The rise in the number of artisan cheeses and cheesemongers is showing no sign of slowing, and there's even a cheese qualification to sort the amateurs from the affineurs. Will Hawkes reports
Patricia Michelson picks up a small, discshaped goats' cheese and carefully rotates it. "You can see the nice little blooms growing everywhere," she says, pointing out the fluffy white growths on the cheese's mottled, yellow surface. "This is a Tour du Bonheur; it's got a lovely rich layer of cows' milk cheese in between the goats' cheese."
Michelson is the founder of La Fromagerie, one of London's finest cheese shops. When she opened the first La Fromagerie in Highbury in 1991, the cheese landscape looked very different. "So much has changed," she says. "When I started, I was one of the few smallscale entrepreneurs around; there was me and a few others who didn't do wholesale."
Inspired by the example of La Fromagerie and Neal's Yard Dairy, dozens of excellent cheesemongers have opened in the capital, and continue to do so. There's Mons Cheesemongers in Lordship Lane, East Dulwich (which opened in July), and a new La Fromagerie in Bloomsbury, which incorporates a restaurant and opened last month.
"I think interest in quality cheese is higher than it's ever been," says Michelson. "People are so understanding of it, of where things have come from. People want to try new things."
Born in the USA
This growing desire for good cheese requires greater sales knowledge - which is here the Academy of Cheese comes in. The idea was borne out of a trip to the US made by Mary Quicke, owner of Devon-based Quicke's Traditional, five years ago.
The rise of artisan cheese there was quickly followed by a qualification for those who serve it: the certified cheese professional exam. Quicke was keen to see
something similar in the UK, and although the model was not entirely transferable, the end result is the Academy of Cheese, which launched this year.
"We want the Academy of Cheese to be to cheese what the Wine & Spirit Education Trust is to wine," says John Farrand of the Guild of Fine Food, the organisation Quicke approached on her return from the US. "That's our model; if we end up there, we've done our bit.
"We want something that is recognised, that improves careers, that improves people's enjoyment - improves people's lives. The nub of what we're doing is to try and establish cheese retail as a career and a profession, rather than a Saturday job in a deli."
Eventually the Academy of Cheese's qualification will encompass four levels, from associate to master of cheese, although only the first is currently available.
"We're taking things slowly as we raise funds," Farrand explains. "For level one, you're given a delegate pack and some steer on what you need to learn to sit and pass the exam; you'll be tasting cheese and going through how it is made. We've got several training partners accredited to deliver the course, including Paxton & Whitfield and the School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire."
Among the founding patrons is Harvey & Brockless, a speciality fine-foods company based in south London. "Our commitment to provenance and education was the main driving force behind us being involved," says Owen Davies, category manager for artisan cheese at Harvey & Brockless. "Our customers still have a great hunger for knowing about the cheese-making process, the cheesemaker, the animals, and the environment, or 'terroir'."
The Academy of Cheese has been welcomed by those working in the industry. Ned Palmer, who runs the Cheese Tasting Company, says he is delighted that the work of the cheesemonger is finally being recognised. "People don't know what you mean when you say you're a cheesemonger," he says. "It'll be nice for that to be recognised, and it'll make it something to aspire to. I got my cheese knowledge by being obsessive, by reading technical books, but it would be great to systemise that, to help people sell cheese properly."
If the serving of cheese is undergoing an overdue revolution, then British cheesemaking itself continues a gradual evolution that began in the 1970s. Pioneers such as Randolph Hodgson, who founded Neal's Yard Dairy in 1979, and Mary Holbrook, the maker of goats' cheese Tymsboro, have been joined by numerous others over the past four decades. "It's been going on for a long time and it's still going," says Palmer. "The wave is still coming."
Among the most interesting new cheeses, according to Palmer, are Baron Bigod, a Brie-style cheese made in Suffolk, and Sinodun Hill, a pyramid goats' cheese made by Norton & Yarrow in Oxfordshire. "They've only been doing it just over a year," he says of Norton & Yarrow, "and they've won a gold medal in the British Artisan Cheese Awards and a silver in the World Cheese Awards, despite not being from a cheesemaking background."
