Supporting British cheese has never been so important

10 October 2023, 18:00 PM
  • With new rules on imported foods coming into force early next year, the cost of deli essentials (including cheese) looks set to rise. Could this present a golden opportunity for UK-based makers?
Supporting British cheese has never been so important

The legacy of British cheesemaking can be traced back at least 2,000 years. It was a canny way of preserving excess milk, providing essential nutrition, and bolstering the energy of farmers who took the time to make it.

Today, artisan British cheese has become an artform. Over the last two decades, in what’s been billed as a ‘cheese renaissance’, a new wave of makers have dedicated themselves to the intricacies of what was once a humble profession, elevating it to new heights. 

Alongside much-loved, ancient territorials, the nation’s makers are proudly churning out award-winning raw brie, fragrant, Alpine-style wheels, and headily aromatic washed-rind cheeses that have been turning heads around the globe. And they sit front and centre in deli counters up and down the UK. 

Why we need to buy British

“When things change again with import costs, it’s going to be very hard to get hold of sensibly priced, high quality continental cheese in the UK,” says food consultant and cheese specialist Sam Wilkin, alluding to the new regulations around paperwork and border checks on high-risk foods coming into Britain.

“If you want to fill your counter with delicious things people can afford, then British cheese should be top of the list. I think it would be a shame to ignore what’s on the doorstep. France makes some amazing cheeses. And the PR for cheese in France, Italy and Switzerland is unparalleled. But we have some fantastic cheese in this country, and we’ve been talking about buying local for decades now.

“It’s time to get behind what’s on your doorstep!”

Sam spends much of his time visiting cheesemakers across the length and breadth of England, and says more is being done now, than ever before, to ensure the continued success and sustainability of British cheese, so it can remain viable in the circular economy. “People are doing amazing stuff! Changing their farms to be more biodiverse. Dairy has a terrible reputation, which is unfounded, certainly in the people I work with. They go to incredible lengths to make the life of their animals happier, because it makes the product way more delicious.”

Welfare is, he adds, another reason to support our artisan cheesemakers, with Britain having some of the most stringent rules around the treatment of animals. “And quite rightly! I would say our farming standards are comfortably some of the best in the world by law.”

“It’s so important to support British farms and cheesemakers as much as possible,” says Dan Williams of Godfrey C Williams & Son. “The role of a farmer goes so much further than just being the producer of a product. They are vital contributors and influencers to jobs and the rural economy, custodians of the land, and providers of national food security. To lose a farm or producer, is to lose part of your area’s identity and heritage.”

Dan encourages retailers to, as well as backing British at the counter, get involved with organisations, events and awards that celebrate the nation’s food and farming. “A special mention,” he says, “must go to this month’s inaugural Great British & Irish Cheddar Challenge – a new initiative to raise the profile of traditional Cheddar.”

Engaging with customers

One of The Norfolk Deli owner Mark Kacary’s favourite things to do is to educate and excite customers about the wonderful world of British cheese. But, he adds, “As with many things in life, if you want people to enjoy it, to flock to it, to come back again, to recommend it to others, you have to make sure it’s good.”

In fact, he says, there’s pressure for our cheeses to be “better than good” in order to stand up to the big name, familiar continental products customers recognise and tend to grab out of habit.

Marketing British in store is an absolute must, particularly as, “The French and Italians, as well as other established European cheesemaking nations, have always been better than the Brits at promoting their cheese heritage,” says Mark, echoing Sam’s sentiment.

The majority of our exposure to cheese is via a supermarket – which Mark says is a “dismal experience” that gives “little or no indication of the dizzying array of cheeses out there”. 

“Fortunately, there are still plenty of people (although there should be many more), who have experienced excellent cheeses when travelling, and who have gone out of their way to find cheesemongers, and who are prepared to buy cheese made locally. It is only due to the support of retailers and their customers than cheesemakers in Britain have demonstrated the much-fabled ‘inventive’ streak to be found here, with the result being that there are now well over 1,000 different cheeses made here, which is approximately twice as many as are made in France!”

The cheese renaissance

The last two decades have redefined the British cheese industry, which has been swept up by a revolution in the way producers and the public think about food. It is a huge change to a vastly traditional industry.

Historically we’ve been making cheeses in farmhouses for hundreds of years,” says Sam. “There was a near-collapse of the industry after WWII. But, on a practical level, cheese is a way for dairy farms to add value to their milk. It’s a way for them to be viable as businesses and to keep that tradition running.”

