Photograph by Simon Buck

It’s clear to see now what happens in a modern day pandemic; supermarkets and Amazon excel, families come together and defend themselves with walls of pasta and parapets of loo roll in their homes, and hospital workers – not footballers or film stars – are seen as the nation’s true icons. 

Yet, whilst many supermarkets are exceeding their Christmas sales in spring’s dreary lockdown, the vast majority of small-scale retailers and artisan producers are losing out due to no fault of their own. There is no better place to witness this plight than in the British farmhouse cheese industry, where recently “a call to arms” has been made by both cheesemakers and cheesemongers to buy and promote their cheeses and dairy products in order for them to survive, and with it, the preservation of our food heritage.

Photographs by Angus D. Birditt

"a call to arms"

It was during the 24-hours after the government finally decided to close all non-essential retailers and restaurants that the majority of British cheesemakers stood back and watched helplessly whilst their wholesales plummeted. A story that seemed to resonate across the nation; “we saw our wholesale volumes go from being normal to almost completely stopped, causing many cheesemakers (ourselves included) to immediately cease production” – Jake Wigmore from Village Maid Cheese in Berkshire.

 

“Our sales disappeared from one minute to the next, forcing us to start again from scratch in order to remain in business” – Julianna Sedli from The Old Cheese Room in Wiltshire. Carwyn Adams from Caws Cenarth in Carmarthenshire also watched as his demand nearly vanished completely. “My sales suddenly dropped off a cliff, completely gone. I am a second-generation cheesemaker, and I have never seen the industry like this. It is at its most vulnerable state for decades. British cheesemakers need more support, or we will see many great cheeses disappear in no time.” Martin Gott, the maker of St James Cheese in Cumbria, says “we celebrate 15 years of St James this year and wonder if we’ll still be in business at the end of it.”

Photograph by Angus D. Birditt

"£3 million a year, lost in a blink of an eye"

The closures and subsequent lockdown saw a similar impact on the British cheesemongers like Andy Swinscoe from The Courtyard Dairy near Settle in Lancaster, who found it “very tough, especially as we are not the most ‘convenient’ shop in the lockdown, we have since had to adapt.” Jason Hinds, Sales Director at Neal’s Yard Diary, who has been in the farmhouse cheese industry for over thirty years, also saw sales take a severe nosedive. “Over that 24-hour period when restaurants closed, we saw 55% of our business gone, over 400 restaurants, that’s £3 million a year, lost in a blink of an eye.” 

 

It seems, however, that every cheesemaker and cheesemonger in Britain alike has the spirit of a young Holstein bullock and resilience of a Hereford heifer, when it comes to needing “an extraordinary reaction in a time of crisis.” Once the decision was made to close and the lockdown to begin, the majority had to drastically alter the ways of operating, and in Jason Hinds’ words, had to “gain the ability to pivot quickly in order to keep afloat.” Many cheesemakers, for example, are now switching much of their sales to ‘direct’; online orders, delivery boxes and straight to locals via vending machines – or otherwise known as ‘Milkbots’ like at Appleby’s Cheese in Shropshire and Julie Cheyney’s St. Jude Cheese in Suffolk. Mary Quicke from Quicke’s Cheese says “like other cheesemakers, we are doing a lot more online orders with surges from locals also wanting to click and collect.” Whilst Martin Moyden from Moyden’s Cheese in Shropshire says, he has “already seen direct sales jump to 90% from 20% before the lockdown.” 

Photograph by Genevieve Lutkin

Photograph by Angus D. Birditt

"I wouldn't be surprised over the coming weeks to see

a few jewels being lost in the crown of British farmhouse cheese"

The same transition to online sales and deliveries has also hit the ground running with the cheesemongers. Andy from The Courtyard Dairy says they have started delivering locally, and reduced their range of cheeses in order to make it work. Neal’s Yard Dairy has their ‘Dairy Box’ and cheeses available to buy online (nealsyarddairy.co.uk) with delivery throughout England and Wales. They have also recently teamed up with Natoora – a restaurant supplier, who in a matter of days have redirected their sales from chefs to households – for a new initiative that delivers their cheeses alongside other similar artisan essentials, like organic eggs, Townsend Farm Apple Juice and The Estate Dairy milk, across the breadth of the British Isles.

