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An appeal to save Britain’s cheesemakers during the pandemic saw support pour in for artisan and speciality makers. For the nation’s cheesemongers, championing small producers was nothing new, but Covid-19 acted as a galvanising force for the industry to work together to ensure that no cheese or cheesemaker was left behind.
“British cheesemaking has been hard hit by the restrictions on the hospitality industry over the last year. It has been more important than ever to champion the amazing cheeses made across the country, to share our passion and encourage people to enjoy them at home,” says Slate Cheese’s Clare Jackson.
La Fromagerie owner Patricia Michelson believes it has been important to show that “we will not be phased by a pandemic. But given the challenges it raised, it made us even more aware of championing the work on the farm and in the dairy,” she says. “To be even closer connected to the cheesemaker who, at times, felt isolated and afraid that sales would plummet, it was important for us to keep the relationships steady and the cheese made as before.”
For retailers across the UK who represent Britain and Europe’s specialist cheesemakers, a sense of pride and passion shines through. “At Slate we are passionate about artisan cheeses – in particular, the incredible variety of flavours, textures, aromas and traditions to be discovered and enjoyed,” says Clare. “Those who make these cheeses are the genius at the heart of our business. Without their skill, commitment and dedication our fridges would be bare and our offering much less delicious.” Cheese Buyer discovers how artisan ambassadors are celebrating farmhouse cheesemakers in their shops and virtually.
Not all consumers that walk into a specialist cheesemonger will have an understanding of the processes behind farmhouse cheesemaking and what makes it so different from the products available at a supermarket. It is up to retailers to translate these stories. “Artisan cheese is a premium product, and it is important that we share details of its history and production story to champion this price point,” explains Clare.
“By the time cheese is with us at Slate, so much time and care has gone into every step of the cheesemaking process. From the production of milk with high standards of animal welfare and regenerative agricultural practices, to the hand crafting of cheese and its maturation,” she says. Over the past year, efforts to share the stories of cheesemakers have moved online. “Tasting notes accompany all the cheeses we sell via our website. Blogs, video cheese chats and posts on social media are also important ways to reach the cheese loving community out there.”
“Celebrating cheesemakers is all about seasons and the reasons to be enjoying cheese throughout the year. We have ways of displaying cheese in groups for creative cheeseboards, and we have developed a very active cheese tutorial online, taking tastings all around the UK and Europe on journeys that incorporate history, geography, land and people,” Patricia says.
“There are many stories surrounding cheese, and the virtual tutorials have definitely given us a storyboard of ideas and ways to develop people’s knowledge and curiosity. We have invited cheesemakers into the virtual tutorials and included British as well as French and Spanish experts in cheesemaking to be part of the events. We have widened the net of connections which has been really fantastic not only for us to meet up but also for the attendees to hear about their work too.
“Social media has been hugely important over the last year, and you can do a daily post of simple things like opening a Cheddar, or tasting the first of the new season Goat’s Cheeses. We are lucky we have a chef and kitchen so we make daily dishes and savoury take out using cheese, as well as our cheesecake which is slowly baked and tastes wonderful,” Patricia adds.
In bricks and mortar shops, it is also critical that farmhouse cheeses are presented in their best light. “It is important that we continue to give it due care and attention once in our fridges,” Clare continues. “Cheese care techniques such as scraping and glass-wrapping cut surfaces are vital to keep artisan cheeses in prime condition so that customers can enjoy it as the cheesemakers intended.”
Knowledge is everything for a cheesemonger, so ensuring your team is brimming with passion as well as a well-rounded understanding of your products is key. “It is not only good for the customer to know the answers to their questions, but it is good for the cheesemonger to understand more about the product they are selling,” explains Patricia. “All your cheesemonger staff should look to gain more knowledge, whether they do it themselves through the internet or joining the Profession Fromager – if you want to know more about European cheeses, they have plenty of information and it’s also in English.
“For more knowledge on British cheese there is the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, and I would heartily acknowledge the work the Academy of Cheese is doing,” Patricia adds. “Our senior cheesemonger Max Melvin is a tutor, and his courses take in all the points that the Academy outline but he also brings in so much of what we do in La Fromagerie too. For well as his knowledge of the science behind the cheese; so for the amateur cheese-sleuth or someone working or wanting to work in cheese, I would say spend your money on the courses, as they are worth it.”
While Covid-19 put a temporary hold on travelling to visit local cheesemakers, getting to know the makers behind the cheeses you sell will continue to be an essential role of the artisan ambassador. “I’m hugely looking forward to going out and visiting makers,” says Chris Hallam of Chorlton Cheesemongers. “It’s what stops us just being a ‘shop’ and allows us to become an essential part of the pleasure of cheese – bringing amazing cheeses to customers and letting them know we’ve been on those farms or in those dairies and seen it and, sometimes, helped make it.”
Chris advises cheese retailers to speak to the makers themselves to create a personal relationship, which will in turn help establish relationships with customers. “I think for us as a shop to be in touch with the cheese – who made it and how it is made – is fundamental to our business and our ethos of connecting with food and its origins,” he says.
“Knowing a cheesemaker has had personal connection with the land, the herd, the milk and the final product demonstrates a passion for their cheese and a commitment to producing the very best. Small makers can be involved in the whole process, and that gives me confidence,” Chris continues. “Likewise, as cheesemongers, we need to know the maker’s story. We need to make that connection with the producer to keep a direct link from farm to customer to plate. This means we love to visit farms and makers, meet them, chat with them, pass on comments and receive advice from the makers themselves.”
Slate’s Clare agrees that connecting with local cheesemakers can have a positive impact on producers as well as sales. “Over the last year, much has been made of the shift in focus to local food producers. Customers visiting our Suffolk shops are extremely interested in trying local products, including East Anglian cheese. These cheeses are often not well known outside the region, so it is key for us to share our enthusiasm and knowledge,” Clare says. “Developing an ongoing dialogue with those making cheese nearby is a vital part of this process as it enables us to share vibrant details about production of the cheeses and information about seasonal variations.
“We hope it will not be too long until we can return to our pre-Covid ways of visiting cheese makers and hosting them in-store for ‘meet the maker’ events. These are invaluable learning experiences for us to get an authentic behind-the-scenes view of the farms where these cheeses are made, and the families who make them, often for generations. We can share this first-hand information amongst the Slate team and with our customers both during conversations in-store and via the journal on our website, where there is an enviable back catalogue of blue hairnet photos to be found!”
Being an artisan ambassador means sharing the knowledge, care and passion behind every cheese in your shop, and translating the hard work of cheesemakers into the joy of discovery for your customers.
This article originally appeared in Cheese Buyer 2021. Download a copy for more insights into today’s cheese industry.
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