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The Gourmet Makeover of Cheese Made in UK

The Gourmet Makeover of Cheese Made in UK

Not only Italy or France: cheese expert and Slowfood taster Eric Vassallo explains why it's time for the renaissance of little known UK great dairy tradition.

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A pathological fondness for cheese unites, crosses borders and moves its victims to explore remote corners and farms, noses twitching, on the alert for whiffs of sheep, goats or cows in the area, as they seek out the most obscure and godforsaken artisanal cheese-makers. There are some countries, however – often rich in green pasture lands – in which one is automatically prepared to be flatly disappointed: their tradition in this area of production is inexplicably poor and limited. What, treat yourself to a platter of local gourmet cheeses in Great Britain? No way!

This is a serious mistake to make: a new “cheese universe” has silently materialized in the United Kingdom and, in the last few years, many craft productions have sprung up, which has widened the product offering incredibly with a stream of new dairy products being added all the time. What has happened? “First of all, this is a return to the past, not something that has sprung up out of the blue – specifies Eric Vassallo, expert cheese taster, who also collaborates with Slowfood – Great Britain has a great dairy tradition which was crushed by large industrial groups following the Second World War and almost died out”. The return to artisanal dairy production is not only a UK phenomenon. In this respect, Ireland represents a model for Europe and let’s not forget the Netherlands: these are countries boasting a millenary tradition – even dating back to Roman times - where, today, after decades of standardization, cheese is enjoying a new lease of life. A new, growing awareness of the importance of natural, quality food is coming into play. The same thing is happening in overseas countries whose tradition is obviously more recent, since it was imported by immigrants: the United States first and foremost, but also Argentina and Brazil.

In this respect, the work done by Slowfood in the last decades has been of fundamental importance, because we can thank them for having reorganized and regulated artisanal products that were dying out, enabling producers to form networks and to survive, in many cases stimulating others to focus on a type of production that had previously seemed hopeless. “There are Presidia for Armenian, Bulgarian and Cape Verdean cheeses… in some cases, the recipe was in the hands of an elderly shepherd – Vassallo goes on to say – Thanks to the Presidium, honour and dignity have been restored to a product, but also to an animal breed, and to human labour”.

As far as the more common cheese varieties are concerned, such as Cheddar and Stilton in England or Gouda and Edam in Holland, the new artisanal manufacturers aim at bringing back the techniques and originality of the product, such as the processing of raw milk. In fact, these countries have a much smaller number of cheese varieties than the countries of southern Europe, where an extraordinary biodiversity has led to endless product differentiations. Indeed, the quality of cheese also depends on the animal breed providing the milk and each breed reflects the type of territory it comes from and the way in which it is nourished. So, defending a cheese variety is tantamount to defending a particular territory. This is mainly true of cattle but also applies to sheep and goats to a certain extent. Naturally, a Grey Alpine or a Valdaostan Red cow will not produce the quantity of milk (50 litres a day) supplied by the Friesian breed, originally from Holland, but which now predominates industrial cheese production. But quantity is certainly not quality.

It has been said that hundreds and hundreds of cheese varieties are now produced in the United Kingdom: this is a hoax, swears Vassallo, who estimates a number around fifty. “Impossible to say what the exact number is. In any case, in Italy and France – the two countries with the widest variety of cheeses in the world (in Italy, artisanal production accounts for 15-20% of the total output, compared to a percentage of 3-5% in countries like Holland, Germany and the United Kingdom) – the number is estimated as being in the range of 250 to 400 types of cheese. And that is an impressive amount... As General Charles De Gaulle once said in the course of a meeting: 'How can you possibly govern a country with 400 types of cheese?' ”.

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