Goats and Wheelbarrows in Devon
PUBLISHED: 12:21 16 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:10 20 February 2013
Ian Wellens salutes the Devon cheese pioneers
The Blacksmiths Union used to have a motto: By hammer and hand all arts do stand, and theres something about that phrase that just resonates for me. In a previous life as a furniture maker, I used to pencil it somewhere on a finished piece. Tucked out of sight, sure, but I knew it was there this little statement about the value of making things, and making them by hand.
Theres an artisan spirit common to the best makers in all fields, whether the product is a table, a bowl, a drystone wall or a cheese. Its about looking after the details; its about restlessly trying to improve; its about inventiveness and creativity, and above all its about quality.
When I set out on a new project five years ago setting up an online cheese shop it was important to seek out the small-scale craft producers whose work embodied these values. As TheCheeseShed.com has grown over the last five years, Ive enjoyed travelling around the Westcountry, getting to know this admirable group. Theyre always interesting people: independent, humorous, quietly passionate about what they do. And Ive been struck by something else. These people are unafraid to go against the grain: where the conventional business model is about responding to demand, the artisan will sometimes just make something they believe in and wait for the wider world to catch up.
Here in Devon we have a number of pioneering cheesemakers who did just that, turning to cheesemaking in the very unpromising circumstances of the 1970s or 80s. This was a time before concerns about local food, artisan food and organic food were edging into the mainstream, a time when handmade cheese if it was thought of at all was seen as a relic of the past.
Mary Quicke recalls that in the 1970s, when her father began to make traditional rinded cheddar on the family farm at Newton St Cyres, There was no awareness of cheese issues, but a blind rush to conformity: things just had to look smart and be in a nice packet. And Robin Congdon of Ticklemore Dairy near Totnes, who would go on to be recognised as one our great blue cheese experts, remembers trying to sell some ewes milk yoghourts to a delicatessen. The owner, confused, asked, Whats it been used for before?
Devons trailblazers came from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like the Quicke family or Rachel Stephens of Curworthy Cheese, were from farming families, whilst others, such as Vulscombes Graham Townsend (a Cambridge mathematician) definitely werent. They were, however, all new to cheesemaking, and in each case the only way was to plunge in, then patiently build and develop skill along the way, letting the quality of the product speak for itself.
It was a tough road. They had to produce something different from the factory-made cheese which dominated the market. And the problem was that consumers didnt know there was something different let alone that it might be better. Each dairy tackled this in its own way. At Ticklemore, Robin Congdon concentrated on blue cheeses, using a recipe which would nicely contrast with stilton (the only English blue anyone had heard of). Gradually his Beenleigh, Harbourne and Devon Blues won more and more admirers. Robins neighbours down at Sharpham were the first to consider that there might be a market for an English version of brie (and how extraordinary that now seems). They also insisted on the superior taste of unpasteurised cheese.
English-made soft goats cheeses were almost non-existent, so this was where Graham Townsend found his niche. Having started his business with 1,000, a goat and a wheelbarrow, he settled on a soft goats cheese which uses an unusual no-rennet process. Vulscombe is still a cheese apart, probably the reason why theres always more demand than he can satisfy. Up in North Devon, Rachel Stephens aimed to win friends for a hard cows cheese that wasnt cheddar. Her Curworthy uses a recipe based on Gouda, and the result is a sweeter, more supple cheese. From this she has successfully developed the longer-matured Devon Oke, along with flavoured and smoked versions.
Finally, the Quicke family took on the factory-made block cheddar which dominated the market (it still does, of course), insisting on traditional methods at every stage and producing a very different cheese as a result.
Along the way, a lot changed for the better, gradually transforming the way that British cheese was seen. Randolph Hodgson at Neals Yard Dairy in London contributed a huge amount, Patrick Rance published his Great British Cheese Book, an increasing number of journalists began to get on board, and specialist cheese shops began to pop up in Totnes and Tavistock. And one day we woke up and realised people were excited about English cheese.
In our own way, weve been part of it too, with The Cheese Shed sending Yarg to Yarmouth and Blue Vinney to Blackpool. In 2010 factory cheese still dominates, but cheeses from the UK no longer suffer from an inferiority complex vis--vis their European counterparts, and enthusiastic consumers are keen to seek them out. So, as we cut a beautiful slice of Harbourne Blue, lets just take a moment to thank the people who knew what we wanted, before wed realised it ourselves.
Cheese pioneers, we salute you!