Wheels in Motion

Over the last few weeks, the public have come out in force to support British farmhouse cheesemakers, inspired by Jamie Oliver and food world figureheads such as Sheila Dillon and Nigel Slater. This week we reflect on what this remarkable show of support means for our cheesemakers practically and emotionally, and why sustaining that will prove crucial for the survival of their industry.  

It’s been eight weeks since Tom Calver and his dad Richard looked at the accounts for Westcombe Dairy and saw bills going out, but nothing coming in. It’s been eight weeks since Todd and Maugan Trethowan of Trethowan’s Dairy made the heart-wrenching decision to furlough their staff and stop making cheese. It’s been eight weeks since Neal’s Yard Dairy lost 70 per cent of its sales; that its directors realised that, without their intervention, the network of cheesemakers they’d worked for 40 years to build and sustain faced imminent meltdown. It’s been eight weeks, reflects Tom, but looking back now it “feels like this entire period has been crammed into a single day.” 

And what a ‘day’ it has been: from waking up in March and “realising we have no customers” to last night, which Tom spent wrapping 2,500 wedges of cheese for a virtual cheese and beer festival, via Jamie Oliver and Neal’s Yard Dairy, whose combined efforts to support British cheesemakers saw cheese which would have otherwise have been thrown away sold to an eager public, it is almost impossible to get one’s head around the events which have unfolded. Within a week of Jamie promoting Pitchfork Cheddar as part of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Save British Cheese selection box, Trethowan’s Dairy could start making cheese again. Ditto Jamie Montgomery with his raclette-style Ogleshield 

Joe Schneider of Stichelton Dairy, the cheesemaker behind the Dairy’s beloved Stichelton, is now more concerned he won’t have enough cheese for future orders—when only six weeks ago he had stopped making and faced the chilling prospect of throwing perfectly good cheese in the bin. “There is a three-week lag phase for me, so I need to know how much we will sell in three weeks’ time. At the moment we’re not making cheese, but Jamie and Neal’s Yard sold so much through the boxes, there is a chance we could start up again.” 

In a way, Joe’s current challenge is the one facing many cheesemakers at this point in time. As overwhelmed and overjoyed as they are by the flood of support, they remain uncertain as to the future. “When we started Save British Cheese, and got Jamie on board, it was to save all the cheese that had been intended for restaurants,” explains Neal’s Yard Dairy director Jason Hinds—cheese that was taking up valuable storage space, cheese that was going to go off imminently, cheese that would otherwise have been thrown away. 

That that cheese has been ‘saved’—some given by the makers themselves to worthy causes like hospitals or street kitchens, the majority of it sold by the Neal’s Yard Dairy and its counterparts to the cheese-loving public—is no mean feat. And at a time when there seems little cause for celebration, it’s worth celebrating, “but while we are so grateful to the public, to Jamie and everyone who championed this campaign, the reality is that cheesemakers are selling far less than they would normally be,” he continues. With many international markets still limited, restaurants still closed and shops that are open operating with social distancing measures in place, “the next few months will remain difficult. We are at the start of a much longer road.” In short, while it is no longer “the beginning of the end” for British cheese, it is very much “the end of the beginning.”  

“Our Covent Garden shop is closed. In Borough Market, only one or two people are allowed into the shop at a time—and there’s every chance that they’ll extend the social distancing till Christmas,” Jason explains, which is when they and every other cheesemonger in Britain would normally make the majority of the year’s sales. Telling the public to save British cheese, like telling them to ‘stay home’, is a straightforward and compelling message. Forecasting what will happen when that messaging becomes more nuanced is much harder. The fear for cheesemakers is that with the vivid, immediate danger of wasted cheese (and financial ruin) removed, “people will jump onto the next thing; that it will prove a fad, once the focus on it has been removed,” says Tom, whose fingers are red raw from slicing and wrapping orders for the beer and cheese festival this weekend.  

