The Growing Cheese Renaissance in Britain

03 Jul 2015

In most countries with a long tradition of cheesemaking, raw milk is not only legal, but also highly valued and proudly mentioned on the label. However in many Anglo-Saxon countries, this is often not the case. In places where the industrial food system was more eagerly embraced, the sale of raw milk or raw-milk cheese has frequently been submitted to fierce hygienic food safety regulations, in an attempt to achieve an impossible and arguably detrimental goal of zero risk. Slow Food views these regulations as disastrous for small-scale producers, taste, traditions and biodiversity preservation. 


When milk undergoes pasteurization, while any potentially harmful pathogens are killed, so too are the naturally present microorganisms that contribute to the flavor, complexity and character of the cheeses made from it. To trigger the cheesemaking process and achieve any flavor in the final product, certain bacteria must be added back in pre-selected strains, often industrially produced and bought in packets from a lab, creating identical flavors in the resulting cheeses. As Joe Schneider, the maker of British raw-milk Stichelton cheese once told us “When you pasteurize milk, it becomes muted.”


Luckily, in recent years, the revival of small-scale cheesemaking has gained increasing momentum, with old recipes being resurrected and new ones being developed.


Kicking off the Taste Workshop program at Cheese 2015 will be an event called Young Boys, Old School, which will take a look at the cheese renaissance in Britain. Led by Bronwen Percival, buyer and technical manager at Neal’s Yard Dairy, the tasting will gather together three of the best new-wave British cheesemakers and their cheeses. Through a curated tasting and discussion, visitors will encounter the ways in which these producers are all moving beyond ‘simply’ using raw milk, and explore techniques used to make expressive and unique cheeses from the milk of a single farm.


Bronwen is an important figure in the world of cheese. In addition to her role at Neal’s Yard, she works to mobilize collaboration between cheesemakers and the scientific community. In 2014, Bronwen launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to translate a book written by French scientists. The book “Microflore du lait cru” (Raw Milk Microbiology for Cheesemakers) is a groundbreaking guide to raw-milk microbiology, demonstrating how to harness natural microbes to create cheeses that are not only safe, but also exceptional and unique. The finished translation is scheduled to be published later this autumn.


We got in touch with Bronwen to find out more about her thoughts on Cheese (and cheese)…


What messages do you hope to convey during the Taste Workshop?


This is a pivotal moment, not just for British cheese, but for all artisan cheese. A new generation of cheesemakers is entering the field with an idealism and an aesthetic vision that is profoundly inspirational, and their new cheeses reflect this passion for quality. At the same time, the producers who work with the very most integrity, those who have their own animals and lavish attention and skill on every part of their process, and who always put quality before scale and efficiency, are at a distinct disadvantage.


The wholesale price that a farmhouse producer of raw milk Cheddar, making only 200 kg per day from his own herd, receives for his cheese is only three times the wholesale price of standardized industrial block Cheddar produced in a factory. Needless to say, this situation leaves the producers who choose not to cut corners under enormous financial pressure. Now is the time when the market needs to begin to recognize the true value of great farmhouse cheese: not simply that it is made on a small scale, but that in its purest form, cheese is just as much an expression of place as fine wine, and should be valued commensurately.


What do you hope to learn at Cheese 2015?


Projects like the raw milk microbiology textbook, and the work of the cheese-farmers trying to coax the most uniqueness and personality from their raw materials, are crucial to the success—indeed, the survival—of real farmhouse cheese. I look forward to discussing these issues and how they affect the everyday choices of the producers with whom I will be presenting.


Cheese is a rare opportunity to hear first-hand the ideas and struggles of traditional cheesemakers from around the world. Whether it is understanding how the production of mountain cheeses can protect a marginal ecosystem as well as a disappearing way of life, or hearing about the recent rebirth of Catalan cheeses, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to expand my own horizons as well.

And finally, what do you think is next for British cheese?


I am so excited by the beginnings that I see around me of a movement for farmer-cheesemakers to understand and embrace their own distinctive raw milk microbes, rather than ignoring—or worse, trying to eliminate—them. Beyond their capacity to create unique and delicious cheeses, I believe that they are the only route to sustainability. Farmhouse cheesemakers who embrace starter cultures that flavor the cheeses of their industrial competitors are ignoring their greatest asset.


Meanwhile, a rediscovery of the native breeds of Britain is long overdue. From the Red Polls of Lincolnshire to the Northern Milking Shorthorn, we have an almost-extinct legacy of animals far better suited to farmhouse cheesemaking systems than the ubiquitous, high-input Friesian-Holstein.


Who knows what amazing developments and discoveries this next decade may hold…


Click here to secure your place at the Taste Workshop with Bronwen

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