Food and drink expert Francis Gimblett has spent the last few months travelling across the country from the South Downs to the Highlands of Scotland, ‘wild camping’ in his Land Rover to find out the challenges facing today’s artisan cheesemakers and to discover if there’s a future for British cheese post-Brexit.
What does a typical day on the cheese trail involve?
I arrive at my destination, whether that is a farm or a dairy, the night before and then set up the roof tent on top of the Land Rover before cooking myself supper or finding a nearby pub – local ale helping to assist a night’s rest. I tend to get up early and write tasting notes for the previous day’s cheeses, as the morning is the best time to taste. I then allow myself my first coffee and cook some porridge.
The visits have so far all been different, as no combination of land, animals, recipes, people and their stories have been the same. All the cheeses have been unique. From a semi-soft, blue-veined buffalo milk cheese made in Lancashire to a raw milk prize winner in the heart of west Wales.
A visit generally comprises watching a ‘make’ – the process of transforming the milk into curd, cutting and moulding – or tasting mature cheeses with the cheesemakers in their maturation rooms. Despite not yet meeting a rich cheesemaker, they are some of the happiest folk I’ve encountered. Perhaps it is the magic of having your hands in curd?
Where did the idea for ‘100 cheesemakers in 100 days’ come from?
When my wife and I first started making our own cheese in the Surrey Hills, we struggled to find a farm which could supply us with milk. They were either tied into a contract with the big dairies or the milk quality wasn’t good enough for cheese. We did eventually find a local herd of Jersey cows which now supplies the milk for our Floyd cheese, but the experience got me thinking. I’ve studied the French model of cheese production, where dairy farmers work with cheesemakers to create artisan cheeses from small pasture-fed herds. I wanted to find out if we can do more of that in this country – because after all, you can’t make an excellent cheese without having top quality milk. And so, the idea of a road trip was born.
What is it about cheese-making that appeals?
Ultimately it is the process of creating something that puts a smile on people’s faces. It’s a form of storytelling, but instead of words it is the flavours telling the tale. Artisan cheese should taste the way it does because of the environment and aspirations of the people. It’s impossible to manufacture complexity, or a range of subtle flavours that each tell you something about how it was made.
Do you have a favourite cheese?
My favourite is always the next new one, largely because I’m greedy but also because an artisan cheese is like a book, and reading something new and wonderful is always a little more exciting than re-reading an old favourite. On my road trip, I have been lucky enough to taste around 200 cheeses so far, all unique to the small dairies and herds which produce them.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the UK cheese industry today?
It is the decline of small dairies producing high quality milk fit for making good cheese – around one small British dairy is closing every day. We have a short window of time before we will be stuck at the current level of cheesemakers, which is one-tenth of some of the European cheesemaking countries. I am worried that in 10 years there will be no small farms left for aspiring cheesemakers to make cheese from.
Where do you go from here?
When I finally arrive home to Surrey, I need to start the even tougher task of writing the book – 100 Cheesemakers – and then, of course, find a publisher!
- Francis Gimblett is on the final leg of his `100 cheesemakers in 100 days’ road trip, currently in the south west of England before his final stop in Northern Ireland. Follow his journey on Instagram (@francisgimblett) and his website tasteofthevine.co.uk