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Neal's Yard Dairy maturing rooms

From the top of the valley, you can see pretty much right to the sea. The landscape in between is typical of that here in Dorset; shaped by rolling hills and hidden holloways, skinny lanes and sparse settlements. Right below me is the small village I live in. Only eighty years ago – did an elderly resident tell me – it was a thriving place with four farms, more than a hundred people of all ages and crowded with noise.

Nowadays, eight decades on, the village is mute, with 80% of houses second homes and no farms to speak of. What really struck me hearing from the elderly resident was that there were four farms in the village, each apparently a dairy farm and making their own cheese with mixed animals and native breeds – what a flavour experience that would have been! But this isn’t a nostalgic yearn for the past or a swipe at second homeowners, it is an ominous sign for the survival of our small-scale and diverse dairy industry, of course, many supplying milk to our artisan and farmhouse cheesemakers.

I hear you, four farms in one village in eighty years doesn’t sound like a disaster, but multiply this downward trend across these isles, and you have one. Sadly, that is exactly what has happened, and continues to happen. Dairy farmers continue to be squeezed out, with production costs being higher than what they can sell their milk for. The result for artisan cheesemakers is that the unique and diverse supply of milk – from different regions, from different breeds of animal – is being lost, and with that, unique and diverse cheeses. 

You only need to look back at the last century, for example, with two World Wars, centralisation, industrialisation, mechanisation, containerisation - and I’m sure many other ‘isations’ - to understand this decimation of small-scale farmers, and with them, the diversity of artisan cheese. It was only in the 1970s, there was a much-needed resurgence. But more recently, during Covid, a handful of artisan cheesemakers sadly had to cease production, mainly down to the fact that many were producing soft, fresh cheeses that couldn’t be transported and or eaten quick enough.


So, here we are, three years or so since the end of Covid, and I ask, where is the artisan cheese industry in 2024? To help me understand, I spoke to a few reputable figures in the industry to hear their take on the current situation, looking at both the positive and negative impacts, and where’s next for the industry.


The support for raw milk and its cheesemakers

Andy Swinscoe at The Courtyard Dairy is one of the leading figures in artisan cheese, I asked him, what his projections were for the industry in 2024. “It will be a challenging year ahead for the artisan cheese industry with the restaurant trade still struggling with their overheads to buy artisan cheese for their menus, and for the individual, their disposable income has been squeezed, so on the whole, many people are buying less.”


For our artisan cheesemakers this year, especially for those using raw milk, Andy tells me that it is an increasingly difficult product to make. “Raw milk cheese, in particular, is expensive to make, it costs more with testing, but it is also the lengths at which they go to at farm level, such as choosing the right type of animal to farm, the right feed and even down to managing aspects like the cleanliness of animal’s udders.”

When The Courtyard Dairy first established in 2012, Andy, and his wife, Kathy, sold as much as 80% raw milk cheese. Now, twelve years on, it’s down to around 50-40% raw milk cheese. “It makes life a lot simpler to pasteurise your cheese," Andy continues, "the issues I’ve spoken about are just not there. That’s why I have such admiration for those raw milk cheesemakers who have all come up against difficult challenges when making raw milk cheeses, their standards and passion for creating a unique food product haven’t been dented, they could have pressed that ‘pasteurise’ button, but they didn’t.” These raw milk cheesemakers are also flying the flag for microbial diversity. Decades of homogenisation in the industry has seen diversity diminish, from styles and flavours, down to the levels of micronutrients, yeasts, bacteria and moulds.


These negative impacts of homogenisation can be seen in France at the moment, where their Camembert and Brie styles are, according to the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), on the 'verge of extinction' due to fungi, which help to produce the cheese’s distinctive flavours and aromas, struggling to breed. Expand this to the entire food and farming system, a move away from microbial diversity can spell danger for the health of people and planet.


“I must also say that I’m a big fan of pasteurisation as well.” Andy notes, “It’s not to say that every cheese should be made with raw milk, there are some cheesemakers like David Jowett making incredible artisan cheeses that use pasteurised milk. We also need to make milk and cheese safe on a larger scale, so that needs to be pasteurised as well.”

