Slow motion

Categories: Features

Shane Holland, executive chair of Slow Food UK, on British cheese at Bra

How significant is Slow Food’s cheese festival to British cheese producers?
It’s really significant. For one thing, it shouts about quality British cheese to the world when sometimes people can be slightly sniffy about whether our cheeses are as great as the continentals’—there are more unique cheeses here in the UK than in Italy or France, and it’s exciting to be able to showcase these and say: “There is care here, there is quality.” For another, there is a sense of camaraderie and of sharing ideas. Cheesemakers across the world are suffering from the same challenges: threats to raw milk, the effects of climate change, industrialised production, and so on. This sense of coming together, meeting producers like yourself, making different cheeses and learning from each other is a great thing.

And to visitors?
From the consumer’s perspective, I think it brings an awareness of cheesemaking as a craft, of the adversity cheesemakers face, and the fraternity between makers and mongers. I think sometimes consumers—even laudable consumers like those at Borough Market—can forget how much time and effort and fanatical zeal goes into making these cheeses, and Bra invigorates that and gives it force.

How positively is British cheese received in Bra?
Incredibly positively. One of the things about British cheese is that, very often, the first thing people think of is cheddar. We have an archetypal, global cheese for which there is some affection, so people are automatically curious when it comes to other cheeses we produce. Of course, there is some snobbery too—but that tends to come from those nations that are snobbish about any other nation’s food that isn’t their own, and I think that’s rather fun to be honest with you. We don’t have that pride in our food culture here, perhaps because we’re historically a trading nation; we have always been magpies, taking food from across the world. France didn’t do that so much. I like that a country can have such pride in its food culture, and I also like that a festival like Bra has the potential to change hearts and minds.

What were the key conversations taking place at Bra this year?
There was a lot of discussion of issues around dairying—not about cheese itself, but about animal husbandry. We need to think about what we do with billy goats, what we do with male calves. If we want to eat cheese and milk, we need to think about goat and veal. Another global issue is the environment. Climate change is already affecting dairy enormously, because it affects grass. Events like last summer’s heatwave, when the grass across Britain was entirely brown, will start happening not once in 100 years but once in every 10, every five years. So there are techniques that cheesemakers from southern Europe, who already experience this, could teach those in the north.  

To what extent do conversations like this—and events like Bra—remain confined to an affluent audience?
In Italy, these conversations take place over every kitchen table. In France, it’s over every kitchen table. It’s the UK—and America—where we have this notion that Slow Food is somehow elitist, that good food is elitist, even though when you go back 50 years, shopping at markets and eating things like oxtail, ham hock, shellfish and rabbit was entirely the norm. I utterly reject the fact that good food is a middle class preoccupation, but we do need to address the fact that a huge number of people feel excluded from the conversation, or exclude themselves from the conversation. That has to be our focus, going forward.