Pursuing the Raw Story

If you follow me on Twitter, you will soon discover that my timeline will get extra cheese-centric over the summer. I’ll be in the United Kingdom interviewing craft producers who are devoted to making unique and flavorful cheeses using single-source raw milk. Their work may seem “niche” to those who have not taken time to consider it, but every decision in the cheese-making process is a reflection on our contemporary moment towards food production that is sustainable environmentally, economically, and ethically. Cheese is also important to the story of Britain, both past and present. Consider the place names listed on a map of the British Isles, and the connection between history, cheese, and geography becomes readily apparent. We might consider these environmental factors that influence the end result – a terroir of sorts – but it is more than just a geographical notion of sun and soil. The entirety of the process reflects a deeper story about history, place, and identity, and it is this more existential story that I most especially want to tell.

The historical lost-and-found of British cheese

The austere times that followed World War II nearly wiped out those vestiges of traditional British cheese production that had somehow managed to survive the devastation and dislocation of the Great War. Economies of scale and the rise of scientifically informed food safety seemed to leave little room for the old ways. Higher yields, greater use of monoculture in everything from animal genetics to feed led to dramatically increased output of milk and cheese at much lower prices, something praised in those lean times. Yet as the twentieth century unfolded, it became clear to smaller scale dairy farmers that striving for efficiency yielded not only an increasingly unsustainable economic picture, but an environmentally unsustainable process for the land as well.

Not until the 1980s did British cheesemakers begin to recover the lost recipes and techniques of their forbearers. This movement has grown from a handful of craft dairies to today where dozens of producers across the nation have helped redefine an important segment of the nation’s food production. Among them are younger millennials whose work not only offers a bold ethical statement about the environment, economy, and government regulation, let alone the nuanced flavors of the cheese that they produce, but also a sense of historical consciousness and identity rooted in the distant agrarian past.


It is my goal this summer to film interviews with small-scale producers who specialize in making cheese from single-source raw milk. The process and ultimate production has several elements. The interviews I collect will become part of my ongoing oral history work at Loyola University New Orleans, but I also plan on editing these interviews and other footage into a short feature documentary film. While I am in the field, I also plan on shooting medium-format stills and producing a photo essay that can later be accompanied by text geared towards print publication.

What is different about my work? There is a good bit of smart writing about British cheese that has appeared in the last decade including Bronwen and Francis Percival’s Reinventing the Wheel and Ned Palmer’s A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles, to name just a couple, and I’m not interested in replicating these informative works. Instead, I’m very much interested in the intersection of the particular historical moment we find ourselves in where so much seems to be in flux – around the world but in particular the West – and how a group of food producers who are actively challenging the status quo see their place in it all. The pandemic in particular has placed many social, environmental, and economic tensions into sharper relief. More locally, the impact of Brexit as well as the global social and political influences that have brought it into being have also placed tensions upon old structures. The world, if you will, is having a moment in 2022. The great irony is that hyper-local food producers are, in a way, making one particular statement about all of it, because one doesn’t blindly go into such an endeavor without purpose. It is ultimately the cheesemaker’s philosophy and vision that I want to document.

My interviews will engage some of the following themes:

  • Craft cheese production as an expression of local, regional, or national pride.
  • Historical consciousness, preservation of tradition, and expressions of identity through craft.
  • Responsiveness to both environmental and economic sustainability in all aspects of farming and production.
  • Challenges to production including government regulation, political action, consumer perceptions, Brexit, and the pandemic.
  • The many human scale stories associated with any calling requiring so much personal commitment of its practitioners.

My base of operations for this trip will include Southeast Yorkshire, Devon, and Kent, with a stopover in the Oxford area so I can attend the Oxford Food Symposium in early July, 2022. I will also be attending and filming at this year’s Love Cheese Live festival.

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