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7th September 2020

Fortnum's Festival of Great British & Irish Cheeses 

With cheesemaking under threat due to Covid-19, Ned Palmer, author of 'A Cheese Monger’s History of the British Isles', and Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards nominee, introduces our new weekly celebration of our much-loved cheeses.

The history of cheesemaking in these isles stretches back more than 6,000 years into our Neolithic past, and traditional cheeses like Cheddar and Stilton are - rightly - world famous. The time is ripe for a celebration of the many cheeses of Great Britain and Ireland, and I am both honoured and excited to be a part of Fortnum’s Festival of Great British and Irish cheese, celebrating our traditional cheeses and highlighting new makers and styles which have transformed the humble cheese board into a gourmet experience. 

In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution threatened the very existence of farmhouse cheesemaking in Britain and Ireland, and the needs of rationing in WWII also hastened the shift to industrial production. Happily for cheese fans, the 1970s saw a renaissance of farmhouse and artisan cheesemaking which has recovered old traditions and produced new delights like the rich, sweet Irish Gouda style Coolea, mighty Isle of Mull, and delicate yet complex Gorwydd Caerphilly.


The effects of Covid fell heavily, and some of our finest and most well-loved cheeses seemed to be facing extinction


The Great Cheese Renaissance has only gained momentum over the last 40 years, and the last decade has witnessed the birth of among many others, the Suffolk Brie style Baron Bigod, and the sheeps milk Brefu Bach from Wales, both of which will be appearing in this festival.

Every age throws up its own unique challenges but cheesemakers have weathered the storms of war, industrialisation, and reaching back further into the past, the Black Death, from which British cheesemaking emerged not only unscathed but with a whole new family of cheeses unique to Britain, the Territorials of which the buttery, crumbly Kirkhams Lancashire and juicily mineral Appleby’s Cheshire are fine examples. Today we are all facing a new pandemic in the form of Covid-19.


In March of this year the effects of Covid fell heavily on cheese, in particular the closure of restaurants, which caused a 90% drop in sales, and some of our finest and most well-loved cheeses seemed to be facing extinction.


With characteristic gumption and resolve the cheesemakers of Britain and Ireland dug in, and pivoted to online markets, direct sales at the farm gate, even changing their recipes to make longer keeping cheese that could ride out the fall in trade. The cheesemongers have done their bit too, by carrying on courageously during lockdown, working in their masks in socially distanced shops, and wrapping and packing like heroes to serve the explosion in online sales.


There is another group whose actions during the pandemic have been inspiring, and that is the cheese fanciers of Britain and Ireland. The plight of the cheesemakers caught the people’s imagination and commanded their sympathy, and they responded by buying so much cheese that for many cheesemakers and shops, sales have returned to pre-Covid levels, and, amazingly, in some cases have even grown.


This may be the end of the beginning, but cheese is not out of the woods yet. Setting aside the current pandemic, the world is changing rapidly and if our cheeses are to survive the challenges to come there will need to be considerable resilience in the artisan and farmhouse cheese industry. Happily for cheese fans, the best thing we can do is to buy, and of course to eat more delicious cheese, and to celebrate the traditions and innovations of cheesemaking in these isles in events like Fortnum’s Festival of Great British and Irish Cheese.


Starting from 14th September, we'll be highlighting a different cheese - and cheesemonger for you to discover every week until Christmas. Visit us our Piccadilly Cheese Counter to enjoy 10% off a different cheese every week, and keep an eye on our social channels or sign up to our newsletter for your weekly cheese fix.



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