A brief history of cheesemongery

15 May 2023, 08:29 AM
  • Ellen Manning explores the past and present of selling cheese, and how it has evolved over time
A brief history of cheesemongery

Our love of cheese is a longstanding one. So, it’s no surprise cheesemongery dates back centuries. From cheese taxes in the 10th century to the growth of shops dedicated to cheese, the advent of cheese counters and pre-packaged chunks of cheese in supermarkets, and the resurgence of traditional cheesemongers and delis we see nowadays, cheesemongery is a longstanding tradition that is ever-changing but ever-enduring.

Yet no tradition survives without evolution and innovation to keep pace with the world around it. And cheesemongery is no exception.

A rich history
For Ned Palmer, cheesemonger and author of A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles, the history of cheesemongery is fascinating. His research took him back to the reign of King Aethelred in the 10th century, when cheesemongers were taxed in the lead-up to Christmas – an indication of the importance the festive season would continue to have for cheesemongery up to this day.

The business of cheese is something that pops up throughout the history books, Palmer observes, from its sale at local markets to the introduction of the ‘Ordinances of the Cheesemongers’, along with regulation in a bid to prevent ‘middlemen’ from profiting and inflating prices. Over the past few centuries, the cheese industry has seen huge changes, from the advent of railways allowing the transport of milk into towns, meaning farmers’ wives stopped making their own cheese, and the introduction of factories and refrigeration which turned cheese into a global business.

Innovation evolves
But there are perhaps two major factors in cheesemongery’s evolution – packaging and supermarkets. “One of the problems which we still have today is you open a wheel of cheese then you’ve got this big open face that starts to dry out.

“You’ve got to open it because otherwise, it’s just not that inviting, but as soon as you do, it starts to dry. So if you’re a shop in a quiet town, it’s difficult to keep your cheese in good condition and you end up wasting a lot.”

As a high-maintenance product, packaging was to be a game-changer, allowing easy, convenient chunks of cheese to be pre-packed. Yet that evolution came with its own issues, with Palmer’s research turning up concerns in some circles that packaging was a symptom of “declining tradesmanship”.

“It’s too easy,” he explains. “There’s no art in selling that compared to your lovely Cheddar that you have to break down into pieces, which is quite a skill. It’s a craft.” 

It’s one issue in a long story of evolution and innovation. And the advent of modern ways of making, storing and selling cheese can sound like they spelled the end of traditional cheesemongery. But recent years have seen its resurgence thanks, in part, to the return of farmers’-style markets like Borough Market.

“That seemed to set something off with markets around the UK,” adds Palmer. On top of that, the stark reality of the effect of the Covid-19 lockdown on the British artisan cheese industry – threatening to doom many makers – served to galvanise a campaign to promote British cheese and a return to a more direct way of selling to consumers, either through cheesemongers and delis, or online methods. 

Cheesemongery today 
For today’s cheesemongers, the business has evolved to mix tradition with modern technology and tastes. Stephen Fleming, from Leeds-based George & Joseph, says one of the biggest changes he’s seen in recent years is the resurgence in British-produced cheeses.

“It just continues to keep on growing, which is brilliant for us as cheesemongers because it gives us lots of products to talk about and to sell,” he says. “There’s always something new to discover.” In the 12 years he’s been operating, Fleming has seen customers become more adventurous in what they buy thanks to growing interest and increasing availability of artisan cheeses.

“That’s definitely a trend I’ve seen. Not just novelty, but there’s a continued interest in local food production, food security, environmental practices – our customers are more in tune with those things and that, in turn, helps dictate where we go in terms of the business.”

That continued interest helps balance the drive for convenience, says Fleming, and means he doesn’t feel cheesemongery is under threat from supermarkets in a way they perhaps once were.

“An Aldi opened pretty much opposite our shop a few years ago. At the time, some of our customers asked if we were worried and I said no, because what they sell is a very different proposition to what we sell.”

But did they see a drop in customers? “It turns out we saw an increase – partly because they provided 100 parking spaces in an area where there’s not much parking.” Add to that the range of cheese he sells and the way it’s sold, and he keeps his customers interested.

“Some of them may not have even seen a whole cheese – all they’ve ever seen are oblong blocks that are vacuum packed and plastic-packs that you get in the supermarket. When we show them what a whole Cheddar looks like they’re fascinated. There is a definite curiosity and people are realising there’s a difference between the supermarket and what we sell.”

That point of difference is something Oli Smith, owner of the Bristol Cheesemonger after he took over from founder Rosie Morgan, thinks is key – though he acknowledges there have been occasions where he’s been asked why someone should buy a cheese from him that they can get in a supermarket cheaper and more easily.

It is a factor that has influenced the evolution of cheesemongery, he admits. “One way some of the cheesemakers we work with have decided to navigate that is to pull back from supermarkets completely. Some are choosing to differentiate themselves that way.”

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