The Kent dairy farm and cheese business, which has a 100-strong herd of milkers, is stop 17 on Gimblett’s route. Owners Steve and Karen Reynolds started making raw-milk Kentish Blue in 2007 (pictured right) to add value to their milk after becoming disillusioned by rock-bottom prices. “We were getting knocked left, right and centre and decided we had to do something. We looked at yogurt but cheese gave us a better return,” says Steve Reynolds.
Dairy farmers all over the country have moved to insulate themselves from low milk prices by diversifying into dairy products, fuelling an artisan cheese renaissance. “The quality of British cheese is exceptional,” says Gimblett. “It can be as good as anything in France or Italy. But I’m worried that people think artisan cheese is in a strong position, when it actually faces a lot of challenges.”
Gimblett’s research shows there are only 350 artisan cheesemakers in the UK, compared with 4,500 in France. To reach those sorts of numbers here, the big retailers need to stock more British cheese, he says. “It’s madness that there seems to be more imported artisan cheese on our supermarket shelves than British. Imagine a French supermarket stocking no local cheese and instead promoting stilton, caerphilly and cheddar.”
Cheesemakers also need better access to quality milk, says Reynolds, who explains that the contracts imposed by big milk processors mean that farms are often prevented from supplying cheesemakers, and even face tough restrictions on how much of their own milk they can use to make cheese.
Kingcott supplies milk to Southampton-based Pensworth dairy, which, unlike other processors, is happy for the farm to make cheese. About 20 per cent of Kingcott’s milk is used to make 220kg of the fruity Kentish Blue per week, which retails for about £25 per kg, providing a much healthier margin than the 28p-a-litre average paid for milk.
Cheesemaking requires milk that is rich in protein and butterfat, explains Reynolds, so the farm is slowly replacing its high-volume, black-and-white Holstein cows with imported Swedish and Danish cows. Known as Viking Reds, the compact, sweet-natured animals I am introduced to outside produce 10 per cent less milk than the Holsteins and cost more to buy. But their milk is much higher in solids, which means a 25 per cent increase in cheese yields. The animals also live longer.