The rise of the British cheese industry

“Only peril can bring the French people together,” Charles De Gaulle once said. “One can’t impose unity out of the blue on a country that has 256 different types of cheese.” If the unity of the UK has been threatened with the recent Scottish referendum, it might have something to do with the explosion in the number of cheeses made in Britain, which now produces more than 800 unique cheeses, from 150 goat’s cheese, to over 85 different blue cheeses. New cheeses have been created using new ideas, old and new recipes, new methods, and rare breeds of cows.

Despite this why does Britain not have the same reputation as France? One of the problems of getting our cheese recognized in Europe is that most of what we export is by no means the best and is usually of the mass-produced supermarket variety. Secondly, although we produce many unique cheeses we have significantly less producers. In Italy there are 373 producers of Parmesan but only six traditional farmhouse cheddar makers in the UK. Excellent cheeses such as Stinking Bishop, which is washed in Perry to give the smell, is only produced by Charles Martell and Son and in small amounts, whereas French artisan cheeses like Crottin de Chavignol is made by 28 small and large producers.

In the past, cheese in Britain was produced on big farms then came the industrial revolution, which meant milk could be sent to the cities or to factories where it was converted to cheese. We went from having 200 different producers of Lancashire down to 2 large factories producing it. This wasn’t the case in Europe, where there was no industrial revolution and thousands of small farms produced the cheese. In Europe, during the Second World War, small farms continued to produce cheese and were in fact encouraged to meet the short supply of food. However, when Britain sent its men to war those hundreds of farms stopped producing cheese, and the industry virtually died, and we were left with producing National Cheese such as cheddar. The war devastated the agricultural communities while small farms in Europe were less affected.

By the 1980s, because of more extensive travel and a renewed appetite and access to food from all over the world, farmers started inventing new and original cheeses again, which included more uncommon varieties of soft and gooey cheeses, including Stinking Bishop, Cornwall Yarg, a cheese wrapped in nettle or garlic leaves, and Lincolnshire Poacher. Having established themselves, these small farms continued to produce high quality cheeses in order to survive and continued to experiment with shape, texture and colour in order to deviate from the mainstream.  Another important factor was the deregulation of the milk sector in 1994, which encouraged farmers to try to add value to their milk by making more cheese and diary products. As a result, over the past decades Britain has come to produce some of the most unique and wonderful cheeses, most of which won’t ever get to Europe.

Although there has been an explosion in cheese making and an increase per head in the amount of cheese consumed, at 11kg per head we are still way behind most of the other EU countries where the average consumption is nearer to 18kgs per head. Nigel White from the British Cheese Board explains that although many consumers have become more knowledgeable about food “At the same time, many working mums who have neither the time or the money to experiment, have to stick to their old favourite recipes, typically one of five ideas that work for them, or convenience or take away meals.” He also explains that consuming more cheese at breakfast also affects the consumption levels in Europe.

World cheese expert Juliet Harbutt “the cheese lady”, explained the problem is that “Cheese is something you eat not cook with. Traditionalists in the trade persist in promoting cheese as something you cook with and with recipes, instead of encouraging people to just eat it.” Juliet who has done many blind cheese tastings around the world is frustrated that tasters always assume that the boring one must be British but it is invariably amongst the best. She explains “When people have a cheese board in this country, the majority are European cheese, just because they don’t know how good British cheese is.”

However, the rise of online shopping has allowed artisan types to become more widely available and many wonderful and unique cheeses are now available online and at farmers markets across the country. Andy Swinscoe, who owns and runs says that “The internet has had a tremendous effect on the growth of the industry, with small farms being able to sell cheese and consumers being able to identify with the maker.” And what’s his favourite cheese? “That’s like having a favourite child, it changes all the time. At the moment Lancashire is great, but sometimes its stilton or a fresh goats cheese.” Andy has worked in France and says there is definitely a better support network for cheese makers in Britain and that France is losing some of its farms and cheeses as a result.

“What gets me every time about cheese,” says Juliet Harbutt. “Is that what the animal eats, from wild flowers and native grasses to silage and grains will influence the taste of the cheese from season to season. Often resulting in some bold extraordinary flavours. The combination of man’s ingenuity and mother nature’s miracle – milk – is incredible.” Cheese lovers who want to learn more about cheese and the cheese making process should take one of Juliet’s master classes or workshops.


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