Grated. Soft. Cottage. Cheddar. The supermarket dairy aisle just isn’t representative of the whopping 700 varieties of cheese produced in Britain today. But Sharpham Cheese by the River Dart in south Devon is a world away from mass production. Here, a range of 14 “real” cheeses are handmade on a small scale from the milk of goats, Jersey cows and sheep.
“You can taste the richness of each milk,” says managing director Mark Sharman as he cuts into the original Sharpham, first produced in 1981. “This soft, creamy cheese finishes with a lactic acid tang and a chicory-like bitterness.” Then there’s the dense, slightly crumbly, “almost lemony fresh” Ticklemore goat’s cheese; the indulgent triple-cream Elmhirst that smells of fresh grassy pastures; and the award-winning Cremet, goat’s cheese with added cow’s milk cream – divine.
Despite containing just four ingredients (milk, cultures, vegetable rennet and salt), every Sharpham cheese differs hugely in texture, appearance and taste. “We’re always tweaking the cheesemaking process so it isn’t a case of having a simple recipe. So many factors constantly change – milk is affected by the weather, the season or what our herds are grazing on, for example,” says Sharman. Sharpham produces 60 tonnes of cheese annually, out of the 435,000 tonnes produced each year across the UK.
What is real cheese? The term “artisan” has no legal definition, so Bronwen Percival, a cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy, prefers the term “farmhouse”. The French term “fermier” indicates that a cheese is made using the milk of the cheesemaker’s own animals, so it guarantees provenance. “Real cheese is made with integrity,” Bronwen explains. So can real cheese be mass-produced? “No, and that’s its subversive charm,” says Bronwen’s husband Francis, a food and wine writer. “That’s what makes real cheese so exciting – it simply unites farming with flavour.
“Cheese is a spaceship for milk, allowing it to travel through time and space,” he continues. “The process of cheesemaking allows it to develop its own personality, and when it leaves the farm as a finished product, it has the capacity to express this astonishing diversity. Cheese is the most expressive agricultural product I know that gives a sense of place. The brilliant thing about farmhouse cheese is that you can taste the flavours of farming.”
The duo are flying the flag for real cheese. Their new book, Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes and the Fight for Real Cheese, considers how scientists, farmers and cheesemakers can work together to be part of a cheese revival.
Bronwen is on the frontline of this revolution, searching out the very best real cheeses, communicating her passion to customers, nurturing farmhouse cheesemakers and giving them valuable feedback. “We can transmit information in both directions and help to shape the market by linking up farmers with eaters,” she says, comparing a good cheesemonger with a museum curator.
“I really believe that British cheeses have the most capacity to allow you to taste the flavour of amazing milk, but every classic British farmhouse cheese is endangered,” she says. In 1939, there were 202 farms making raw-milk farmhouse cheese in Lancashire, but today, only one is left. “Graham Kirkham is a rock star in the cheese world because he is the single remaining producer of real lancashire cheese in the world; in fact, his was the only cheese we served at our wedding. But that’s no longer a viable ecosystem – lancashire cheese of the future isn’t assured, and neither is the future of any of these traditional British cheeses.”
In France, cheese varieties are classified by group. “There are more than 200 producers of farmhouse saint-nectaire in the Auvergne appellation d’origine protégée. There is such a strong regional and collective identity, and a tremendous infrastructure of expertise that British cheesemakers lack. If Graham has a problem with his lancashire cheese, he has nowhere to look for help.”
There is a flipside to this, though, as Francis explains: “Each British cheesemaker has their own proprietary brand, and I think a lot of French producers are jealous of that because in France, the identity of individual farmhouse producers pretty much disappears.” He also busts the myth that British cheeses outnumber French ones – it’s all to do with different classification.
Even the UK’s favourite cheese is endangered at a farmhouse level. Cheddar makes up 55% of UK household purchases of cheese, but only a handful of farmhouse cheddar-makers remain in the West Country; in 1939, there were 333. “We have lost a huge amount of diversity and that’s pretty tragic,” says Bronwen, whose own family history reflects the global trend towards industrial monoculture. At the turn of the 20th century, her great-grandfather farmed just 20 cows at Meadowbrook Dairy in California. By the 1970s, when supermarkets began to dominate the retail market, this herd had expanded to almost 400. Now, milk from hundreds of farms is pooled together and pasteurised by big dairies; hygiene laws result in a huge loss of microbial biodiversity (cheese is “farming bugs”, after all, and relies on balance rather than obsessive cleanliness); and the cheesemaking process is artificially sped up by commercial starter cultures. Last year, Britons spent £2.78bn on cheese – yields may be high, but mass-produced cheese is homogenous, cheap and has lost its connection to the land.
Francis believes three things destroyed the British cheese industry. “Tea-drinking provides a ready market for liquid milk, cheese’s biggest competitor, while imports of cheaper US factory cheese began as early as the 19th century,” he says. And during the second world war, cheese production was limited to young, bland cheddar known as “national cheese”, which subsequently became a commercial powerhouse. Cheesemakers had to pay a premium to make other types of cheese until 1994, when the governing Milk Marketing Board was finally deregulated.
Since then, more farmhouse cheeses have come back to market, but compared with the wine industry, “the cheese and dairy industry is utterly disastrous at talking to its customers”, Francis says. British cheese is crying out for the equivalent of the Campaign for Real Ale or Real Bread Campaign.
Consider the recent revival of US farmhouse cheeses. Yes, the Californian mega-dairies making processed cheese slices still exist, but there has been a huge development in the number and excellence of US cheeses, according to West Country cheesemaker Mary Quicke, a judge at the American Cheese Society awards. “This year I tasted 20 world-class American cheeses – they were knock-your-socks-off exquisite,” she says.
Since Quicke began judging cheese in the US seven years ago, she has seen first-hand how the Certified Cheese Professional qualification has empowered hundreds of cheese retailers and customers. “Students love learning more about cheese, and people queue up to be served by them. In Whole Foods Market stores with CCP professionals, cheese sales increased by 30%,” says Quicke, who is developing a British equivalent, the Academy of Cheese.
Quicke explains that in the US, cheese sommeliers work just like a wine waiter, presenting a beautiful cheese trolley and explaining how each cheese differs. “We can really do this in Britain. You taste that cheese with knowledge and you can see the landscape, the animals, the season and the method of cheesemaking. The Academy of Cheese is all about tasting that story.”