Sharpham produces a range of velvety soft cheeses with milk from its own cows
Sharpham, a foodie favourite and national award-winner in Totnes, Devon, produces a range of velvety soft cheeses with milk from its own cows and neighbours’ herds of sheep and goats, its success over 30 years paralleling that of the British craft food industry. In 2019 ex-Dairy Crest and industry expert Greg Parsons, helped by Lloyds Bank, bought it and it now produces more than 60 tons a year and runs alongside the estate’s wine business.
Top of his agenda remain digital expansion, fresh branding making the most of Sharpham’s lush Devon roots, partnerships with companies and chefs and a new, flavour-packed cheese it has created infused with flavours of seaweed harvested from local beaches.
But inevitably Covid-19 has required some swift rethinking by Parsons, a Devon local, whose majority of customers are delis and the food service sector.
Initially the producer like many others had surplus stock plus the challenge of soft cheeses’ shorter shelf life, he explains.
“We donated to charities, we scaled back production furloughing eight staff out of 11 which has certainly helped cashflow. But the demand is there so we are now making as much as we can and despatching nationally.”
Exports to California and the Middle East are increasing and Parsons is forecasting a £600,000 turnover next year.
The Devon cheese board selection (£20) it introduced in March in response to Covid-19 and the importance of food in people’s live and greater interest shown in different products.
SOFT AND VELVETY: Elmhirst, one of many of Sharpham Dairy’s speciality cheeses
Sustainable breed: Sharpham’s Jersey cows
Adapt, survive and prosper
Since then it has become a Sharpham bestseller. But if anything displays what Parsons describes as “the phenomenal traditional, handmade craftmanship that goes into our products”, it is the highly lauded Cremet.
The goat’s cheese enriched with cow’s cream is “the most complex flavour-wise and hardest to make because it is so fragile”, he says.
Adapting to the lockdown’s impact has not been as difficult for Sharpham as others, he believes, and the business is part of Food Drink Devon’s 350-strong group of retailers that is now listing members that are operating deliveries, taking orders, collections and takeaways.
“People are thinking even more during this difficult time about their food and where it comes from,” reckons Parsons who sees specialist restaurants offering creative pairings like the Cheese Bar group as crucial for producers and the health of the craft foods sector.
Jersey cows, among the most sustainable livestock, form Sharpham’s own dairy herd and “2021 is going to be huge year,” adds Parsons, “both for eating British cheese and visitors to Devon.”
AMBITIOUS: New owner Greg Parsons
Buy local, take a virtual trip with the British cheese experts and save precious producers
The British Cheese Weekender runs from Friday, May 8, to Sunday May 10 is showcasing top specialist cheeses with a series of online masterclasses, virtual tastings, drinks pairings and storage tips.
It is all in support of the UK’s artisan cheesemakers, until now a thriving industry, but currently facing the biggest threat ever to their businesses because of the pandemic.
Organised by the Specialist Cheesemakers Association (SCA) in collaboration with the Academy of Cheese and The Guild of Fine Food, it aims to raise awareness about the crisis and urges shoppers to connect with their local indie makers and retailers.
Cows, sheep and goats continue to graze in the pastures but farmhouse and artisan producers are being forced to pour thousands of litres of milk down the drain and give away products as 90 percent have lost their customers overnight.
“The future of Britain’s farmhouse and specialist cheesemakers is in the balance – we could see many lost forever,” warns cheesemaker Catherine Mead, chair of the SCA, which represents over 200 small cheesemakers.
A Team: Sharpham’s specialist makers
But, she adds: “The good news is that it’s never been easier to buy good cheese, either online or direct. The specialist cheese industry has mobilised almost overnight, often teaming up with other small food producers, to get good food to people in their local areas.”
Commenting on the British Cheese Weekender, Tracey Colley, director of the Academy of Cheese, said: “We’re lining up a series of virtual masterclasses over the weekend, hosted by top cheese experts, so that people can tune in and learn more about cheese as they taste along at home.”
John Farrand, managing director of the Guild of Fine Food, which represents the country’s cheese shops, delis, farm shops and producers, praised the way indie retailers and small producers had mobilised in the crisis: “It’s inspiring to see how local food networks have risen to the challenge and adapted business models to provide good food to local communities during the crisis. Independent retailers are going to extraordinary lengths to keep the nation fed, while also providing a vital route to market for small producers, who would otherwise struggle to stay afloat. We urge shoppers to make use of these networks and support small family businesses. The local pound has never been so valuable.”
For more details about the weekend visit: https://academyofcheese.org/british-cheese-weekender