Basingstoke: “I never thought it would be as big as this,” says Stacey Hedges of her booming French-style cheese business, as another lorryload leaves the green Hampshire countryside for some of Britain’s finest restaurants.
Former chef Hedges founded the Hampshire Cheese Company in 2005 and started producing Tunworth, a Camembert-style handmade cheese.
She is one of dozens of entrepreneurs who have gone into cheese-making across England, Scotland and Wales.
As a result, the country now produces a wider variety of soft cheeses alongside traditional British hard cheeses such as Stilton and Cheddar.
France, the “country of a thousand cheeses”, is often a source of inspiration.
Nine employees work in Hedges’s creamery near Basingstoke in England’s southern Hampshire region, making about 7,000 cheeses a week, and up to 12,000 during the Christmas season.
Her website even carries a quote from celebrity French chef Raymond Blanc, who describes Tunworth as “the best Camembert in the world!”
While a provocative remark for Blanc’s countrymen, it is undeniable that the cheese has made its mark on menus and shelves across Britain.
In the Basingstoke factory, there is not a machine in sight.
Everything is done by hand, from the handling of the milk — delivered by a neighbouring farm — to the packaging in a round wooden box imported from France.
As well as Tunworth, the Hampshire Cheese Company also makes the softer Winslade, which Hedges likens to Vacherin.
The 61-year-old got help from French experts to advise her on the manufacturing process.
“In this country we have Stilton and Cheddar. But we don’t have the knowledge for soft cheese,” Hedges explained.
Her success has inspired other Brits.
– ‘Cheese every day!’ –
“It’s a very exciting time to be in the industry,” said Bronwen Percival, technical manager at Neal’s Yard Dairy, which has four shops in London selling almost exclusively British cheese.
“There are new people coming out all the time with a real entrepreneurial spirit,” she added.
“We sell mozzarella from Italy, but if somebody (British) arrives on the scene making a beautiful mozzarella, as good as the one we currently sell, we might decide to switch.”
This has already happened with homegrown varieties of Brie and Camembert, as the UK dairy industry continues to adapt from the shock of deregulation in the 1990s.
Prior to then, a state marketing board regulated the production and distribution of milk, setting a floor under prices for other diary products.
After the board was abolished and the price of milk plummeted, diary producers were under pressure to add value through other products.
They responded with soft cheeses, which proved a hit with consumers.
“The key thing is people want to know where the food they eat is from and support local producers,” said Tracey Colley from the Academy of Cheese, which runs tasting courses and events such as the British Cheese Weekend.
The pandemic has also helped, she added.
“When people stayed at home, cheese became a treat for some.”
But it’s still a long way from mass consumption.
“Everyone has Cheddar in their fridge,” but other cheeses remain fairly niche, said Colley.
“What we’re trying to change with the Academy is to get people in the same mindset as in France: eat cheese every day!”
Prices of artisanal cheese remain a challenge to wider adoption, often coming in at around £10 ($12.50) for a single cheese.
Exports are one outlet. Ironically, France is one of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s top foreign markets.
Hedges sells her Tunworth in Hong Kong, the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
But she draws the line at trying to break into the home of Camembert.
“Do you think the French would buy British Camembert?” she joked.