WHEN PATRICK Rance took over the village shop at Streatley in 1953 he found a wedge of Danish Blue, an Edam and some New Zealand cheddar. A quarter of a century later the monocled Major Rance was Britain's leading cheesemonger and champion of real cheese credited with saving specialist cheeses from extinction.
The former baker's shop became famous beyond the Thames-side Berkshire village but it never had the name Rance above the door. Instead it remained simply Wells Family Grocer - Wells being the surname of the three sisters who once ran the shop.
Rance was the son of a priest who ministered to dairy workers at St Margaret's, Leystonstone, in Essex, during young Patrick's first five years. One of his earliest memories was being given a lump of cheese in the vicarage kitchen. But for most of his childhood he lived at Westcliff-on-Sea with his widowed mother, who sent him to Christ's Hospital from the age of nine. After Sandhurst he was commissioned in the Northamptonshire Regiment and during the Second World War became a major. In peacetime he was posted to Vienna to work in intelligence.
On leaving the Army in 1949 Rance joined Conservative Central Office, where he pioneered public opinion research. He had known his future wife Janet since his Army days but their wedding in 1951 was delayed by his autocratic father-in-law, the golfing laird Anthony Maxtone Graham, who insisted on not giving his daughter away until the rhododendrons at his Perthshire home were in full bloom. The couple's first home was a modest bachelor flat in central London.
Two years later the bride's relatives were not too happy to discover that she had married a shopkeeper. But Janet had been assistant editor of Good Housekeeping and it was the couple's dream to live in the country and have a large family. They moved into the shop opposite the Bull Inn in early 1954. It was attached to Jessamine Cottage which, as seven children were produced, became known as Decibel Cottage. In fact the memory of most visitors is the sound of Radio 3 which was played in the background all day. As more children arrived, so the cheese business grew along with the all-pervading smell of cheese - which was not just in the shop but also maturing in the cellar, whilst in December the hall was stacked with cheeses being sent all over the world.
At least 200 cheeses were eventually displayed on open tables with customers allowed to touch and sample the unusual specimens. This may not have met chain store hygiene guidelines but Rance had little time for mass-produced cheese. He called a compressed Lancashire example, devoid of any crumbliness, as "cruelty to cheese". Asked in 1982 to comment on supermarket cheese he observed: "The first results, a few years ago, were cheap and nasty. Now they are still nasty but no longer cheap."
But cheese at Wells was not expensive, for Rance feared that his customers would never pay London prices. This was a problem for, although the shop had a huge turnover and supplied at least 30 restaurants, the profit in 1990 was only pounds 7,000. Whilst bringing up the children Janet wrote as Janet Graham in the Reader's Digest, which helped finances. Earlier the couple had benefited from the estate of Janet's mother, Jan Struther, who died the year before their move to Streatley. Her 1939 book Mrs Miniver had been turned into the Hollywood film hit credited with helping the Allies to win the war.
In 1990, however, the new business rates caused the shop, now run by Rance's son Hugh, to close. Hugh had just expanded with a second shop at Abingdon and this was bought by Gill Draycott, who worked at the original Streatley shop, ensuring that Wells Stores remains by the Thames, although a few miles upstream.
Meanwhile Pat Rance, too, had become a writer. The Great British Cheese Book (1982) received very good reviews from food writers, including Egon Ronay, and became an inspiration to those in conflict with the EEC regulations and the Milk Marketing Board. The cheesemonger Randolph Hodgson, of Neal's Yard Dairy in London, claims Rance as his mentor and today Neal's Yard stocks cheeses which were on the point of being lost for ever until promoted in the Streatley shop.
One of Rance's great discoveries was Dorset Blue Vinny, which he found still being made at a secret location "between Dorchester and Puddletown". The blue veins were achieved by dragging a mouldy harness through the mixture at an early stage in the manufacture. Later he located a commercial supplier meeting modern regulations for his shop.
French Cheese (1989), which won the Glenfiddich Trophy, was the result of six years of research in French markets and monasteries. At the religious communities Rance talked cheese with the monks whilst his musical wife checked out the standard of the plainsong.
Rance's favourite cheese remained cheddar. His real cheddar, like the cheese he enjoyed as a toddler at the vicarage, had never been stored in a refrigerator.
Patrick Lowry Cole Holwell Rance, cheesemonger: born Southend-on-Sea, Essex 18 March 1918; married 1951 Janet Maxtone Graham (died 1996; three sons, four daughters); died London 22 August 1999.
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