Justin Tunstall of Town Mill Cheesemonger shares the highs and lows of life as a cheese seller

“Board, not bored”

Almost all cheesemongers can assemble a cheese board in our sleep. Variety of flavour, texture, colour and milk type help create a fascinating representation of the diversity of cheesemaking. We pluck suggestions from our knowledge of our stock and its condition, creating an impressive finale to dinner parties, themed by almost any other criteria

But what of the cheese on offer at local restaurants and pubs? Are you aware of what’s on sale there, unless you’re supplying them directly? From the outset of my business I made a decision not to supply hospitality outlets, save on a cash basis. I didn’t want to lose margin, nor spend time chasing debt. On the two occasions where I did give credit (to ‘celebrity’ chefs), I regretted it – the back office accounting staff didn’t live up to the smiling face of the restaurant, as seen on TV and in the press.

Nonetheless, I made a standing offer to local chefs: to come and taste what’s available in-store and I’d happily point them towards one of the dairy wholesalers to supply it. In my experience, most hospitality suppliers relied on their drivers for contact with their accounts. They offer little help or guidance for chefs whose last comprehensive review of the variety of cheese may have been in the last century. For British cheese in particular, the years since the millennium have seen an explosion of innovation and creativity – and a tangible increase in both quality and consistent supply of artisan cheeses. How is a busy chef to keep on top of what’s available when working a 60+ hour week? My only request to the chefs who visited me was that if diners asked about particular cheeses, waiting staff would be briefed to point them in my direction. Sometimes my business got a mention on the menu, with the cheeseboard branded as 'Town Mill Cheesemonger’s selection'.

We helped replace some of the more formulaic cheeseboard offerings, and encouraged chefs to look for quality in every item they offered in their cheese selection, rather than a single premium ‘star’ (often a good blue), with makeweight generic Brie and Cheddar to keep the cost down. Most restaurants will work to 30% as ingredient cost, meaning that a £7.95 cheeseboard should cost no more than £2.40 or so to plate up. That’s not a lot of quality cheese, but it can be done. I’ve given guidance on portioning awkwardly shaped cheeses and help stipulate serving sizes to ensure that a great cheese selection can be served on a budget that works for the chef.

Then there’s those restaurants that already use a good, proactive wholesaler (of which there are a few) and already have an impressive cheese offering. Our favourite has a cheese menu of about a dozen cheeses - pricing steps up with the number of selections made. I always make a point of finding out what they have on their menu and give strong consideration to trying their selections in my chillers.

For cheesemongers, chefs can act as a valuable introduction to our wares. The simple act of persuading a pub to provide Traditional West Country Farmhouse Cheddar as the cornerstone of their Ploughman’s Lunch can get a shopper to look further than the deli counter of their usual multiple supermarket.

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