He points to young makers doing exciting things, who are shaking up the cheese world. “We’ve still got the old classics, which should be heralded, but then we’ve got people like Curlew Dairy who are reinvigorating what Wensleydale can be. We’ve got David Jowett, who’s in his 30s, over at King Stone Dairy. The guys making Pevensey in Sussex – which is a style of blue you don’t really see here in the UK. There are just some amazing things happening in cheese, and it’s something retailers should be excited about, and proud of, helping to tell those stories to customers.”

Mark says, undoubtedly, it’s the improvement of British cheese that’s triggered its renaissance. “And there’s more of it. There’s greater choice, and it’s the pride and passion of cheesemakers, alongside individuals who have a passion for good tasting quality cheese, to look after it, promote and sell it.”

The future of the industry, Mark adds, rests of the shoulders of passionate retailers, who can help garner interest from the public so they “understand that when they’re looking for a cheeseboard, the ONLY place to get anything decent is a specialist shop.

“The last thing anybody should do is buy a pre-pack lottery cheeseboard from a supermarket. I truly believe that, unless they have an allergy, there is a British cheese everyone will love. But it’s like in life – you have to kiss a lot of frogs to end up with your prince/princess. Your local cheese retailer is the equivalent of a dating agency – pairing customers up with a cheese they’ll love.”

My favourite British cheeses: Tim Collings, Rowcliffe

Westcombe Cheddar, which Rowcliffe cut for our Clemency Hall brand, is a true testament to the art of traditional cheddar making. It embodies the essence of Somerset’s rich agricultural heritage and has garnered worldwide recognition for its exceptional quality and flavour. When young, it has a mild, creamy taste with hints of fresh grass and butter. As it ages, the cheese becomes crumbly and more robust, with nutty and earthy undertones.

For soft cheese lovers it’s hard to look past the wonderful Baron Bigod. What sets Baron Bigod apart from the crowd is the meticulous attention to detail and traditional methods employed in its production. The team at Fenn Farm take pride in using raw, unpasteurized milk from their herd of Montbéliarde cows, a breed renowned for its rich and flavourful milk.

The cheesemaking process involves a careful balance of science and skill. After a slow and delicate process, the curds are hand-ladled into molds, allowing the whey to drain slowly. This artisanal method results in a lusciously creamy interior and a bloomy, white rind resulting in a brie which has a rich, luxurious flavour and creamy texture. It has rightfully earned its place as a jewel in the crown of modern british artisanal cheesemaking.

When it comes to discussing tradition In the world of artisanal cheese, few names evoke as much reverence as Colston Bassett Stilton. This crumbly, creamy blue cheese, hailing from Nottinghamshire, is not only a gastronomic masterpiece but also a testament to centuries of cheesemaking tradition.

Colston Bassett Stilton is an exceptional cheese that epitomizes quality. The cheese is handcrafted using traditional hand ladled methods. This process results in a rich, creamy texture, punctuated by the perfect amount of blue veining, and a harmonious balance of flavours. It is a true testament to the art of cheesemaking and a must-try for any connoisseur.

At the counter

Our commentators share some of their favourite British cheeses. How many have you tried?

Sam Wilkin

Yoredale: “From Curlew Dairy. It’s a fantastic Wensleydale, from a young couple who amazingly don’t have a cheesemaking background.”

Yarlington: “Is a collaboration between David Jowett and Tom Oliver, and it’s a really lovely example of two British producers working together to make something delicious.”

Pevensey: “A gorgeous blue cheese that’s unlike most other blues being made in this country.”

Hafod: “From Wales. For me, they are some of the best British cheesemakers.”

Baron Bigod: “It’s almost a given to mention it these days. I wouldn’t be saying anything revolutionary if I said it was delicious.”

Cora Lynn: “I’m a big fan of this hard sheep’s milk cheese from Scotland. It’s one of the best out there.”

Dan Williams

Appleby’s Traditional Cheshire: “A customer favourite. My go-to example in pairings and tastings to show that a cheese doesn’t have to be strong and well-aged to have a great depth of flavour.

Sparkenhoe Red Leicester: “Complex and balanced, with riches of flavour and character. Deals a sledgehammer blow to preconceived ideas that Red Leicester is bland and tasteless, with a growing number of customers buying it over Cheddar.

Thelma’s Traditional Caerffili, Caws Cenarth: “Milky and crumbly, with a fresh, lemony flavour. It won Best Welsh Cheese at the World Cheese Awards 2022.”

Greenfields Crumbly Lancashire: “Personally, I believe that Lancashire cheese is one of the most underrated territorials (besides Cheshire cheese), something almost criminal given its origins from a county which is steeped in such history and food provenance. There are numerous great producers, but this is one of my own favourites. Traditional Lancashire cheese makers since 1930, their pedigree shines through, often through their regular award wins. Expect a yielding, crumbly texture, with warm and comforting clotted cream flavours.”

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