Why we should be proud of the cheese industry’s response to Covid

09 July 2021, 07:08 am

Catherine Mead, chair of Specialist Cheesemakers Association and owner and director of Lynher Dairies, on the innovation and energy small cheese producers and retailers displayed over the pandemic

There is no doubt that there has been a real upside for cheese producers during the pandemic, with cheesemongers, delis and farm shops gaining real profile and gathering great momentum as consumers looked for ways to treat themselves.

But this success didn’t just happen – it has come about as a result of small retailers displaying intelligence, agility and an awful lot of courage. So how have our independents both harnessed and maintained this upsurge?

Customers, deprived of the opportunity to dine in restaurants, pubs and at friends’ tables, looked for ways to enjoy food at home. They began experimenting by buying cheeses they had never tried before, and they searched for treats and novelties. A lot of small shops happen to be in the community rather than in town centres or large shopping malls, so as people began working from home, they found they could walk to these places, and very pleasant that was too. A trip to the local deli became something to look forward to, life suddenly seemed a bit more colourful.

The clever retailers quickly recognised the impact of this and so they started experimenting. They came up with different formats for the weekly shop – click and collect, online, takeaway. As the pandemic wore on, they became more and more agile and responsive, coming up with a myriad of initiatives. Artisan food subscriptions, regional tasting boxes, cheese platters by Zoom; all these new ideas understood one important thing: how to sell to their customers not just when they are in the shop but when they are at home on their sofas.

This unlocked something really quite exciting in the cheesemongering world! As a result, people became much more interested in the stories behind the products. A lot of the spike in sales came hand in hand with consumers attaching renewed importance to the values of product integrity, short supply chains, the feeling of knowing exactly what they had bought.

This means they feel connected to the producer and the product, that they are discerning and they are thinking about where their food is coming from, and customers are rightly proud of that.

Online tastings are a good example of the kind of agility I am talking about. I spent a memorable Friday night not long ago talking online from my home in Falmouth, Cornwall, with a lovely group of cheesemongers and customers in Lima, Peru! There is a really amazing cheese shop in Lima that stocks Lynher Dairies’ Cornish Kern. They contacted me and asked for online tasting so we arranged for us all to have the same batch of Kern, they sent me a bottle of the same Italian wine that they were going to drink and so on a Friday – rather late in the evening my time and midafternoon for them – we settled down to chat. We spoke about our cows, the way we farm them and how we make Kern, the profile of the cheese, its qualities, what makes it taste as good as it does.

It was a really engaged conversation, fun and easy to do and all in all a delight. Now, there are 35 people or more in Lima who understand much more about our values at Lynher Dairies, our cheesemaking and what matters to us.

Being able to communicate like that is as important as standing behind the counter. There have been some impressive collaborative online events too, many of which felt like true celebrations. The British Cheese Weekender first happened in the spring of 2020 and then again in 2021. It was a huge three-day effort, bringing together producers, journalists, retailers – experts from all corners of the UK. Many cheesemongers got involved, selling their produce online to customers to participate in online tastings, giving virtual farm tours, discussing the way forward for speciality British cheese.

I am, like everyone else, enormously proud of the innovation and energy that small cheese producers and retailers have shown over the last incredibly difficult 15 months, and there’s a palpable confidence that it will continue with the same exciting momentum. Good news indeed!

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