By Steve The Cheese Parker: author of “British Cheese on Toast”
There are more farmhouse and artisan cheesemakers in Britain today than at any time since the 1930s. During wartime and up to 1954, the government ordered that milk could only be used to make a single style of cheese known as ‘Government Cheddar’. This had the effect of wiping out virtually all farmhouse cheesemaking. From over 3500 cheesemakers before the First World War, only 100 remained by 1950. The trend for mass-production, and the rise of supermarkets, accelerated this decline at the same time as food products such as instant mashed potato and Spam became increasingly available. Our food buying habits were being driven by industrial scale production, convenience and low pricing.
By the 1980s, we were starting to travel abroad more than ever before and started discovering new tastes and flavours. Olive oil, balsamic vinegar and other delicacies became more and more popular, but the only quality cheeses were imported and we started eating Brie, Camembert and Manchego.
The next major change was the abolition of the Milk Marketing Board, which had until 1994, controlled the supply and price of milk. Dairy farmers now had no guaranteed outlet for their milk and many turned back to traditional farmhouse cheesemaking as a way of using their milk,
and at the same time securing a better price than previously.
As a result, The last 25 years have seen the rise of traditional cheese styles such as Stilton, Red Leicester and Lancashire amongst other British classics. Although these cheese styles are still made commercially in industrial scale dairies, they use milk from a number of different sources and therefore lack the individuality and uniqueness of cheeses made using milk from a single herd. In the same way that terroir is an integral ingredient to the variety of flavours and nuances in wine, handmade artisan cheeses exhibit characteristics that reflect the land and the farm on which they are mad. Even within Somerset, traditional farmhouse cheddars have distinctly differing flavours, even from farms only a few miles apart.
Flavour and taste distinguish farmhouse cheeses from the mass-produced versions, and by buying these cheeses we are helping to support the ancient traditions of British family owned farms, as opposed to large multinational dairy companies.
With over 700 different styles of cheese made in Britain today, there is a wide and varied range from the traditional styles (Cheshire has been made for over 1000 years) to modern cheeses such as Old Winchester, a full flavoured hard crumbly cheese from Hampshire, to Baron Bigod, a deliciously soft and creamy Brie style cheese from Suffolk.
By buying artisan and farmhouse cheeses, as well as using independent cheese shops, we are helping to maintain British traditions as well as supporting family owned businesses throughout the country.
In spring 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Prince Charles issued the following statement supporting artisan farmhouse cheese….
‘British cheese makers need our support during this time of great uncertainty, and we can all help in the simplest way. By sourcing British cheese from local shops and cheesemongers, and directly from producers online, you can make a vital contribution to keeping these small businesses afloat during the prevailing crisis.’