Jenny Linford is a London-based food writer. She is the author of several books, including Great British Cheeses.
As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, the depth of the economic damage to so many livelihoods is becoming clear, and the world of British artisan cheese has been significantly affected by the closure of restaurants, hotels, pubs and cafes.
Practically overnight, cheesemakers and cheesemongers who supplied these businesses saw a massive loss of business.
Speaking to cheesemakers and cheesemongers over the phone, as I’ve been doing these past few days to learn their stories, I could hear their shock, frustration and fear of what might happen to their businesses in their voices.
As the world’s last maker of traditional farmhouse Lancashire cheese, dairy farmer Graham Kirkham, from Goosnargh in Lancashire, has a special place in Britain’s cheese heritage.
'In 1978, we started making cheese, before that my grandma, my mum’s mum she made it all her life. Probably 70 per cent of what we do just disappeared overnight. I watched the news and I just started to melt. That first week we just sold nine cheeses. I was stood here thinking, how can nine cheeses run a farm, a cheesemaking dairy and pay nine wages? If this is the norm, how long am I going to last? You see, farms don’t stop. Feed bills are big, wages for working the land in spring, fuel bills, fertiliser bills.'
Farmer Jonny Crickmore of Fen Farm Dairy in Bungay, Suffolk, uses milk from his own herd of Montbeliarde cows to make Baron Bigod, a brie-style cheese that featured recently on MasterChef. As the maker of a soft, perishable cheese who sold primarily to the restaurant trade, he was hard hit. 'When the restaurants closed we lost 70 per cent of our business.'
Left with a 'mountain of cheese' – 5.5 tonnes of Baron Bigod - that 'nobody wanted,' Jonny stopped producing and set about trying to find new ways to sell it direct to the public. He discounted the cheese, selling it online and through local deliveries.
'I wake up in the morning on a mission. It’s a horrible situation but I’m loving the challenge,' he says with characteristic energy.
In the Lake District, Martin Gott makes a characterful, washed rind, raw sheep’s milk cheese called St James. As sheep don’t give milk all year round, this is a highly seasonal cheese.
'March, April, May, June is our biggest sales window, so we’re acutely feeling the pressure of having no sales.'
Instead of making St James, a soft, perishable cheese, Martin is now using the milk from his sheep to make a new, hard cheese called Crookwheel (named after a field on his farm) which he hopes will be ready in June.
'It’s a gamble – the cheeses are well made and well looked after, but it takes time to get a cheese recipe right.'
Personally speaking, the thought of celebrating Christmas without a large piece of Colston Bassett Stilton is unimaginable. However, Billy Kevan, Colston Bassett’s Head Cheesemaker, is concerned about the future of the business.
'It is dire,' he says frankly. 'A large part of our cheese went to food service. It’s not just the UK market that’s affected. We sell to the US, that’s reduced. We sell to Europe, that’s reduced. We’ve never had impacts all at the same time.'
For the safety of his staff – since Stilton is made in close proximity in hot, humid conditions – the dairy has stopped cheese production, and of 32 members of staff, 18 have been furloughed. The cheese is normally sold between eight to 12 weeks old, but Billy has started storing it in cold temperatures to slow down maturing while he tries to find a market for his existing stock.
Blessed with lush, green pastureland, Britain has a rich cheese heritage, dating back centuries. During the last two to three decades, the artisan cheese scene here has flourished. Cheesemakers making new cheeses but using traditional methods, joined those making historic cheeses.
The UK’s thriving restaurant scene offered the perfect place for these cheeses, new and classic, to be showcased and enjoyed. The abrupt closure of food services, the sharp decline in exports, the closure of so many outlets have created a perfect economic storm. The very real worry is many cheesemakers will go out of business.
I was struck by the way British cheesemakers and cheesemongers are coming together to support each other through the crisis. There is a real community spirit. Cheesemakers who have started selling direct to the public are offering cheeses from other makers alongside their own to help them.
Local communities have rallied, buying cheeses direct from their cheesemakers. Cheesemongers like Neal’s Yard Dairy are working closely with their suppliers, prioritising those cheesemakers who have the highly perishable cheeses or most stock, selling them at discounted prices and promoting them through social media.
Graham Kirkham’s message to the public is simple: 'Please support your local food producers. Hunt us out and buy from us, because if you don’t, we’re not going to be here.'
There’s never been a more important time to buy good British cheese.
Where to buy British cheese
- Neal’s Yard Dairy
- The Cheese Shed
- The Courtyard Dairy
- Paxton and Whitfield
- The Cheese Geek
- The Fine Cheese Company
- La Fromagerie
- Country Cheeses
- The Cheese Lady
- I.J. Mellis
- Fen Farm Dairy
- King Stone Dairy
- Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire Cheese
- Colston Bassett Stilton
- St James Cheese
- Errington Cheese
- Caws Cenarth
- Leicestershire Handmade Cheese Company
Jenny Linford is a London-based food writer. She is the author of several books including Great British Cheeses, The Creamery Kitchen and The Missing Ingredient - the Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour.
For more information, visit jennylinford.co.uk.