Andy Swinscoe at The Courtyard Dairy, Yorkshire


Cheesemaker David Jowett & British Friesians

Which cheeses are trending this year?

According to those working within the hallowed halls of Neal’s Yard Dairy, lots more European-style cheeses are coming to the fore with their distinctive flavours and textures.


Srdja Mastilovic, Wholesale Manager at NYD tells me, “This year, we are seeing more soft, lactic cheese and washed-rind cheese cropping up, perhaps a little more than your harder, crumblier cheeses.” This trend also makes sense financially, as more European and softer, lactic cheeses can be made sooner, matured sooner and sold sooner, with a quicker turnaround and less infrastructure needed to make and mature these styles (i.e 1 or 2 medium-sized rooms). Making a Cheddar-style cheese, for example, needs a lot of hard labour and huge storage rooms to mature the wheels for a least 6-9 months before you can sell anything.


Looking over the last 15 years, Srdja tells me that Neal’s Yard Dairy have three times as many European-style cheeses now. “It’s those sweet, nutty flavours and bouncy textures of Alpine-Swiss style cheeses that the British public seem to prefer at the moment.”


Andy from The Courtyard Dairy agrees, “What I call ‘sexy cheeses’, both new cheesemakers and customers are leaning towards the smooth, soft, nutty, buttery Alpine-style cheeses, rather than the more traditional, territorial cheeses. But it’s important we support both on-trend and traditional cheeses at the same time.”

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Diverse artisan cheese and animals in these isles

What does the future look like for artisan cheese?

For the artisan cheese industry to really pick up to levels that we saw towards the end of Covid, when a nation was inclined to buy more locally and consciously, it seems energy costs and related overheads need to come down for the wholesale and restaurant trades to start buying more artisan cheese in larger quantities. Plus, the larger wholesalers need to give longer-term, more secure contracts for small-scale producers in order for the producers themselves to have more security and reassurance to produce and develop further.

As with much of our food industry, it is the warmer months of spring and summer that see people buying more artisan cheese, especially with many travelling across these isles on holiday and using our cheesemongers as a suitable place to stock up for lunch or dinner. We are also seeing an increase in ‘Cheese-tourism’, cheesemakers and mongers becoming the destination, building on-site cafes and restaurants making delicious, oozing cheesy delights.


It’s fantastic to see new additions to our cheeseboards as well. Srdja tells me that Neal’s Yard Dairy is excited to be working with a new cheesemaker, Emily Tydeman at Broughton Hall Dairy in Suffolk. Emily makes Pyghtle, a soft, lactic mould-ripened raw ewe's milk cheese – which I cannot wait to sample! Alongside Pyghtle, Neal’s Yard Dairy is also excited to see (and taste) the developments of King Stone Dairy’s latest addition, Bibury, the aforementioned hard ewe’s milk cheese – a similar texture and flavour profile to Ossau-Iraty.


Another exciting ewe’s milk cheese to try this year is Cullum, a collaborative and sustainable creation between Paxton & Whitfield and Martin Gott made in Cumbria that uses the glut of summer surplus milk. Cullum is full of bright, juicy, umami flavours - which I can tell you is wonderful.

Over the border in Wales, Carrie Rimes in Eryri National Park (Snowdonia) is continuing to make her award-winning raw milk cheeses. In addition to her Brefu Bach, Calan and Olwyn cheeses, Carrie is experimenting with a new cheese that will celebrate the local breed of cow in North Wales – more news on that project to follow on Our Isles. When I recently visited Carrie, I also met Bradley Cunningham from the Wacky Wedge Cheese Company, who, from April this year, will be making cheese at Carrie’s newly renovated-chapel-cum-cheesemaking-rooms. Bradley makes Yr Afr, a soft, mould-ripened raw goat’s milk cheese, which is outstanding from the samples I’ve already had.


Celebrate raw milk and diversity - photographs from A Portrait of British Cheese

Over the last year or so, The Courtyard Dairy have expanded with a new on-site restaurant called Rind – in collaboration with The Cheese Bar in London – and new cheesemaking facilities, which in the coming year, will see its first ever cheese being made.


