Unprecedented. Uncertain. Unstable. Unbelievable. Many adjectives have been used to describe the last 10 months, and few of them are positive. Whether you’re a student or a solicitor, a chef or a cheesemaker, there are few people who have found this year easy – and that’s before you consider those on the front line. The good news is that Neal’s Yard Dairy’s monthly cheese box subscription, which has been running since August, is actively enabling farmers and cheesemakers to carry on milking, making cheese and supporting their families. The bad news is – for cheesemakers at least – the effects will continue to be felt for a while, even after the situation starts improving.
At the time of writing we are only a fortnight into the lockdown that came without warning at the start of the month. But among restaurants, caterers and their suppliers like Neal’s Yard Dairy, the ramifications are already being felt. “We have already seen a depression in sales – soft cheese producers in particular are likely to have a surplus,” says Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Jason Hinds. “It’s a very uncertain period for the industry.”
Cheesemakers producing cheeses that are matured for anything more than a few weeks had to make a call on how much cheese to make for Christmas long before the lockdown was announced. Some, like the blue cheese makers we interviewed for a previous blog post, will have too little; others will have too much. “I spoke to Stacey Hedges yesterday, who makes Tunworth, one of our most popular soft cheeses,” Jason says. “She has 2,000 cheeses with a best before date of December 12th that urgently need to find a new home.”
Our job now is to find a way to help shift them. “They’re excellent cheeses, so we’ll find a way,” he continues – thanks in no small part to loyal customers. The joy of anticipating, receiving and finally cutting into a squidgy wedge of Tunworth, served as it is or baked in the oven until oozing, is only heightened by the fact they know the people and communities that purchase will support.
“The biggest trading period for restaurants and caterers is the last two weeks of November and the first two weeks of December,” Jason says simply. This, combined with Christmas parties (of which a cheeseboard is a staple feature), means cheesemakers too make most of their yearly income in these months. Those who optimistically made enough to see restaurants and retailers through the run up to Christmas fear wastage; yet those who erred on the side of the caution, at the risk of losing out on potential sales, are only marginally better off.
Put like this, it’s a bleak picture. Yet the enthusiasm with which Neal’s Yard Dairy customers have signed up to and celebrated their subscription gives Jason and the cheesemakers cause for optimism. Since July, more than 2,000 cheese lovers have signed up to have a box of hand selected cheeses delivered every month. They’ve bought them for themselves and their household, as a treat to see them through this year. They’ve bought them as gifts for the loved ones they might not be able to see but can still supply with quality cheese.
And they’ve been rewarded – not just with exceptional cheese, but the knowledge that they are supporting the country’s small artisan cheesemakers in the most direct way possible. Not only does Neal’s Yard Diary buy directly from the cheesemakers (the supply ‘chain’ consists simply of them and our buying team) but we work alongside them too, offering advice, support and customer feedback. When back in March cheesemakers were left with hundreds, even thousands of wheels of cheese to shift, thanks to the lockdown of restaurants, events and many retailers, we banded together with food figure heads such as Jamie Oliver and other cheesemongers to raise awareness among the public – who duly bought tonnes of British cheese in order to support the families and farms that make it and to prevent it from going to waste.
Working directly with cheesemakers enables us to select those cheeses we think are the best, while supporting them through testing periods. Being able to do that via the subscription service is even better – because it gives our cheesemakers security at an increasingly uncertain time. “January and February will be periods of tightness for both people and businesses,” says Jason. “But cows, goats and sheep will continue to produce milk at the same rate as they have always done.” If cheesemakers and the vibrant rural ecosystem they support are to survive and thrive into the future, much of that milk will need value added to it by transforming it into cheese.
“The subscription service is an amazing way of providing ongoing support,” says Jason. It’s enriching for customers too, as the overwhelmingly positive feedback from our current subscribers has so far testified. Each month’s selection is chosen according to the season, what’s tasting exceptionally good and any notable festivities which might be occurring that month, such as St Patrick’s Day or Easter. When it comes to December’s selection, this is of course Christmas: the festival most synonymous with cheese in Britain. Those who are already signed up, or who do so before Christmas, can expect a Rollright – a soft, lightly washed-rinded cheese inspired by Vacherin Mont D’or; a cheddar-like Lincolnshire Poacher; and Sparkenhoe Blue, a Stilton-inspired blue cheese.
Ask any Briton what cheese they most associate with Christmas, and they will reply – almost without hesitation – Stilton. “In France, it’s Vacherin Mont D’or, a cheese that is perfect for baking and sharing in a group,” says Jason. The Lincolnshire Poacher is included in the box “because it’s a hybrid between a cheddar and an alpine-style cheese, and a good staple for a family.” You can, of course, buy this box as a one off – it will be just as delectable – but the loyalty of our subscribers enables us to offer them at a markedly lower price, for the same generous amount of cheese.
As we approach a Christmas in which we are all looking for presents that can be given without our physical presence, the Neal’s Yard Dairy Subscription represents an ideal to reward your loved ones, our cheesemakers and – should you be so tempted, for yourselves also – for enduring the annus horribilis that has been 2020.