30 August 2018, 11:50 AM
  • Behind every artisan cheese there is always a story waiting to be told, explains Julia Harbutt, cheese expert
The importance of building a story around cheese

Why are the stories behind a cheese important? Not just because they help sell a cheese but because the story is a combination of history, culture, geology, geography and one of Mother Nature’s finest miracles – milk.

So if we lose a cheese or a cheesemaker we lose a piece of history, a special person, maybe a farm and the taste of something precious. If we lose a traditional cheese that can be traced back through the centuries then we may lose forever a village, a way of life, a rare breed of animal, a piece of history.

On a trip to the Pyrenees back in the early 90s to seek out some of Europe’s finest ewes’ milk cheese was probably the first time I really understood this. The aromatic, wild flowers of the Pyrenees mountain pastures or alpage were knee-high, colourful and timeless as Monet’s garden. The mountains that form the border between France and Spain were spectacular, rugged and snowcapped and, unlike NZ pastures, they are never ploughed and can trace their ancestry back thousands of years.

The cheeses were stored in the rafters of the small, stone mountain huts and no artificial fertilisers or herbicides have ever been used on the mass of wild flowers, herbs and grasses, alive with the sound of bees, birds, butterflies and bells.

Here transhumance is still a way of life, but only just, for the shepherds who move their sheep to the high summer pastures and return as the first snows fall. Many of the cheeses are still made in mountain chalets and the hills still ring with the orchestra of bells worn by each sheep, and it was my great fortune to be sitting near one of these chalets when I heard the tinkling and clanging of bells and what sounded like a 100 tottering teens in high heels.

It is stories like these that capture the imagination of those looking for new experiences and to expand their repertoire. Behind every artisan cheese there is always a story waiting to be told, and when we lose a cheesemaker we need to tell that story, so I would like to say a very fond and very heartfelt farewell to one of my favourite cheesemakers Michael Stacey at Gorsehill Abbey Farm near Broadway who recently lost his battle with cancer. He was a lovely, kind, thoughtful man and an inspired, passionate and talented cheesemaker.

No Cotswold cheeseboard, in fact no English cheeseboard, is complete without at least one of his cheeses made from the herd of Friesian and Montbeliarde cows that he developed and loved and that grazed pastures, some of which are at least 150 years old and retain the ridge and furrow pattern developed in the middle ages.

St Oswald was always a favourite with its terracotta, orange rind, supple almost runny interior and rich, savoury, pungent character – like cheese and onion sauce with attitude. Meanwhile St Eadburgha was a bold, boisterous alternative to French Brie with its lovely wrinkly, crusty Brie-type rind, yeasty, mushroom aroma and gorgeously rich, goopy texture that tastes like wild mushroom soup with a dash of sherry that demands to be eaten before it bursts out of its crusty rind.

The memories of the cheeses and Michael’s warm, welcoming smile will not be forgotten.