“It was a natural progression for us to make cheese.” Andy says, “We’re not here to compete with other cheesemakers, we want to make something that seemed right for us.” He is looking at making a hard, dry and long-aged style cheese with “a nice sharpness to it”. The cheese will be made to a simple recipe, not dissimilar to mountain cheese made in Spain and Portugal. Andy will source his raw milk from a farm less than a mile away – you can see it from Rind – that focuses on what he calls “small, hairy animals, mainly fed on grass and outside for much of the year.”


Alongside Andy’s new upcoming cheese, look forward to seasonal cheeses like Summerfield, a raw cow's milk Alpine-style cheese made by the Botton Village Community in Yorkshire, and Stonebeck, a raw cow’s milk Wensleydale cheese made by the Hattan family also in Yorkshire. Something I implore you to do this year is to try all three raw milk farmhouse Wensleydales alongside each other, showing you how diverse one style of artisan cheese can really be.


On the other side of England, Village Maid Dairy in Berkshire have announced they will be continuing the make of Barkham Blue, a blue cheese originally made by Sandy and Andy Rose at Two Hoots Cheese. The cheese will continue to be made with the same utterly divine Guernsey cow’s milk.

Conclusion - Buy from source, encourage raw milk and wellbeing 

Artisan cheese is a celebration of people, place, community and tradition. As we have seen with the Fletchers who made Berkswell and many other farmhouse producers and makers across these isles, it seems more important than ever to support the industry. Buying our artisan cheese (and food in general) as close to the source is essential for so many reasons. It provides more revenue direct to the producer, increases community and wellbeing for both citizen and producer, and reconnects our food to place and people.

Diversity in our food and farming is rapidly diminishing, determining the health of people and planet. These artisan cheesemakers celebrate diversity, of what we have left, and we must encourage this fact. Not only for the pure sensory joys of savouring its different flavours, textures, appearances and aromas, we should indeed also revel in the industry’s diverse community, breeds of animals, methods of production and types of milk, landscapes and pastures involved. Can you think of another similar food product that is so regional to these isles? It’s a wonder to behold!


We should pay particular attention to those producing raw milk. Andy notes, “We should be banging the raw milk drum!” These farmers and cheesemakers are proud to be using a food product that is directly related to animal and soil. When it is produced according to the highest levels of food and farming, it is jam-packed with friendly bacteria, fats, proteins, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Research shows that artisan cheese made using raw milk also includes digestive and anti-inflammatory enzymes. It also shows that drinking raw milk is linked to lower rates of asthma, allergies, eczema, ear infections and fevers.


I believe when raw milk produce is sourced from a farm, producer and/or micro-dairy you trust to be working to the highest levels of farming and food production, including high animal welfare, and if you’re lucky to have them local to you, eat and drink away!

Furthermore, we need to support our farmhouse cheesemakers who are producing a product that connects us to the environment, especially those makers and farmers who are producing cheese in line with Nature’s cycles and limitations. One raw milk farmhouse cheese that we must all buy this year is Kirkham’s Lancashire, a truly versatile cheese that is steeped in heritage, and one that evokes the connection between product and place.

It’s fantastic to hear that we are seeing new artisan cheeses and cheesemakers cropping up across the breadth of the British and Irish Isles – including the resurgence of our farmhouse Wensleydales and new additions like Pyghtle, Bibury and Yr Afr – keeping your tastebuds busy and our communities rich with regional and nutritious food. It is equally important to support our territorial cheeses, as Andy Swinscoe says, “It’s as important to support what is traditional, as it is to support what is new.”

Can anyone be a cheesemaker?


Nowadays, with the acquisition of land, cheesemaking rooms and equipment, making cheese can be a huge financial risk. However, there are multiple opportunities to become an artisan cheesemaker if you are asking the right people. The model seems to be to work with existing artisan cheesemakers and/or collaborate with local farmers who want to diversify. You only need to look at Martin and Hazel from Pevensey Blue, once cheesemongers at Neal’s Yard Dairy, they now work with a local farm in East Sussex to source organic milk to make their light, nutty blue cheese. Becoming a member of the Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association is probably the best way to learn more on how to be an artisan cheesemaker.

Where is artisan cheese in 2024?

Words & photographs by Angus D. Birditt | @angusdbirditt

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