Updated: Mar 3
It amazes me, every time I hear a customer say "I didn't know that we made all these different cheeses in the UK" and I think it is pretty impressive that there are now around 800 made right here on our tiny island...
But it hasn't always been that way
Cheesemaking in Britain goes back a long long long... well you get my drift - it goes back ages, to a time that predates the Romans in fact. Many of the early cheese was actually made using sheep's milk - a popular grazing animal back in the day. There was a strong link between producer and customer and the chances are you were stuck with whatever kind of cheese your local farmer produced and these were precursors to the territorial cheeses that we know and love today. Cows (bigger, fatter and meatier than sheep and they produce more milk too) became more common place as the population grew and then during the industrial revolution, so did the dairy industry! Factories started to produce cheese on a larger scale, mixing different milk from different herds and cheese was able to be transported further afield -
it would have been an exciting time for cheese-lovers and makers alike.
Let's skip to post war Britain after World War One - many of the farmhouse cheesemakers never recovered and ceased production and then during the 1930s as a nation we had to became more self-reliant, key policies were put in place which protected the price of certain foods to maintain production and to keep the nation fed.
The MMB (Milk Marketing Board) was created to guarantee an outlet and a fair price for farmers for their milk and almost overnight the incentive vanished for farmers to produce cheese and many of them stopped. The MMB also took over the control of surplus milk in the country (and used it to mass produce cheese, anyone remember "government cheddar?") meaning that there were less farmhouse and more factory-made cheese in circulation. AND then there was World War Two - with its rationing from 1941-1954 where you could only make certain types of cheese and it had to meet prescribed standards and many of the cheesemakers just gave up - and I don't blame them!
Our cheese making industry took a right old battering
Fast-forward to the 90s, the dairy industry was finally deregulated and the MMB was then dissolved in 2002. It's a kind of swings and roundabouts story, however as our amazing farmers no longer have a minimum protected price for their milk and let's be honest they are now hammered down on price by the supermarkets often selling it at a loss which has meant that farmers once again need to find an outlet and good price for their milk. In the last 20 years we have seen a mini revolution in terms of farmhouse cheese making. Once forgotten cheese being resurrected in the form of Caerphilly, Cheshire, (proper) Red Leicester, raw milk cheese, soft cheese, smelly cheese, goats, sheep and buffalo - putting the art back in artisan.
The recent covid restrictions tested the industry again but with local markets and outdoor shopping becoming popular once more and bringing with it a renewed appetite for shopping local and buying British - the link between producer and customer has been improved. People are keen to hear where their food has come from, stories of where it is made and whether "it's worth going for a day out" are all themes I am familiar with when talking to customers.
This month's cheese box is a nod to the new and exciting, award-winning nuggets of happiness now being made in the UK; Stichelton first made in 2006, Mrs Temples Well's Alpine 2009, Clerkland Crowdie 2007 and Wensum White 2014 are all modern takes on classic favourites and have some amazing stories behind them.
That's what I love about all of the cheeses - the stories behind them, and with more than 800 made here in the UK, that's a lot of stories (suits me fine as I love telling them!)