Bronwen Percival, cheese buyer at Neal’s Yard Dairy, will be taking part in our Harmony in Food and Farming Conference on Monday 10th July 2017. Along with Illtud Llyr Dunsford of Charcutier and moderator Sheila Dillon from the BBC Food Programme, Bronwen will be exploring the bridge between raw farm materials and the food we eat.

In this Q&A, Bronwen tells us a bit more about her work.

Bronwen, you have played a leading role as the cheese buyer at Neal’s Yard Dairy, and as a researcher, in supporting the development of raw milk cheese, produced where possible on sustainably managed farms. Could you say a little bit more about why you are so passionate about this connection?

The story of my own family is a microcosm of what happened to the dairy industry over the course of the 20th century. When my great-grandfather emigrated from Switzerland to southern California in the early 1900s, he recreated in his new home the traditional, holistic, mixed farm structures of his dairy farming community back in Europe. Over the next 80 years, our family’s dairy farm grew with the progressive mainstream, becoming both much larger and more specialised, before ultimately folding due to the pressures of the commodity milk market.

The truth is that farming commodities are a futile proposition for all but the largest producers, who are forced to resort to methods such as inorganic nitrogen fertilisers and intensive animal management to achieve the highest possible yields at the lowest possible price. Making cheese is an alternative for small dairy farms that has the potential to make them viable. But it’s not enough just to be small-scale or handmade, or even to work with raw milk. Here in the UK, we’ve lost so much knowledge about our classic cheeses and how they are made. Those old skills and understanding need to be revived, not so that they can be slavishly copied, but so that farmhouse cheese-makers regain an ability to make cheese that is really different, rather than an expensive version of factory-style cheese.

Helping farmers come to grips this new vision of cheese quality and reorienting them towards producing cheeses that make the most of their farms’ unique potential, is so exciting. It has the potential to be transformative not just on a gastronomic level, but from a social and environmental perspective as well.

You’ve been researching fermentation processes for the last couple of years. What are you hoping to learn by bringing together all these people who work with fermentation, transforming milk, meat and vegetables? And how do you think these food products best express the individuality of the farms from which they originate?

Fermentation is an incredible process; the fact that people have been fermenting the products of their farms successfully – and deliciously – for centuries without understanding the microbiological processes behind them is one of the wonders of human civilisation.

I’m hoping that Illtud (at Charcutier) and I are going to be in a position to take the conversation still further, going beyond the dominant discussion of ‘adding microbes to ferment our raw material’ towards one of fostering and managing natural microbial communities through admirable farming practices. So much of the so-called ‘modern’ approach to farming relies heavily on monocultures, not just at the breed and field level, but at the microbial level as well. Splashing a lot of chemicals around is just not a great way of managing microbial communities.

We can work smarter, harnessing the unique flavour and microbial potential of each farm, and imbuing our products with flavours that can’t be replicated by commercial cultures. What’s really amazing is that these methods can also help us achieve a higher degree of safety at the same time.

What level of importance do you place on consumption of these living foods for the promotion of public health?

Microbiology is such an exciting field at the moment, and the ramifications of recent discoveries for public health are going to be immense. What’s clear is that robust and balanced communities of microbes are really important for the health of systems, whether the system in question is a living food such as a cheese, the soil or the gut. The way that diet influences the gut microbiome is still very poorly understood, though there seems to be increasing evidence that consuming fermented foods, particularly those rich in ‘prebiotic’ compounds that feed our own gut bacteria, is essential for good health. I expect that we are going to learn a lot more within the next few years. In the meantime, shifting to a diet rich in the types of foods our great-grandparents would have eaten (where processing, when it was done, was largely a question of natural fermentation) is looking like a pretty safe bet.

Tell me a bit more about Neals Yard Dairy?

Since it was founded in 1979, Neal’s Yard Dairy has become known for being a champion of farmhouse cheese and cheesemakers. Today, we work with around 70 different cheese producers in Britain and Ireland, selling their produce through our two shops in London as well as to wholesale customers across five continents.

Would you like to see Bronwen speak? But tickets now for the Harmony in Food and Farming Conference

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