“You never know what you’ve got till it’s gone”
Posted by James Fell on
From its wartime decimation, the unique heritage of UK artisan cheese has slowly clawed its way back to national and international recognition. More than 600 different and culturally diverse types were effectively destroyed to meet the understandable compulsion for national survival post-WWII, indirectly gifting Cheddar a legacy it could never have dreamed of in the late thirties
The story of the recreations across British artisan cheese is well written elsewhere, and an eclectic mix of those with long family history, food enthusiasts, farming families, hobbyists, and others battled over seven decades to create an amazing mantle of cheese types. This is supported by some legendary trade individuals, some living, some now departed.
If there were justice in life, that tremendous effort would reap full reward. Alas, the reality of artisan food in the UK is littered with obstacles for those makers unwary enough to believe the cheese road is truly open. Despite all the great leaps forward in food safety, in which all agree, the minefields are being laid endlessly and the cheese world channelled to a safe blandness that threatens unnecessarily to throw recent recovered history on a bonfire.
We all agree any harm to the shopper has to be avoided, but the barriers ranged against artisan cheese are sometimes quite excessive. One offence by anyone seems to be a call to punish all with even more draconian requirements. All of this is in contrast to the steady stream of messages to artisan makers welcoming them to join even the biggest retail sellers, versus a mountainous climb to reach the foothills of possibility.
Many don’t even bother, and spin offs from this message of gloom? 20% of younger people now talk of a dairy-free diet, with all the lifelong impacts that will have on bones and good health with the replacement of all the goodness that cheese and its allied products provide with so little recognition. I recently read that 46% of 16-24 year olds now claim some sort of dairy allergy, whereas medical sources say it’s 4%, so who is creating this pointless hysteria?
So, what are the prospects for a would-be artisan cheesemaker of tomorrow? They need a clear path to market and it will largely be in specialist areas, online, and even export because so many of the UK options are not realistic anymore. For those who are close to larger retailers, the hurdles continue to get higher and higher.
It isn’t as though they are not sought after. The cheese competitions continue to proliferate and there seems to be no lack of entries, and whether solely trade or open to the public, they attract big audiences. These specialist maker cheeses are often used as trophy-winning opportunities by the commercial and marketing elements, whilst operational and technical departments line up expectation after expectation from small makers.
If it were not real it would be just comical, but the good news is that there is demand elsewhere in the great world of cheese, whether here in the UK, or further afield in Europe, USA, China, Asia or elsewhere – or maybe online, farmers markets and of course some of the best independent delicatessen in Europe.
So let’s be grateful for the growth and quality of artisan British cheeses worldwide – we need to protect and grow their interests whilst maintaining common sense food safety in the industry.