Francis Gimblett, MD of Taste of the Vine and the Gimblett Cheese Company, on the Campaign for British Cheese at Events – a new initiative fighting the good fight against bland cheeses.
I awoke with a start, the canvas wall bowing towards me, a sail rocking the Land Rover beneath my roof tent. Sideways sleet drummed out all other sound. The tail of the tent board bucked and threw the ladder free. I huddled within my two sleeping bags, wondering whether to squander the meagre heat I had managed to capture, and to break camp. Once more I wondered whether my quest was folly, the misguided adventure of a middle-aged man.
In my 22 years hosting tasting events, I have witnessed and supported the rise of England’s sparkling wines, micro-brewery real ales, and the recent boom in small-batch distilling. Since starting Taste of the Vine, we have always made a point of serving British cheeses at our tasting events, but I see little evidence of them on event venue cheeseboards, and when I do it is often mass-produced. This is the equivalent of serving bag-in-box supermarket wine at an important exhibition, conference or networking event.
Our love of cheese led Pam, my wife, and me to start a cheesemaking dairy in Haslemere, Surrey, to provide produce for our events and narrative to our cheese-based tasting formats. When I now see British cheese underrated, underwhelmingly served and even, in some cases, passed off as a higher quality producer, it causes me to wonder why we don’t treasure our cheeses. It was with this in mind that I decided to write a guide to British cheese, and to answer some questions I had been asking myself since the lure of fermented curd had first held me in its grip.
When we began making cheese, we learned that milk dairies are declining at a fast rate. According to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, between 1997-2017 the number of dairies had dropped from 27,500 to 9,500. Milk volumes are higher, but from bigger herds, where the cows are milked harder and live shorter lives. This type of milk makes for bland cheese. At the current rate, another 4,000 or more dairy herds are likely to go in the next ten years. This is made worse as it will be those yielding uncommercial volumes for the milk industry, often from smaller breeds and where animal welfare is a priority – the very ones we ought to cherish.
One of my questions was: could some of these farms be paired with cheesemakers who will pay a premium for their higher-quality milk, allowing a conscientious farmer to remain in business. In Britain we have little over 300 cheesemakers; in France there are upwards of 4,500. We consume large amounts of artisan cheese but mostly they are imports. We’ve got the appetite, just not the local choice.
The guide I felt would be poor without first-hand knowledge of the producers and their opinions, so I set about visiting 100 artisan cheesemakers in 100 days in the first quarter of 2019. The expense of accommodation steered me towards the idea of wild camping on the roof of my car. I researched and visited what I considered the cream of our cheesemakers, those you would expect to be flourishing, but for almost all it was passion before profit, a commitment without which many would choose a more lucrative career. Most cited the reason for their struggle was a lack of communication with the UK buyer.
So, since the events arena is a fertile environment for new trends, I am striving to generate more interest for our wonderful home-crafted artisan creations by launching the Campaign for British Cheese at Events. I will be posting excerpts from Gimblett’s Guide to British Cheese on my blog and via LinkedIn, offering free consultancy to event organisers, event caterers and event venues to assist them with their cheese choices. Furthermore, in an effort to encourage excellence in the selection and service of British cheeses, I will promote the cause with a ‘Champion of British Cheese’ award.
Please connect, follow and insist on named British producers on your event cheeseboards. If not only for the good of our cows, our dairy heritage and our economy, then maybe also to help one man believe that having to be rescued by the army after being flood-bound in the Brecon Beacons was not as foolish as it felt.