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Map of the Week: Cheese

Mark Easton | 17:10 UK time, Friday, 2 October 2009

Blessed they are. Britain's cheese makers have been reborn after a century of statutory persecution.

Celebrating (as one must) British Cheese Week and British Food Fortnight, I wanted to tell the uplifting story of how localism has triumphed over centralised control; how the joyless yoke of homogenisation and industrialisation has been lifted from an industry which exemplifies the creativity and diversity of the British Isles.

As luck would have it, this week also sees the publication of a new book that includes a map of Britain's cheeses - a portrait of lactic invention to make a cheese lover's heart sing.

Map of cheeses in Britain

Map of cheeses in Ireland

Maps taken from the World Cheese Book, by Juliet Harbutt, published by DK

Once upon a time, 3,000 dairy farm wives took paddle and churn to the fresh milk that was not consumed by the local villagers. On 3,000 kitchen tables, 3,000 cheeses were prepared. This was the method of preserving the protein goodness of the cowshed so the ploughman might have his lunch.

But then, as the second half of the 19th century steamed into view, all that changed. The arrival of the railways transformed rural life. Instead of dairy farmers selling fresh milk only to the community around the herd or flock, crates could be despatched far beyond, even into the hearts of rapidly expanding cities.

A network of milk-trains and door-step deliverymen brought farm-fresh milk to every corner of the nation. And we lapped it up.

Farmers could scarcely keep up with demand from a growing population. The need to preserve the leftovers all but disappeared.

Instead, new industrial technology allowed producers to centralise cheese-making with excess milk from across their region. To brand their product, cheeses increasingly took on the name of the area from which they hailed. But more than that - the search for consistent quality meant recipe, shape and size were controlled.

From this process emerged the reputations of some of the truly great cheeses of Britain, but it also rang the death knell for small, local cheese makers. Hundreds of varieties were lost forever; individuality did not fit with the times.

It was to get worse. Rationing in World War II saw the Ministry of Food stipulate that only one type could be manufactured - the National Cheese. A form of rubbery cheddar, this abomination came to define cheese in the nation's mind.

By the 1960s, bland, processed, homogenised factory-made gunk was served as a "sophisticated delicacy" on cocktail sticks accompanied by a chunk of tinned pineapple. To this day there are many who think of cheese as a lump of orange, sweaty fat grated on to a slice of white.

Man selling cheeseBut when the price of milk plummeted in the 1990s, the resilience and imagination of Britain's dairy farmers was tested. They desperately needed new products to survive.
Perhaps they opened the old trunk at the back of the barn and found great-great grand-mother's recipe. Or maybe they experimented with cheese-cloth and press on the kitchen table. But the last 20 years have seen an extraordinary renaissance for British cheese.

Juliet Harbutt, editor in chief of The World Cheese Book, is a driving force behind the growth in high quality produce. Last week, the annual British Cheese Awards she created saw more than 800 cheeses entered by 189 makers in a celebration of all that is local and excellent. Farmers' markets are bringing the cheese artisan into cities and towns, introducing a new generation to the true meaning of the product. Consumption of cheese is rising - just four kilos per head per year in the mid-60s, now put at over 12 kilos.

So the story has a happy ending. A lost art has been rediscovered, a tradition has been revived and a smile is being put back on the face of a nation that had almost forgotten how to say "cheese".

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