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Standard bearers: Jumi Cheese

Categories: Behind the stalls

In a regular series that explores the story and philosophy of the Market’s Slow Food approved traders, this month we talk to Marcello Basini, manager of Jumi Cheese

“We have to make something that stands apart; that stands alone,” says Marcello. If he sounds melodramatic for the manager of a Borough Market cheese stall, it is with reason: for the problems facing farmers and cheese producers in the region of the Swiss alps from which Jumi Cheese hails are some which hang over traditional dairy communities across the globe.

Large manufacturers produce cheese that was once the preserve of tiny, family-run dairies at a price with which they can’t compete. With their original buyers undercut, farmers have little choice but to sell their milk to these industrial-scale producers for “pennies—literally pennies,” says Marcello, sadly, thus precipitating a sharp decline in their own income and quality of life. Jumi Cheese—along with the other Slow Food producers fiercely preserving the artisanal skills and produce of their region—is a sharp, citrusy retort to that.

Founded by two friends, Jurg and Mike, it is borne out of five generations of cheesemakers based in the Emmental valley near Bern in Switzerland. Each cheese comes from one of a handful of family-run dairies. Each dairy boasts centuries of inherited artisanal skill; each litre of milk comes from simmental cows, which are indigenous to the region and graze only on fresh grass in summer and hay in winter. “I don’t even know what to call them in English,” says Marcello, when asked whether the cows are fed any supplements of any kind. “But no. None of those.”

On a motorbike
“The milk is delivered by selected farmers every morning to the dairies in a range of vehicles, each according to the size of the farm it is from. There’s a smaller farmer with one tank on a motorbike, another with a van and big tanks, another with a trailer behind a car,” he continues, “so we can support farms regardless of their size.”

Buy mass-produced cheese and the milk could hail from as far as Poland. This adherence to localism ensures not only the livelihoods of the community, but also the quality of the cheeses they produce. “The cows are unique to the region, their food is unique to the region, and you can taste that. The character is all within the milk,” Marcello explains.

The sweetness, the sharpness, and the way it changes and matures with time is something only the tongue can comprehend. “The same cheese in spring can be totally different—creamy, or more intense—and again in the summer and again in winter. This great difference in flavour and texture comes out through the concentration of proteins and fats in the milk as the cheese matures.” 

Changed in character
The milk is unpasteurised. “It is really alive,” says Marcello, “And you can see that: from the colour, and from the changes in character.” Jumi Cheese is unusual in its having introduced various new cheeses to the Market—brainchildren (or rather, braincheeses) of one of the founder’s cousins, Herr Glauser. “He’s in his fifties now, and been making cheese since he was 19 years old. It can be quite repetitive and quite solitary, making cheese, and so he has been experimenting in what he calls his lab, which is no bigger than the Borough Market stall. Now we have a mix of classic cheeses like emmental—made in the most traditional way—and cheeses that never existed before.”

Some of these new breeds, like so many of the great cheeses, came about by accident: an experiment left mistakenly in a cave or cupboard for so long that what was intended by it is forgotten, though what it’s become is a delicacy no amount of planning could ever have devised.

Belper Knolle is such a cheese. Created initially with the intent of making a fresh cottage-style cheese mixed with garlic or citrus, it was forgotten, left to mature in the fridge far longer than intended, and when discovered, was hard as parmesan. “You can have it with pasta, salad, scrambled egg—it’s a very special cheese,” says Marcello proudly. Coated with a fine dusting of black pepper, it is a nutty, gnarly and delicious testimony to the marriage of quality raw milk and time.

Innovation and tradition
Not every experiment works out; nor every accident. But if the combination of innovation and longstanding traditional practices can ensure the survival of this century-old rural community, it could prove as pioneering and versatile a model as the now-famous cheese, Belper Knolle.