Last Updated on May 14, 2021 by Fiona Maclean
British artisan cheeses and their producers.
Any cheese writer willing to research a book by visiting 100 cheesemakers in as many days might be called an enthusiast. Doing so during a British winter while sleeping in a tent on top of a Land Rover requires resilience. Watching Francis Gimblett chatting with some of the cheesemakers during his zoom tastings, Meet the Cheesemaker (held monthly on Friday nights during lockdown), reveals his deep and passionate knowledge matched by an engaging personality, which combines to make him a fine teacher. Now the public can benefit from his research and experience through his newly published Gimblett’s Guide to the Best of British Cheeses.
Gimblett launched the Campaign for British Artisan Cheese in 2019 and his Guide will help to promote the Campaign by bringing these cheeses to a wider public audience. This book is the first of its kind and sets out to achieve what many other books have done for wine. It’s no coincidence that Gimblett’s earlier years were spent as a sommelier and fine wine broker who set up an events company with his wife, Pam, called Taste of the Vine. This company has staged over 3000 cheese and drink events in 47 countries so Gimblett is a walking encyclopaedia of food and drink history. His new book guides readers through the cheeses that Gimblett has tasted and rated as the best of British and is accompanied by tasting notes and drink pairing.
Gimblett’s love of cheese extends beyond cheese tasting, writing and teaching. He and Pam set up Gimblett Cheese and make cheese in Surrey where they are based. Gimblett’s Guide to the Best of British Cheese is certainly a book to gift to cheese enthusiasts. For the casual reader, like myself, it is intriguing to understand the science of cheesemaking which Gimblett explains in an accessible manner. The introductory sections explain Gimblett’s methodology, how he tastes and rates the cheeses. He then goes on to identify the different kinds of cheese and how these are made.
What follows is an introduction to 80 of Britain’s finest artisan cheesemakers, presenting their biographies and photographs plus images of more than 230 cheeses. Tasting notes, cheese stats and drink matching accompany each cheese. This is a labour of love and thoroughly enjoyable to read. The stories are so interesting that I read the book as one might a collection of short stories. I planned to page through a few, but an hour later I was still hooked. The stories behind each dairy provide such personal detail about how cheesemakers came to their craft, what motivates them, family allegiances, love of the landscape, the desire for authenticity, introducing terroir into cheesemaking (what Gimblett refers to as the taste of a place). They also tell of the challenges facing the British artisan cheese industry by focussing on the unique place occupied by the individual cheesemakers. The Appleby’s in Shropshire, for example, are one of only two artisan producers of Cheshire cheese. In the 1930s there were over a thousand makers of Cheshire, a territorial cheese which at that time accounted for over 50% of the entire cheese market. Post-war mass cheese production promoted Cheddar which was better adapted to bulk storage and transportation needs.
These personal vignettes are fascinating slices of British cheese history with walk-on parts by the Milk Marketing Board and various pieces of legislation and historical facts. I had no idea that Britain was once mostly a sheep’s milk cheese producer after the Norman Conquest (from 1066) until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry Vlll in the 16th century. The monks had been the main producers. As transportation improved and higher volumes of milk from cows made larger cheeses that could travel further, sheep’s milk cheese continued to lose favour. Each story is written with empathy and skillfully blends social and food history with agriculture and science. Gimblett is a talented storyteller with a great tale to relate to. The cheeses themselves he describes evocatively with an admirable range of vocabulary and tastes. With so many cheeses to describe and photograph it could become rather repetitive, yet each description just makes me want to read more.
I thought Gimblett’s Guide is a very handy book to consult next time I go online to order cheese or to page through before visiting a cheesemonger, earmarking the dairies or varieties I want to explore. It strikes me as an essential book to take with on any day trip or holiday as many of the dairies can be visited or purchases made at the farm or in a local farm shop. Many travellers will, when abroad, ask to try the local cheeses when shopping in the markets or ordering cheese in restaurants. We should all get into this habit while travelling in the UK too. Local markets are a great place to try new cheeses close to their source.
The combination of Gimblett’s Guide with his Meet the Cheesemaker cheese tastings is the best of two worlds. One provides cheese lovers with an opportunity to read up about cheesemakers and the other the chance to have a virtual get together with a variety of cheesemakers while tasting their cheese. It is as close as we can get to the real deal while sitting at home. During the tasting, there is also an opportunity to ask questions of the cheesemaker which I found very informative – regenerative farming, details about the herd, the process of how the cheese is made, what to consider when tasting. There have been huge challenges to the artisan cheese industry since Covid sent us into a year of lockdowns, but the industry has risen to the new circumstances and, in many cases, thrived. New cheeses, creative ways of keeping in contact with customers and expanding the consumer base all mean that the industry is growing. I hope that one of the many creative endeavours that Gimblett has kept going throughout the past year – the Meet the Cheesemaker events – continues once lockdown restrictions are lifted.
Gimblett’s Guide ends with a chapter on the Campaign For British Artisan Cheese. Gimblett points out that while the British artisan cheese-making industry is stronger now than ever since WWll, time is running out for the industry to continue to grow. The way in which the milk industry is consolidated is but one of several challenges facing local artisan cheese making. He describes the industry as being in its infancy, tiny in size when compared to that of other countries in Europe. While the UK has some 300 cheesemakers, France has over 2000.
Gimblett is devoted to growing the artisan cheese industry and puts forward five reasons for why this is important. The flavour is incomparable – the processed cheese many of us eat is often bland unlike the depth of flavour one finds from artisan cheese which is made from small herds with a more diverse microflora in their feed. These cheeses are healthier for our gut biome as they contain a richer concentration of enzymes and bacteria. Local dairies provide jobs, income and traditional skills in local communities. The cows live healthier and longer lives. The British cheese heritage has developed into a largely mass-produced industry with a drop in quality. A resurgence in artisan cheesemaking could restore the reputation of the British heritage cheeses.
Various impediments to the growth of the industry include the availability of suitable milk. While the UK produces more milk than ever it is mostly on large farms using commercial feed. This reduces the quality of the milk. The milk industry is suffering from low prices for milk and dairies are closing at pace. This threatens to squeeze out the small dairies with small herds grazing on pasture. In time this will further reduce the availability of milk suitable for artisan cheese making. Gimblett calculates that only 10 years remain to turn the industry around. He is keen to continue to educate the public and hopes that restaurants will begin to present cheese menus to customers along with the kind of detail we have become accustomed to when selecting wine.
Gimblett’s Guide to the best of British Cheeses is a highly recommended book for cheese aficionados, those who want to support the Campaign for British Artisan Cheese, and those who want to learn more about the history of cheesemaking in this country. It certainly will travel with me so that I can explore some of the remarkable dairies and cheesemakers in our midst. On my bookshelf, I have a volume about British birds. I must admit to never having ticked off a single one. With Gimblett’s Guide in my travel bag, I hope to tick off many of the outstanding cheeses he features once I get some time off for the next staycation.
Gimblett’s Guide to the Best of British Cheeses is available to purchase at a range of cheesemongers and delis. You can order a copy from the Gimbletts website
For more information on the Campaign for British Artisan Cheese follow @francisgimblett on Instagram and Twitter.
To participate in Gimblett’s Meet Your Cheesemaker find details on www.gimblettcheese.co.uk
We are currently championing British artisan cheese. If, like us, you want to learn more, do check our previous articles about the Golden Age of British Artisan Cheese