on their farms where local people could buy cheese many hadn’t known was being produced on their doorsteps. Zoom cheese tastings also became popular and I can vouch for the pleasure to be had on a Friday evening with a glass of wine and a couple of new cheeses to taste while asking questions of the cheesemaker.
Before the second British Cheese Weekender, I had not begun to grasp how adept the British artisanal cheesemakers had been during the past year. A series of informative talks made me brim with optimism for this industry. Francis Gimblett – who has recently published Gimblett’s guide to the best of British Cheeses (to be reviewed soon) – suggested that the British cheese industry is in better shape now than any time since WWll. While there were some 2000 cheesemakers before the war, there are now only around 300. Much of the country’s cheese is mass-produced with cows in barns and fields lying empty. This means that there is a great opportunity for growth in artisanal cheese which been revived and developed over the past 10 years in particular.
Behind every artisanal cheese is an artisan. These are the people who make cheese for the love of the process rather than the size of the proceeds. The British Cheese Weekender showcased many of these remarkable people whose passion for cheese verges on – or is frankly full-blown – obsession.
For those who enjoy the story behind the food on the plate, 35 events over three days was a joy. I sat glued to my laptop while every half hour a new cheesemaker, chef, or cheese swot appeared on my screen from their farms, living rooms and even a car or two. Paxton and Whitfield – cheese purveyors to the Queen – had kindly sent me a tasting box of four kinds of cheese each of which I learned more about as the relevant cheesemakers told their story. By the end of the weekend, I could tell a Baron Bigod from a St James. I knew more about pastures and herbal lays (something all fans of The Archers will recognise) and I understood the significance of raw milk, moulds and washed rinds. I have a new admiration for my local cheesemonger and will be frequenting that shop rather than the cheese aisle of my supermarket.
Artisan cheesemakers celebrate variability rather than consistency which is why the supermarket cheese always tastes the same while artisan cheeses vary in flavour according to the season, for example. I had not previously appreciated that similarly to wine where each vintage varies in taste, so artisan cheeses are determined in part by whether the herd is grazing in a spring pasture or eating hay in the winter. Some cheeses are made from the milk of a single flock of sheep. That is as personal as it gets. I enjoyed the virtual meeting with Mrs Teapot – an experienced cow on Patrick Holden’s farm in Wales – and watching the goats being milked at White Lake Cheese in Somerset.
The Head Cheesemonger at The Fine Cheese Company, Nick Bayne, pointed out that during the Covid lockdowns the cows could not be put on furlough. In other words, the milk kept coming and had to be used. Many cheesemakers who had previously made soft cheese transferred to producing hard cheese which has a longer maturing life. But as the pandemic continued, Patrick McGuigan pointed out, some hard cheesemakers started to produce soft cheeses so as to round out their range, enabling them not only to send online consumers a full cheeseboard box but also increasing their ability to get sales orders from delis and shops. The result is that the past year has seen a proliferation of new cheeses. Hopefully, online sales in the UK will help to soften the blow that Brexit has dealt to small cheese producers who are finding it difficult to export their wares. In addition, if less cheese becomes available from Europe, perhaps consumers will be encouraged to try local artisan cheese thus further boosting the industry.
In a thought-provoking presentation towards the end of the British Cheese Weekender, Max Melvin, senior cheesemonger at La Fromagerie, suggested that British cheese is currently enjoying its Golden Age. He harked back to Henry Vlll’s ‘creeping puritanism’ when the attitude spread that food be viewed as utilitarian. He contrasted this with the Catholic countries of France and Italy where people could enjoy the gluttony of a sexy ripe cheese on one day and go to confession the next. Lutheranism, by contrast, would condemn you to the hellfires for eating an oozing Brie. Puritanism was eventually replaced, Melvin argued, by self-deprecation which continued, in his view, until the 1970s. This, paradoxically, has made Britain more outward-looking than France, for example, where inward-looking food producers have historically been wedded to their local dishes. The recent flourishing of British artisan cheese has much to do with cheesemakers taking inspiration from Continental cheeses and then taking them in a new direction, making them distinctly British. This raises the question of terroir.
Melvin suggests that only recently has British cheese had a sense of terroir by which he means that fermented products taste of the place where they are made. In addition, the cheese must be imbued with meaning. It needs to be appreciated beyond its utilitarian features and become an art form, part of the local culture. He argues that only since the 1990s have British cheesemakers begun to build terroir from scratch – and consumers are increasingly concerned too about the provenance of the cheese, the names of the cheesemaker and farms, the nature of the starter culture, the herds that provide the milk. Cheese such as Baron Bigod, for example, Melvin describes as being old and new wave. It was made on the same land in the 12th century when a Brie style cheese was produced there and now, in the 21st century, it has developed into a modern Brie, similar to the French Brie de Meaux, and is in the vanguard of British artisan cheese making. Handmade on Fen Farm, Suffolk, it is produced by cheesemaker Jonny Crickmore from the farm’s herd of Montbeliarde cows that were sourced especially to suit the pasture on the farm.
I tasted my slices of Baron Bigod (silky at the rind but crumbling at its core) with far more of an understanding of its place in British cheese history. For many people who like their cheese, the taste and texture will be enough pleasure. But for those who find that history adds flavour and meaning, knowledge about the provenance of the cheese on the board adds a new dimension.
Baron Bigod and a wide range of British artisan cheese are available from Paxton and Whitfield. The famous cheesemongers dates back to the late 1700s since when they have had their shop in London’s Jermyn Street. In 1850 they were appointed cheesemonger to Queen Victoria. Nowadays royalty, as well as the rest of the population, can enjoy the extraordinary range of cheeses stocked by Paxton and Whitfield. There are numerous and creative cheese boxes as well as individual cheese for any occasion from a cheeseboard to a celebration cheesecake. The website is packed with useful information from how to cut cheese to courses that will increase your knowledge and appreciation of this remarkable food.
You can visit Paxton and Whitfield
93 Jermyn Street,
London SW1Y 6JE. The Shop is opposite St. James’s Church
22 Cale Street,
London, SW3 3QU
They also have an excellent online shop for those who are not based in London
If you are interested in visiting a traditional artisan cheesemaker, we can recommend The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company