I’d set out for the United Kingdom last June with a head full of ideas and assumptions about the interviews that I would soon conduct with small scale producers of raw milk cheese. Yet like any good oral history program, my focus quickly began to shift. As I always tell my oral history students: you are in search of stories that you didn’t even know that you needed to hear.
Several assumptions quickly went by the board. One of them was the idea that national or even regional identity is a big philosophical force in cheesemaking. It’s there, but it is much further down the list of ideas for the people I met, who more often than not see themselves as part of a pan-European (dare I say union?) of craft producers united by principle and commitment to quality rather than geography. While some cheesemakers find inspiration for their recipe in location, others produce varieties that one might associate more freely with France or Spain.
I also learned that the term “artisan cheesemaker” is thrown around so promiscuously in the industry that it can lose definition — it’s a term that one sees self-applied to someone making a comparative handful of raw milk cheeses a week from a flock of 15 goats grazing sustainable pasture to operations that milk hundreds of head of cattle and produce many tons of pasteurized cheese mostly destined for supermarket chains, a point driven home in attending a trade show at the Staffordshire Show Ground on the last day of June. It is sometimes a challenge to separate what’s what. But the farmers I interviewed represented a commitment to a hands-on approach, the belief in single-source milk and who think about pasture, animal welfare, and the impact of what they do on the planet — qualities that set them apart.
What struck me the most of my first foray into interviews, however, was that the array of concerns that confronted those small scale farmers reflected so fully the most contemporary challenges of our age. It is easy to find print literature and social media posts depicting “artisan” cheesemaking or caring for ruminants as the gold standard of some cottagecore ideal, but these farmers are hardly running away and hiding from the problems of the modern world. In fact, they easily confront the key issues of the age on a tangible and far more frequent basis than those of us who like to talk about them but remain almost entirely insulated from their consequences in our professional lives. Climate change and carbon capture, land reform, the pressures and skewed values of the modern food system, inscrutable and often contradictory agricultural policy, ecological diversity, biological threats, the ever-hovering question of “to pasteurize or not to pasteurize,” and of course the whole economic calculus of running a business. In short, craft cheesemaking is not for the meek and perhaps that is why I discovered so much philosophical conviction among those who have pursued it.
My hope is to return in late September or early October to follow up with more cheesemakers and build a stronger narrative about the ways in which a group of farmers who are confronting on a daily basis many of the environmental and policy challenges of our time. Each person I’ve been lucky enough to engage has furthered my knowledge, and I hope to learn more this fall.