Great British Food June 2011

EPSON MFP imageAs Oxfordshire’s acclaimed blue cheese comes of age, its maker, Baron Robert Pouget, explains its exciting future

The cheese industry is full of interesting characters, but few have the colour, vigour and moral compass of Baron Robert Pouget – a man on a mission to place animal welfare at the heart of fine cheese production.

It was in 1993 that Robert spotted a gap in the English cheese market for a soft blue to rival Dolcelatte or Cambozola. Eighteen years on his love of great food, and well-developed conscience, is shaping the future for his prize-winning product, Oxford Blue. “Dairy is a tough business,” he starts. “In Oxfordshire there are only about six dairy farms left thanks to the combination of very low margins, legislative requirements and massive workloads. The farmer has to work like billio to keep going which means at the end of the year there’s not enough profit to reinvest in the business.” To break this cycle Robert intends to move production of Oxford Blue to the farms which supply the milk for the cheese, ensuring farmers a greater share of the profit. “By making cheese at source we can give the farmers a better price and assure the future of the farm,” explains Robert. “It also means as a cheese-maker I have the chance to lean on the herdsman to insist on very high welfare standards.”

 A New Beginning

It’s Robert’s intention that Oxford Blue, a smooth and creamy semi-soft veined with blue, pushes the envelope on animal welfare – thus meeting the needs of an increasingly well-informed public which puts quality above quantity when allocating its shopping budget. “People are becoming more aware that cows are sentient beings and if we’re going to profit from them we must insist on the best welfare. I may sound ‘holier than thou’ but a large proportion of the public also feels this way. People are prepared to understand that for reasons of health, economics and sustainability they may have to eat less cheese. But that what they do buy should be the best. It’s the same change that we’ve seen in eggs. Until recently, free-range hens were niche – now even manufacturers find battery unacceptable.”

It’s rare to hear cheese-makers speak out against welfare conditions within their own industry, so what motivates Robert? “At the end of the the day I have to look at what I’ve achieved. It’s not about saying ‘I’ve made a lot of money’ but abiding by my instinct and morals in a constructive and intelligent way. Yes, I could stand outside industry wearing a placard but I don’t think that’d be very effective.”

 Back to the Future

Besides, Robert, and other pioneering cheese-makers keen to improve the welfare of dairy cows, are part of a long tradition of artisan makers who believe natural, slow-food methods yield the best results. “I was brought up in 1950s France, in a chateau that had a tenant farm close by where I saw food produced as it would have been centuries before. The animals on the farm led a very natural life. The cattle weren’t a high-yielding breed with uncomfortably heavy udders like you see these days, and they were allowed to suckle their calves. The cheese made with any surplus milk was a sort of Gaperon; we ate it fresh like a cream cheese, then it became creamy and ripe before finally then hardening into a dry ball that could be grated. Virtually every farm in France would make something similar for the local market.”

Whilst admitting that such slow-paced food production is consigned to the past, Robert is keen to bring its values to today’s discerning cheese connoisseur. “It’s about evolution – we can’t change things overnight – but I have ideals that I’d gradually require my farmers to meet.” If his plans come to fruition, the soft blue cheese that was a pioneer within the market when it launched 18 years ago will continue leading the pack today. “It has stood test of time,” says Robert proudly. “There are a lot of English blues on the market now but Oxford Blue is more popular than ever. Despite only being stocked in independent shops we sell between four or five tonnes a month. It’s got a very loyal following and if I succeed with what I’m trying to do – create a product of integrity with increased animal welfare – its future is assured.”

Posted by lesley