What started out as a dinner party dare has turned into reality for the 50-year-old who passionately wants to prove that Britain has some of the finest artisan cheeses in the world.
The food explorer sets off from the slopes of the South Downs on Wednesday December 19, travelling around the country from Wales to the Midlands, through Lancashire, the rugged terrain of the Scottish Highlands, then ending up in Northern Ireland by March 30 next year.
During his “100 cheesemakers in 100 days” road trip, Francis will be sleeping in the Land Rover’s roof top tent, enduring sub-zero temperatures the further north he travels.
The search for British cheese
“It might sound like a crazy idea but it’s my way of seeing whether we can develop an artisan cheese industry to rival other cheese loving European countries. France, for instance, has over 3,500 artisan cheese producers, we have fewer than 350 in Britain,” says Francis, himself a cheesemaker with his wife, Pam, creating Gimblett Cheese from a micro-dairy in the heart of the Surrey Hills.“I want to see the British artisan cheese industry growing and in turn that will support small dairy farmers producing high quality milk.”
“My original idea was to find out if there’s a future for British cheese post-Brexit, but this voyage has become so much more than that,” he says. “It’s a chance to meet with the makers, discover cheese gems and find out what is holding the industry back. I’ve studied the French model of cheese production, where dairy farmers work with cheesemakers to create artisan cheeses from small pasture-fed herds. I would like to find out if we can do more of that in this country – because after all, you can’t make an excellent cheese without having top quality milk.”
This isn’t the first time Francis, who began his career as a sommelier, has set off on a taste exploration. In 2008 he spent two months in North Africa visiting vineyards on a fact-finding mission, which he then turned into a book. As much a guide to North African wine In and Out of Africa is a humorous recount of the situations and incidents which arose during his travels, the book provides the narrative for Francis’ ‘Emerging Wine Markets’ tasting show for Taste of the Vine, his wine-tasting events company.
Since the company was founded with his wife more than 20 years ago, Francis has brought a unique blend of information, interaction and humour to thousands of company events, and has expanded these to include cheese talks - entertaining audiences with a mobile cheesemaking show.
The “100 cheesemakers in 100 days” road trip should reach Wales by Christmas. Then, during the festive period, Francis will be closer to home, visiting cheesemakers in Sussex and Kent before heading off to Norfolk in early January. Then he will head into Stilton country (Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire) then the east coast of North England into Scotland. His final destination will be Northern Ireland towards the end of March.
Photo: Lizzie Patterson Photography