This evolution has taken place in other countries, too. Michelson, who has watched with admiration as American artisan cheesemaking has taken off over the past decade, says that Norway has become the country to watch. "They are reinventing themselves in the same way as Sweden did," she says.
"In the past, all the dairy [products] were produced by the government. Now they're not, and you see small dairies popping up here and there. It's the same thing now in Norway. I get [Norwegian cheese] Gjetost and some people say Gjetost is inedible, but when you have the good stuff, really it's not."
And then there's Spanish cheese, which continues to make headway. According to James Robinson of Spanish food specialist Brindisa, there's more to come. "As in the UK, there is a younger generation of cheesemakers emerging, although the Spanish tend to be more reverential of tradition," he says. "British audiences are very receptive [to these cheeses]."
This cheese revolution may be driven by the sort of high-quality product you'll find at La Fromagerie, but it's happening at a more basic level, too, according to Ben Newby of Brakes. "Aldi and Lidl are bringing these products to market at a great price point," he says. "Consumers who would not normally have seen these cheeses, let alone have been able to have afforded them, suddenly find themselves not only aware of them, but also in a position to buy them."
Soft cheese in particular is booming, according to dairy company Lactalis McLelland. Brand manager Hazel Frier says: "We are seeing a lot of growth in the soft continental cheese category, with consumers becoming more adventurous in how they use it."
Beer to stay
A symptom of cheese's increasing diversity and availability is that consumers are questioning the old idea that its natural partner is wine. There's a growing understanding that beer - with its greater range of flavours - is often a much better companion.
"More and more people understand what beer can do, and that's largely thanks to what's happened with craft beer," says Palmer, who gives regular beer and cheese tastings with the Cheese Tasting Company. "I think there are flavours you get in beer that aren't really there in wine - like caramel flavours from the malt and the aromatics from hops - those fruity flavours.
"Those flavours are in the cheese or they complement what's there. The mouthfeel of beer works better for me, too - so much wine is slightly too acidic."
Beer can be particularly impressive with blue cheese. Stilton and Shropshire Blue work beautifully with a couple of old British beer styles updated for the 21st century, according to Billy Kevan of Colston Bassett Dairy. "Colston Bassett pairs particularly well with an IPA," he says.
"The mild pungency offsets the bitterness and pine notes of the ale, and the hoppy fruits find similar flavours in the cheese. A stout with roasted malt tones, meanwhile, can bring out unforeseen chocolate notes in Shropshire Blue."
There are some simple rules to follow when pairing cheese with beer, according to Simon Lewis of West Berkshire Brewery. "You're looking for balance; the biggest factor is weight or intensity. Once you've chosen a cheese, then you can narrow down the possible beer styles to those with a similar intensity. This is where you start to play with your beer flavours.
"Look for something that is either complementary or contrasting. Some cheeses show their best qualities when the beer is completely different, while others shine when paired with one with many of the same flavours."
If you need a visual reminder of quality cheese's growing popularity, then La Fromagerie's cold-storage facility in Highbury on a Friday is a good place to go. On one recent Friday, the company's customer base of about 150 restaurants and delis had left many shelves empty ahead of the weekend.
"Storage is normally full to the brim, but there's been a lot of demand," says affineur (cheese maturer) Michael Paradise. "It's starting to get busy again after the summer." The way things are looking, it's only going to get busier and busier over the next few years.
Academy of Cheese academyofcheese.org
Colston Bassett colstonbassettdairy.co.uk
Cheese Tasting Company cheesetastingco.uk
La Fromagerie lafromagerie.co.uk
Harvey & Brockless harveyandbrockless.co.uk
Lactalis McLelland groupelactalis.co.uk
Neal's Yard Dairy nealsyarddairy.co.uk
Norton & Yarrow nortonandyarrow.co.uk
West Berkshire Brewery wbbrew.com