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Coronavirus crisis means tonnes of British cheese is being thrown away

Up in the green foothills of Bodmin Moor, near the parlour where farmer Philip Stansfield milks a herd of 240 dairy cows, is a refrigerated warehouse in which he keeps the other great love of his professional life. 

The building, known in the trade as a ‘cave’, contains row after row of long wooden shelves, each piled high with rounds of Cornish Blue, the creamy blue cheese he and his wife, Carol, have been making for almost 20 years. 

As it slowly matures over eight weeks, it gives off a smell of ‘damp socks and mushrooms’. By the time it reaches top hotels, restaurants and delicatessens, the cheese has turned rich and buttery, with a sweet tang that has helped it win countless plaudits. 

Catherine Mead normally sells a couple of hundred tonnes of cheese a year, but since the lockdown, sales have dropped by 60 per cent, forcing her to f­urlough ten staff

In Gloucestershire, David Jowett, maker of Rollright, a Brie-like cow¿s cheese wrapped in spruce bark, was left with two tonnes of unsold cheese.

In Gloucestershire, David Jowett, maker of Rollright, a Brie-like cow’s cheese wrapped in spruce bark, was left with two tonnes of unsold cheese.

A few years back, Cornish Blue won top prize in the World Cheese Awards, with Philip and Carol beating an astonishing 2,600 rivals, including Europe’s best cheesemakers. mead

Where to sniff out the finest 

Paxton and Whitfield St James’s, London 

One of London’s oldest cheesemongers, it boasts the Royal Household as a customer. Its new Weekend Box costs £30 (paxtonandwhitfield.co.uk). 

Hanson Fine Foods Truro, Cornwall 

Supplier of artisan cheese to some of Cornwall’s top chefs, Hanson offers ‘lucky dip’ boxes from £15 (hansonfinefoods.co.uk). 

THE ETHICAL DAIRY Castle Douglas, Dumfries and Galloway 

This sustainable cheese-maker produces traditional offerings, including the awardwinning Fleet Valley Blue and Laganory (from £7.50, theethicaldairy.co.uk). 

The Cheese Shed Newton Abbot, Devon 

Try local specialities Beenleigh Blue or Ogleshield with a range of chutneys (from £18.99, thecheeseshed.com). 

House of Cheese Tetbury, Gloucestershire 

With praise from chef Rick Stein, you can’t go wrong with this family business. For £34, you could try its Vintage Cheese Selection, an assortment of mature cheeses, oatcakes and chutneys (houseofcheese.co.uk). 

The Cheese Geek Bendon Valley, London 

Known as the ‘Netflix of fromage’, a monthly subscription includes four or five cheeses (from £30, thecheesegeek.com). 

Pong Cheese Bath 

This company boasts selections from Alex James, rock star turned farmer, along with The Ultimate Pong Box — a selection of its smelliest cheeses (£34, pongcheese.co.uk). 

‘It changed our business overnight,’ says Philip. Today, those hotels, restaurants and delicatessens which offer the Stansfields’ famous cheese are shut, and export sales have halted. 

‘When the lockdown started, it was like a light switch being turned off,’ says Philip. ‘We normally sell between 2,000 and 3,000 cheeses a week. Overnight, it reduced to about 300.’ 

Therein lies a big problem. For Philip’s cows are still producing milk. And while he’s temporarily stopped producing new cheese, and furloughed six members of staff, very little money is coming in. 

More worryingly, he still has roughly 30 tonnes of mature Cornish Blue sitting unsold. 

‘The last lot was made on March 24,’ he says. ‘It’s edible between eight and 14 weeks after that date, so if we haven’t sold it by June 24 then it will have to be thrown away. 

‘There is £300,000 worth of stock tied up there. I’ve done some calculations and if we are somehow able to sell all this cheese, then we can survive as a business. If not, I am afraid it will be touch and go.’ 

And it’s a similar story for almost all of Britain’s so-called ‘­specialist cheesemakers’, who normally churn out renowned varieties such as Baron Bigod and Shepherds Purse in artisan facilities. 

Indeed, we produce more varieties of cheese even than the French. Sadly, these high-quality cheeses are extremely difficult to shift with the h­ospitality sector closed, and even major supermarkets are mothballing their deli counters. 

Many firms have lost almost 90 per cent of their business, according to the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, which has 277 members. 

‘If people don’t buy our cheese now, there won’t be much of an industry left,’ a spokesman told the Mail. 

‘We are coming into the Spring Flush, when milk yields go up and makers of hard cheese often ramp up production for Christmas, so this is a busy time. 

But what happens when you have money going out and none coming in?’ While no producers have yet gone bankrupt, many have been forced to give away their cheese. 

Down the road from the Stansfields’ farm, Catherine Mead at Lynher Dairies turns milk from her cows into Yarg, a hard cheese wrapped in nettle leaves. 

She normally sells a couple of hundred tonnes a year, but since the lockdown, sales have dropped by 60 per cent, forcing her to f­urlough ten staff. 

‘We have so much cash tied up in stock, and no idea when it’s going to sell,’ she says. ‘I recently had to give away three tonnes, which has a value of about £60,000. 

‘A load went to The Hive, a charity in Truro for underprivileged children, and another batch went to a homeless charity. It was tough, but better than seeing it simply be chucked away.’ 

For producers of soft cheese, problems are compounded by the fact that it has a relatively short shelf life, leaving a small window to find a buyer. 

In Gloucestershire, David Jowett, maker of Rollright, a Brie-like cow’s cheese wrapped in spruce bark, was left with two tonnes of unsold cheese. 

‘We did manage to sell it in the end, largely to local customers, but we had to seriously slash prices. It cost tens of t­housands, which is a lot to us. We’ve now shut down production. Unless it improves soon, things are going to get very hand to mouth.’ 

Some makers have turned to online sales, either via their own websites or those of specialist retailers, such as Neal’s Yard or The Cheese Geek. 

Today sees the launch of the first British Cheese Weekender, a three-day virtual festival t­aking in a series of tastings (you can order the cheeses from its website, specialist cheesemakers.co.uk). 

Award winning Cornish Kern, from Lynher Dairies, where Catherine Mead has had to throw away three tonnes of cheese

Award winning Cornish Kern, from Lynher Dairies, where Catherine Mead has had to throw away three tonnes of cheese

It aims to ‘save British cheese’ by helping troubled producers shift stock. Other cheesemakers are selling from the farm gate. 

In Kent, Robin Betts, whose cloth-wrapped cheddar Winterdale Shaw is usually sold by upmarket grocery store Fortnum & Mason, has started a seven-day-a-week farm shop. 

‘It’s allowing us to pay for the e­lectricity, insurance and other bills, but I’d be lying if I said this isn’t a total nightmare,’ says Robin. 

‘I’ve got 15 tonnes of stock already, and we have to keep making more because it takes ten months to mature, so if we don’t put new stuff into the cave, we won’t have anything to sell in ten months.’ 

He is just one more desperate member of Britain’s artisan cheesemaking brother — and sister — hood which, collectively, is a genuine national treasure. Fortunately, there is an easy (and delicious) solution to the unfolding crisis which now threatens the industry’s future. 

In France, sales of fromage are down by around 60 per cent, and some appellations are in danger of dying out, so citizens have been urged by the authorities to eat more as an act of patriotism. 

So Britain, too, we must now do our patriotic duty — and eat more real British cheese.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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