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Farmhouse cheese – going back to the future

Farmhouse cheese – going back to the future Terry Rook

Cheese is a great British success story for the food and farming sector. We can proudly boast that we have more cheeses than the French. We proverbially export coals to Newcastle by selling artisan cheese to France, ‘beating them at their own game’. So, if we want to celebrate and support home produced food what better way to start than with cheese?

Graeme Willis blogNo better way indeed, and also perhaps no better place to start than Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, which has been at the heart of this story since the early 1980s. Neal’s Yard, with shops at Covent Garden and Borough Market, has long promoted a fantastic array of cheeses, mainly from the British Isles (including Ireland) but not exclusively. Of course, there is a familiar list of hard cheeses recognisable by name from any supermarket shelf: Cheddar, Lancashire, Cheshire and Red Leicester and Blue Stilton. But the similarity is only apparent. The examples on sale are some, if not the best of their type, selected for superb flavour and the care and expertise in their production. But this is only the beginning. Neal’s Yard stocks other cheeses that you may not know or ever have heard of: cheddars, blues and soft cheeses, from cow, goat and sheep milk, with richly evocative names – Stichelton, Sinodun Hill, Tymsboro, Baron Bigod and St James. They have rich and complex flavours to match. These are newer kids on the block and they speak volumes about the transformation of our cheese culture, cheesey puns fully intended.

NYD borough

I met up with Bronwen Percival, head buyer for Neal’s Yard, at their Borough Market store to hear the story behind the cheeses and to discuss the philosophy behind Neal’s Yard Dairy. Bronwen is a fantastic advocate not only for the businesses and for its cheese, but for the farming that makes the cheese what it is. She takes me on a fascinating journey back to the traditions of English cheese making, and forward to some superb exponents of the art and to the future with an optimistic vision.

Neal's Yard Dairy - where did it all begin?

The history of Neal’s Yard dairy starts the journey. The business originally planned to make cheese in London but Randolph Hodgson, the founder, saw that it could do more by connecting urban consumers with rural cheese producers. The idea seems common sense now but at the time the market for quality cheese was tied to the cachet of exotic, gourmet cheeses, no doubt experienced by people on trips abroad or in high end restaurants. Randolph saw that there could be a market for cheeses produced in a farmhouse tradition on this side of the Channel, cheeses that had evolved over time to produce something very different from the cheap easily packaged product being sold in supermarkets. Once people had tasted the cheeses they realised how amazing they could be and wanted to buy them. More to the point he could provide a market for farmhouse producers on their last legs, who were told by supermarkets that their superb products weren’t what was wanted.

More recently, and through writing her new book, Reinventing the Wheel, Bronwen has realised this philosophy can be taken a step further. Several important and very closely linked ideas underpin that thinking and a somewhat natural evolution. The first one is that, however sophisticated the cheese making, trying to make cheese with a ‘bland and sterile raw material’ (liquid milk produced from industrial type farming) inevitably leads to a product that can be made in any factory. To produce something distinctive means going back to the land and the farming system that produces the milk. This means cultivating and harnessing a rich diversity of plants to provide the pasture for the cows in the first place, but also the microbiology of individual farms. Ironically it is French scientific microbiological research that is showing how farms have their own unique strains of the critical bacteria needed in cheesemaking and which give a unique character to cheese from a particular farmstead. The third element of this thinking is that here in the British Isles, Bronwen believes, cheesemakers need to draw inspiration from the past: the making of hard cheeses evolved here because it fits the farming and the raw material. Trying to make Brie or Comte style cheeses is possible, but is working ‘against the raw materials’. As part of this she describes how the makers of Hafod, a cheddar type cheese produced in Wales, have rediscovered cheese making techniques from a hundred years ago. The raw milk is produced extensively on rich plant diverse pastures. Care is taken to protect the microbial integrity of the milk. This holistic approach, allied to the specialist knowledge of the herdsman and cheesemaker, is already creating cheeses of amazing complexity and depth of flavour.

NYD cheese

Vision for the future

Bronwen’s vision for the future is of a body of thriving farmhouse cheesemakers getting the full value for the flavour of the cheese they produce and earning a living which will inspire others, especially the next generation, into farming. The Government could help through careful regulation to ensure all cheese is safe but which supports new farmhouse and artisanal cheesemakers. As important is to develop scientific research on all aspects of raw milk cheese production, such as animal feed and the ecology of pastures, to support the industry. The French and Italians have this expertise and the irony is that we used to. The truth is that, if cheese is a success story, then it’s a renaissance and a journey of rediscovery. We had a thriving community of farmhouse cheesemakers until the second half of last century, with many hundreds of farmhouse cheesemakers. Their numbers are rising again.

Let’s hope, and there should be reasons to be optimistic, that the countryside can once again teem with cheesemakers turning the very best raw materials into the very best food. To get there it needs not least of all to be cheered on and supported by the great British public. I urge you to go out and find great British cheeses and learn their stories and be part of that renaissance and, in the very best sense, a true cultural revival.

Bronwen and Francis Percival’s new book, Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes and the Fight for Real Cheese will be published by Bloomsbury Sigma on 30th November and is available for pre-order now.

If we want to celebrate and support home produced food what better way to start than with cheese?

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