Cheese-paring shoppers sink UK champion

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The Independent Online

Weeks after being crowned Britain's "supreme champion" cheese maker, Richard Hares announced he could no longer make ends meet.

Weeks after being crowned Britain's "supreme champion" cheese maker, Richard Hares announced he could no longer make ends meet.

Housewives had been "brainwashed" into buying cheaper processed products and the market for traditional cheeses had disappeared, he said. The country's cheese makers said the demise of Mr Hares' business in Whitchurch, Shropshire, was only the most obvious symptom of an industry being strangled by factory-made products and cheap foreign imports.

Eight weeks after his Cheshire won the Nantwich International Cheese Show's highest accolade for the fifth time in six years, Mr Hares, 40, was looking for a new house and job. This week he sold the 160 cows on his farm, having made his staff, including a master cheese maker of 40 years' experience, redundant.

Over the past three years he had seen monthly sales plummet from £40,000 to £25,000. "At the end of the day you can't run a business on sentiment," he said yesterday.

Even such traditional British cheeses as Cheddar are being produced abroad, undercutting locally made ones. Mr Hare said: "In effect, we have to sell to five big buyers - the supermarkets. They have got all the buying power ... You can buy Cheddar for £2.40 per kilo but it costs me £2.85 to make my cheese by hand. At the end of the day we were outpriced.

"We were left with selling to small independent delicates-sens and small shops but they are all getting squeezed out. I decided to make the decision to go while I could, put everybody right, pay off my debts and was young enough to start again."

For Juliet Harbutt, chairman of the British Cheese Awards, the problem is more fundamental. She said: "People don't buy British cheeses because they don't know they exist. I wonder how many people know there are 36 different blue cheeses made in Britain, 120 goat cheeses and 70 made from sheep's milk." She is organising an event in Gloucestershire this month to promote the wonders of British Cheddars and Cheshires.

David Smith, of the award- winning Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, said: "If you make cheap and cheerful cheese, it is in the supermarket by next week and it is rubbery. But if you want to make it properly, you have to make it 12 months to two years ahead."

But Mr Smith's small Somerset company is turning the tables on the foreign cheese makers. He said: "We sell to America, France and Spain and now we have had inquiries from Russia to market our cheese over there."

Mr Smith said he merely needed other small producers to link up with him in the venture to fulfil the order. "You see, it is not all doom and gloom," he added.