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For a few years now, I have been travelling the length and breadth of the UK in search of real artisan cheese. So what does artisan mean? Well, loosely, a person or company that makes high-quality or distinctive products in small quantities, usually by hand or by using other traditional methods.
Over the last decade our little cheese and wine shop has only ever supported genuine artisanal producers. As professional cheesemongers, part of our job, much like a sommelier, is to know all about the cheese, how it is made, who the cheesemaker is, the back-story, the animal used to produce the milk, the grazing (are they using herbal lays, cover crops etc), whether the milk is heat treated or pasteurised and most importantly the taste.
Good cheesemongers are without a doubt ambassadors for cheesemakers and put great producers on the map. This naturally encourages other good cheese shops, wholesalers and delis to buy.
One thing that helps to make a great cheese shop is by choosing cheese from producers that connect with you personally. These people are connected to their product and are as passionate today as they were when they first started.
Take for example the Holden family that produces Hafod in Lampeter, James Montgomery in Cadbury, Julie Cheyney in Bungay, or Selina Cairns in Lanarkshire. All of these producers are able to connect with the cheesemonger personally and totally get the importance of our role.
When what started as an incredible artisan cheese starts spilling itself onto the shelves of shops like Budgens, Tesco, Sainsburys and so on, you begin to wonder about how production to keep up with demand might be impacting on the environment and quality of the cheese. Please don’t get me wrong, there are several great artisan cheesemakers that have a presence in supermarkets. However, what makes them different from other so-called artisan cheesemakers is that they stay true to artisanal farming, sustainability, environmental impact and production methods and personally connect with the cheesemongers that helped get them to get recognised for their cheese in the first place.
Imagine walking into your local supermarket as I did recently and seeing a wonderful artisan cheese being sold some 20% lower than the producer’s recommended retail price and as sold through their website. This only undervalues the cheese and demonstrates how supermarkets have operated over the years: by undercutting small businesses such as ourselves.
Ask yourself, do you want to be part of something that helped to close independents? SMEs are the backbone of the UKs workforce, and now is the time to start supporting them. Why support faceless producers and supermarkets?
Another challenge that we face is certain wholesalers who are hellbent on selling to anyone that asks, such as supermarkets, and do not consider the impact that this may have on the true value of the products. Supermarkets like Budgens, a franchise owned by Tesco, allow a small percentage of local produce to be sold – this is to give the impression of supporting local and small producers.
Selling these products at lower prices only serves to undervalue the items’ true worth. The small percentage of local and national artisan produce sold in Budgens at lower prices does not impact their bottom line. Supermarkets buy en masse and dictate what they pay producers.
For example, milk prices are managed nationally by the supermarkets; this affects the way milk is produced up and down the country and leads to shorter lifespans on livestock as a result of over milking due to the price per litre that supermarkets offer dairy farmers. As small business operators, we need to spread the word on how these multinationals operate. Do you really want to help fund the purchase of their CEO’s third home and yacht?
As small business retailers of quality food and drink we have to be vigilant and innovative to be able to fight the good fight and keep it real. Those great producers of cheese need us and, with the greatest respect, should remember that we helped to get them recognition. As a retailer of cheese and a delicatessen, your passion and taste should and needs to be fully appreciated – we too work very hard.
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