Then there’s the basic maths: slices sold individually, even 2,500 of them, do not make up for the wheels and wheels of cheese they’d normally be shifting. “I am so unbelievably grateful for every order coming in. The level of appreciation has been wonderful. But wrapping 200g block of cheese up actually takes the same amount of time, if not more, as putting six wheels of cheddar on a palette to send off for wholesale.” Tom’s biggest concern—the big concern of all cheesemakers right nowis “how to sustain this sporadic sales pattern, with so many unknowns out there, and the instability of trying to prepare for and navigate what the world will look like as everything starts to wake up again.” 

The process of making cheese is cyclical, from milking to maturing. Stopping or reducing it has consequences, as several cheesemakers have found to their cost in recent weeks. The time lag in cheese is such that if you stop making now, you risk missing out on future sales—and yet in this climate it’s anyone’s guess what future sales might be. When Stephen Fletcher, who makes the ewes milk cheese Berkswell, reduced milking in the wake of foot and mouth, it was “a mistake,” he says. “Sowe’ve decided to keep milking and making.” There are cheeses Neal’s Yard Dairy now can’t get and meet demand for, because the makers stopped making when the lockdown hit. To restart or scale up production once it has ceased takes considerable technical and mental energy.  

“It takes confidence to start making again,” says Jamie, who has reduced cheddar making to four days a week for the first time in his life, and who had up until last week stopped making Ogleshield entirely. With a turnaround of just 10 weeks and a market that up until recently was restaurant focused, resurrecting Ogleshield was “a difficult decision,” he says. Alpine in style, slightly esoteric, popular with chefs for melting and cooking with, Ogleshield is a prime example of a “restaurant cheese. Nonetheless, following its inclusion in the Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Save British Cheese box, sales have continued apace. Re-starting the make has been “so uplifting. Our cheesemaker, Steve Bridges, has been desperate to get back in the dairy. What I want to make sure of is that when in 10 weeks’ time those customers who have been buying Ogleshield, and those farms shops and delis that have been doing a great job at selling it, have a really, really good cheese.” 

One of the few upshots to have been borne of the decimation of the wholesale market is that cheesemakers have connected directly with people—through Jamie and Neal’s Yard Dairy, and through their own social media feeds. “We’re more social media savvy,” says Stephen. “We’re getting new Instagram followers daily. We have more engagement with customers.” He’s keen to continue this in the future. “We’ve droned on and on about how people are disconnected from farms and producers,” agrees Tom. “Now it’s at our fingertips.” Finally, they’re communicating with people who only ever ate good cheese in restaurants; with people who had never even tasted cheese as good as this. “People who have bought the Save British Cheese box because they saw it on Instagram, or because Jamie told them to, they wrote to us or to Neal’s Yard saying they’d never had anything like it,” says Jamie. The hope is that now the artisanal cheese genie is out and, in the mouths, and minds of the public, there’s no bottling it back up again. Restaurants will return. Full time working will resume. “People won’t be as engaged once life gets busy again,” reflects Stephen, “but they have discovered cheese which is so much nicer than what they were eating before, and I think some of that enthusiasm and those customers will remain.”  

He is optimistic. Indeed, all the cheesemakers I speak to are, relatively. “You have to be,” says Tom. “And you have to focus on the future. If the last eight weeks has taught us anything, it is the importance of having a diverse, robust business, just like we need a diverse and robust microbial environment, or grasses.” They won’t sell anything like the quantities they would normally be selling, during what would have been peak event season, but so long as interest in and engagement with British farmhouse cheese continues, they should be able to “bridge the gap until restaurants get going again,” agrees Jamie.   

We finish our call just as Jamie is harvesting grass to make silage. “The grass I am driving on now won’t be fed to the cows until February 2021. The cheddar made from that grass won’t be ready to eat until February 2022. That is my perspective,” he remarks, philosophically. The last eight weeks have posed extraordinary challenges to our farmhouse cheesemakers. The next eight months will likely challenge them still further. But by the time Montgomery’s cheddar hits the shelves of Neal’s Yard Dairy in February 2022, the worst of this crisis will be over. It’s a perspective we could all do with breathing in.