Producers have combined to create the British Cheese Weekender, from May 8 to 10, when the public will be invited to buy direct from cheesemakers and independent retailers.
The collaborative project will showcase cheeses with a series of free online events.
Led by the Specialist Cheesemakers Association (SCA), the Academy of Cheese, and the Guild of Fine Food, the initiative aims to raise awareness of the crisis and help shoppers connect with local cheesemakers and retailers by providing online directories of the companies that can deliver or are safely open for business.
Farmhouse and artisan cheesemakers are being forced to pour thousands of liters of milk down the drain and give away cheese for free after many lost up to 90% of their business overnight when the hospitality sector was closed down. The situation has been compounded by shoppers using supermarkets to stock up on hard and grating cheeses made by large food manufacturers.
The result is that small producers have been left with maturing rooms full of cheeses, which by their nature have limited shelf lives. The problem is particularly pronounced for soft and blue cheeses. At the same time, cows, sheep and goats are now out at pasture, and continue to produce milk every day that must be used or be thrown away.
The industry has been quick to respond with cheesemakers, cheesemongers, farm shops and delis rapidly pivoting their businesses to be able to sell cheese online to be delivered direct to people's doors, as well as introducing strict social distancing systems at shops so people can buy safely.
“The future of Britain's farmhouse and specialist cheesemakers is in the balance - we could see many of the country's best cheeses lost forever as family farms and small cheesemaking businesses are pushed to the wall,” warned cheesemaker Catherine Mead, chair of the SCA, which represents more than 200 small cheesemakers and is one of three organizations involved in the initiative.
“The national crisis has put untold pressure on our members. Restaurants, cafes and pubs, plus farmers markets and supermarket deli counters, closed overnight leaving cheese stores over filled, an abundance of spring milk with nowhere to go and only a few orders forthcoming.”
She added that it is easy to buy cheese online or directly from producers.
“The specialist cheese industry has mobilised almost overnight, often teaming up with other small food producers, to get good food to people in their local areas,” Mead said.
Tracey Colley, director of the Academy of Cheese, said, “We're lining up a series of virtual masterclasses over the weekend, hosted by top cheese experts, so that people can tune in and learn more about cheese as they taste along at home. We'll be covering topics from how to be a cheese judge to drinks pairings and storage tips.”
John Farrand, managing director of the Guild of Fine Food, which represents the country's cheese shops, delis, farm shops and producers, praised the way independent retailers and small producers had reacted to the crisis.
“It's inspiring to see how local food networks have risen to the challenge and adapted business models to provide good food to local communities during the crisis. Independent retailers are going to extraordinary lengths to keep the nation fed, while also providing a vital route to market for small producers, who would otherwise struggle to stay afloat. We urge shoppers to make use of these networks and support small family businesses. The local pound has never been so valuable.”