 

But more is needed to help our cheesemakers and cheesemongers nationwide to stay open and survive this crisis. Jason from Neal’s Yard Dairy says, “now, more than ever, do we need to raise the awareness and support for these farmhouse cheeses. That means buying from your local cheesemaker or cheesemonger, rather than turning straight towards the commodity, supermarket cheeses. The industry has seen and been through crises before, but not like this. As a nation, we need to see farmhouse cheese as an essential product, and not a luxury. It is a shame to see many great cheesemakers struggling to keep afloat, and I wouldn’t be surprised over the coming weeks to see a few jewels being lost in the crown of British farmhouse cheese.” He adds, “many of our soft and blue cheeses are most at risk in this crisis, so it is really important we help them first.”

 

Producers like Amiee Lawn from Innes Cheese in Staffordshire and Jonny Crickmore from Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk are both “extremely concerned about the present situation, and about selling existing stock” due to their soft cheeses having a short self-life. Amiee and Jonny have said they have already seen a drop in orders, a staggering 95% and 70% respectively, in a matter of 24-hours. Joe Schneider from Stichelton Dairy in Nottinghamshire, who makes blue cheese, says, “without a market much of our stock is likely to spoil.” This drop in demand for these soft and blue cheeses is due to a trend from customers opting to buy harder, commodity cheese from supermarkets that have a much longer shelf life, such as, Cheddar and Parmesan.

Photograph by Harry Darby

For centuries now – and more recently, since what Ned Palmer called ‘The Great Cheese Renaissance’ during the 1970s – regional farmhouse cheeses has played a rich chapter in our British heritage. According to Peter’s Yard, Britain has over 750 varieties of cheese. You have to go back to World War II to see a similar predicament for our cheesemakers, when many unique varieties of cheese were lost to help make what was to become known as ‘Government Cheddar’, a harder, more durable cheese that could last several months.  

 

Yet with the lockdown in process and all the strict social distancing in place, nearly all of the cheesemakers and cheesemongers interviewed have seen “a refreshing restoration in human nature and community, where many locals are supporting and buying our cheeses.” Carrie Rimes from Cosyn Cymru in Gwynedd agreed; “with some luck this could be the very start of a longer-term initiative for locals to buy more of their local food, and perhaps they will get to know the lives and makers behind their bread, cheese and meats!” 

So, what can you do to help?

Start by buying British farmhouse cheeses, either from your local cheesemaker or cheesemonger. Many of them are now doing online deliveries nationwide, prepack orders, or click and collect services from their farms or creameries. Now more than ever, we need to support our farmhouse cheeses, both to help the makers and people, who are working tirelessly to feed a nation in these dubious times, and to sustain our British food heritage. 

Photograph by Angus D. Birditt

Photograph by Simon Buck

Photograph by Genevieve Lutkin

Order your cheeses here:

Padfield family, Bath Soft Cheese Company

parkfarm.co.uk | 01225 331601

Carwyn Adams, Caws Cenarth Cheese

www.cawscenarth.co.uk | 01239 710432

Carrie Rimes, Cosyn Cymru 

www.cosyn.cymru

 

Jonny Crickmore, Fen Farm Dairy 

www.fenfarmdairy.co.uk | 01986 892350

Marcus Fergusson, Felthams Farm

www.felthamsfarm.com | 01963 370857

Mark Hardy, High Weald Dairy

www.highwealddairy.co.uk | 01825 791636

 

Amiee Lawn, Innes Cheese

www.innescheese.co.uk | 01827 830197

Simon & Tim Jones, Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese

lincolnshirepoachercheese.com | 01507 466987

 

Martin Moyden, Moyden’s Cheese

www.moydenscheese.co.uk | 01630 639796

 

Jason Hinds, Neal’s Yard Dairy 

www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk | 020 7367 0799

 

Paxton & Whitfield

www.paxtonandwhitfield.co.uk | 01451 823460

Mary Quicke, Quicke’s Cheese

www.quickes.co.uk | 01392 851222

 

Joe Schneider, Stichelton Dairy

www.stichelton.co.uk | 01623 844883

Martin Gott, St James Cheese

www.stjamescheese.co.uk | 015395 59309

 

Julie Cheyney, St. Jude Cheese

www.stjudecheese.com | 01986 892350

 

Andy Swinscoe, The Courtyard Dairy

www.thecourtyarddairy.co.uk | 01729 823291

Julianna Sedli, The Old Cheese Room

www.theoldcheeseroom.com | 07531 060936

 

Jake Wigmore, Village Maid Cheese

www.villagemaidcheese.co.uk | 0118 988 4564

Peter Humphries, White Lake Cheese

www.whitelake.co.uk | 01749 831527

Photograph by Paolo Ferla

Saving British Farmhouse Cheese

Article by Angus D. Birditt | @ourisles

Photographs by Angus D. Birditt, Simon Buck, Harry Darby, Genevieve Lutkin, Paolo Ferla.

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