Reinventing the wheel

Categories: Features

Bronwen and Francis Percival on why their new book is more than just a guide to cheese

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Jon Wyand

Walk into Neal’s Yard Dairy of a December morning, and it’s hard to imagine the world of raw milk cheese is in anything other than the finest of fettle. To your right, ivory rounds of ewe’s cheese gleam silently next to the ashy goat’s cheese logs, their bright citrusy aromas mingling delectably. To your left the blue cheeses, their azure and teal veins lurid in the darkness, release a sweet, slightly vegetative scent.

These are great British cheeses: of this Francis and Bronwen Percival have no doubt. Bronwen is, after all, Neal’s Yard Dairy’s head buyer. But to claim, as many do, that the range of cheese on display here is a sign that the world of British cheese is in good health compared to the French—even compared to what it was 70 years ago—“is, and there’s a technical term for it, tosh,” says Francis, simply. Because “where France has strong, sustainable ecosystems of farmhouse producers for many of their appellation d’origine protégée cheeses, we count ourselves lucky to have a single producer making a raw milk British territorial cheese.” In short, he says, while France has more than 200 farmhouse producers of St Nectaire, only Graham Kirkham is producing raw milk farmhouse Lancashire.

This is the gauntlet laid down by Bronwen and Francis in their new book, Reinventing the Wheel:  Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese. In it, the couple explore what we have lost as raw milk, single-farm cheeses have given way to industrial dairies in Australia, the US and the UK. “In 1939 there were 202 producers of raw milk, farmhouse Lancashire,” Francis continues—and while the Lancashire-laden supermarket aisles may suggest otherwise, the terms ‘raw milk’ and ‘farmhouse’ are an important qualifier. “You can’t say, oh well look at all these factory Lancashires, it isn’t close to extinction, because these factory versions don’t have any of the things that make Lancashire so special.”

Reinventing the Wheel - book cover

Rolling fields
A Lancashire made from pasteurised milk sourced from multiple dairies is not a patch on that produced by Graham Kirkham, for whom cheese is a family affair going back three generations. Today Graham, his partner and sons oversee every aspect of the cheesemaking process: from the rolling fields of his Lancashire farm, to the racks of his Lancashire creamery. You’ll find his wheels sitting resplendent behind Neal’s Yard Dairy’s counter, alongside fellow British territorials Cheshire, Red Leicester, and caerphilly. Each one is the work of a small farmer working in harmony with his environment, “reflecting the unique value of that particular land in a way no mass produced cheese could ever do.”

You can taste it, Bronwen continues. You can taste the flora of the pasture; the variations during the course of the year; the slow, traditional methods of the maker. And, because the milk is raw, untampered by heat or pressure, you can taste the indigenous microbial communities whose untold significance is at the centre of scientific research today.

This is not mere poetry. “It’s not because we feel it deeply in our hearts,” enthuses Francis, “but because we can demonstrate chemically, to a level of statistical significance that satisfies peer reviewed journals, that these forms of farming make a difference in flavour.” The aim of Reinventing the Wheel was to highlight this, and ask how and why we can and should make these forms of farming sustainable, in the face of existential, economic and environmental threats.

The status quo
We need a conversation, this book tells us: a conversation about the difference between mass produced and farmhouse cheese; about what has been sacrificed in the quest for ever higher yields and efficiency; about how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to travel. “We want people to get to a place where they, too, are dissatisfied with the status quo—because that’s the best way to change behaviour,” Francis says. Yes, cheese has undergone a renaissance in recent years, “but at the same time, we have lost so much.”

Instead of seeing Borough Market, and Neal’s Yard Dairy in particular, as representative of the state of British territorial cheese, consider them more as a zoo, he continues. “There are these endangered species, and you can come and pet them, as it were, but for us to be an ethically useful zoo we need to be introducing them back to the wild. We need to be a place where by incubating these cheeses, we can recreate the ecosystems we have lost.”

Though the survival of Kirkham’s Lancashire, Appleby’s Cheshire, Duckett’s caerphilly and so on are worthy of celebration, we can’t stop there. “Why don’t we have 10 great farmhouse Lancashire producers? Why don’t we have that many Cheshire and Wensleydale producers?” At a time when the sector has become ever more confusing, with many mass produced cheeses co-opting the language of small farmhouse producers, Reinventing the Wheel aims to reignite the conversation  such that consumers can make a more informed choice.

Cut to order
“One of the reasons buying cheese at Borough Market is interesting is because traders encourage people to buy according to flavour,” observes Francis. What’s more, the cheese is cut to order rather than pre-packaged, so customers have to interact further with the trader “making each experience of buying cheese one where you might potentially learn”.

Of course, most people buying cheese aren’t looking for an education. They’re looking for cheese—”but if you hang on in there and make each experience of buying a premium experience, then you might whet their appetite for learning.” It’s at that point that you can move beyond talking about the taste of the cheese, to the story behind it: from the flavour, to the farm.

“We aren’t writing for cheese-lovers, really. We’re writing for those people for whom cheese is a block of something on a supermarket shelf,” explains Francis. If the Percivals had wanted an easy publishing deal, they’d have written a beautifully illustrated guide to cheese and watched the coins roll in, “but this story really has more to do with new science about the microbiome, genetics, diversity, rare breeds and the environment.”

Compelling stories
Like any issue of complexity, you need context and detail if you want to understand what’s going on in the world of raw milk farmhouse cheese. “We knew we needed to take these abstract ideas and make them sticky,” says Bronwen. Their dream is that these stories of cheese become the sort of compelling stories you could recount at a dinner party”—preferably over a board of oatcakes, and a selection of British territorial cheeses made from raw milk on a small farm.