We may be the subject of European culinary ridicule, but nobody – not even Charles de Gaulle – could accuse the British of not being good at making cheese. With British Cheese Board putting the number of varieties in the UK at more than 700, it seems that the small-cheesemaker is on the rise.
Some people are born cheesemakers and some have cheesemaking thrust upon them. For Ceri Cryer, it was only natural that she should make it her job. A fifth-generation cheesemaker, she began making her own three years ago on her family farm in Wiltshire.
"I went to Oxford and studied biology before going to Cambridge to do teacher training," she explains, "but it was my husband, Chad, who saw the family farm as an opportunity rather than a burden. When he was trying to think of ways of making money, I said, 'I can make cheese...'"
And so Ceri's Cheese was born. "Actually, it's in my blood," she explains. "I sleep in what used to be the cheese-ripening room where my great-grandfather made cheese, and my kitchen is now what used to be the cheese dairy."
Cryer had already been on courses with her father, but before she started her business she did two years' research. She also went to soft-cheesemaking classes run by AB Cheesemaking in Nantwich.
From her farm, every week she produces 100kg of soft fresh cheese with a range of coatings, which are sold at farmers' markets, independent shops and wholesale in north Wiltshire and south Gloucestershire.
"These were great for starting me off, as they have a short ripening time of a few days," she says. "This helped my cash flow right from the start."
One of her signature cheeses, Wiltshire Loaf, is the traditional Wiltshire cheese that her great-grandfather made. "It's mentioned in one of Jane Austen's books," she says, with discernible glee. "My cheesemaking is also about getting back to my roots."
The work of a cheesemaker, says Cryer, is like that of any self-employed person. "I'm pregnant with my first child at the moment, and I have really enjoyed being able to take a break whenever I feel tired."
But the cheese does dictate your timetable, she explains. "The farmers' markets are running my weekends, but in between I can choose my own working hours."
The downsides, however, are the long hours and hard physical work, which can be tough on the back. And, of course, manual labour, such as cleaning, can be dull. Another factor is worries over money and whether they are selling enough cheese.
Richard and Caroline Harbord, meanwhile, of Daisy and Co Cheeses in Somerset, had the profession thrust upon them. Having had their own farm for years, when milk prices were "appalling", they decided to make their own cheese to boost their income. The Harbords knew nothing about the process, so went on a short course and hired a local cheesemaker to test the market. "We did some trials and virtually had our hand snapped off," says Richard Harbord.
Made from organic Jersey cows' milk, Daisy and Co cheeses are the kind that, if you have to ask what the fat content is, you don't want to eat it, says Richard. They sell to all parts of the UK and last year won two gold medals at the World Cheese Awards. To win such a prestigious prize and to secure big contracts is an indication of consistency.
"You have to make a nice product that people like, but you also have to be consistent," says Richard. "There is a saying among the supermarkets, which is: 'We don't like surprises.'"
Until now, the Harbords sold only to delicatessens and farmers' markets. Recently, however, Tesco knocked on the Harbord's door and asked them to make a presentation. Still, much of their trade is from local retailers, and they want to keep it that way.
Richard Harbord – whose hard and soft cheeses include Goldilocks and Black-Eyed Susan – says the best advice he can give to potential cheesemakers is to listen to what people say about your cheese. "You are producing it for the customers, so if you don't listen to them you can't be doing it right."
Before embarking on your own enterprise, Cryer advises that you should do plenty of market research and check there is a niche out there for you. "Spy, go and work for other cheesemakers," she says. "It can be daunting to be faced with a large quantity of milk for the first time. And start on a small scale in your own kitchen. This will be hell for your family life, but makes it easier when you start."
How to begin
Know your market. Do you have a good product to sell and people to sell it to?
Go on a short course, such as those offered in Nantwich by AB Cheesemaking ( www.abcheesemaking.co.uk)
Hire a cheesemaker in the short-term to show you how the technique works
Have a go yourself, on a micro-scale in the kitchen. For more information, visit www.cheesemaking.org.uk