On International Women’s Day each year, we hear inspiring stories of women breaking into and rising through industries from which they have been historically excluded. Yet what about those areas of industry in which they were historically dominant, and latterly excluded? In short, what about cheese? Below, we speak to our head cheese buyer Bronwen Percival about the role of women in British cheese both past and present.
Though this is not true of all countries, in Britain cheesemaking was the preserve of women up until the early 20th century. Where in France alpine cheese was made high in the mountains by the herdsmen “who would make them very quickly, with high heat, as he needed to get back to his animals,” Bronwen describes how British farmhouse cheese was invariably made in the kitchen by farmer’s wives “over the course of an entire day.”
“You can see in the make of old cheese recipes how they were suited to be made this way, with slow acidification and slow drainage,” she continues. Bronwen explored the role of women in British cheesemaking extensively in Reinventing the Wheel, the book she co-authored with her husband Francis. “It was a process they could come back to between caring for kids, cooking meals, doing the laundry and generally multitasking.” The steps involved were infrequent – “little jobs interspersed throughout the day” – which is why, when the production of cheese was scaled up to an industrial level and became a source of external employment (and therefore money for, chiefly, men) the make of the cheese also changed.
“A slow make is fine if you are living on site – but if you’re employing a team that means them taking breaks, sitting around and waiting for the cheese, and not being able to go home at 5pm. So cheesemaking got faster to suit nine to five hours.” This speeding up affected the flavour and texture of the cheese, and the mass-produced blocks that were born resulted in our prevailing “societal understanding” of Cheddar and Cheshire as cheeses with crumbly texture and sharp acidity, Bronwen observes, “when previously, excessive acidity in Cheddar was regarded as a fault.”
Today the resurgence of farmhouse cheese in the UK has seen the practice of slow, careful cheesemaking revived once more – though in the hands of a far more modern sort of woman (and men too, of course.) When Julie Cheyney established White Wood Dairy in East Suffolk, she chose a lactic-style cheese with a long make not because it fitted around childcare but because “I was on my own, starting a new business, and I needed something that would suit my having some other jobs to make some money between making cheese.” Nine years on, with a thriving business selling to some of the finest cheesemongers in the country, the long slow make of St Jude cheese gives Cheyney time to “look after cheeses that are ripening, pack, dispatch to customers, catch up with emails etc.” Making cheese has proved the perfect business in which one person can start, learn and grow on their own.
This is not simply a linear story from unskilled, pragmatic housewives to skilled female entrepreneurs, however. “In the Victorian era there were all these advances in microbiology and technology – and the women who were in cheese were at the cutting edge,” Bronwen enthuses. “Chemists and microbiologists were coming down from London to discover what the cheesemakers were doing, bringing their scientific understanding with them; and these cheesemakers were part of that conversation. Obviously, we have a totally different understanding of cheese on a molecular level today – but women had a feel and understanding for their cheese which made their discoveries possible.”
Today, Neal’s Yard Dairy is proud to be a place that nurtures female talents widely: from makers to cheesemongers to marketing and managerial positions. Yet we can still learn much from looking back to a time when cheesemaking was the preserve of women, who made great virtue out of necessity.
Learn more about women in British cheesemaking from our previous series "Women in Cheese." Click the links below to be taken to each story.