Shaftesbury’s Big Cheese

It might have started as an accident of geography, but over the last fifteen years, Charlie Turnbull’s relationship with Dorset has blossomed into an abiding passion. Just as he has taken its many moods to his heart, so too is Dorset assimilating the energy, expertise and barely bridled enthusiasm of this most irrepressible of settlers.

Not only has Turnbull’s deli and bistro become something of a foodie haven in Shaftesbury, Charlie has had a hand in the town’s Food and Drink Festival, has helped instigate the Gold Hill Cheese Run – a reason-defying exercise in strength and endurance that involves hefting 45- to 55-pound cheese truckles up the famous cobbled landmark – and was on the team that brought the winter Snowdrop Festival to life.

‘I travel all over Britain judging cheese, internationally as well, and there’s nothing that compares to Dorset,’ he says. ‘When you add to that family and friends and sharing food, life doesn’t get any better.’ That seems to be Charlie Turnbull in a nutshell. For all that his CV marks him out as something of a grand fromage – globally acknowledged cheese expert, bowler-hatted judge at the World Cheese Awards and Great Taste Awards among others, Guild of Fine Food board member, successful retailer, entrepreneurial digital innovator – it’s the everyday stuff that he values the most. ‘Food is often the excuse to indulge those real passions of friends and family.’

It all started when Charlie, a trained accountant, came back from South Africa and needed a job. He came to Dorset in search of family friends and discovered a passion for making cheese. ‘My being in Dorset is purely accidental – a friend told me about the shop because when they saw it there were two model ships in the window and my father was in shipping, so that was taken as a sign.’

By his own admission, Charlie’s natural inclinations are more towards the gourmand than the gourmet and, for all that he clearly knows more than enough about the subject to be an insufferable one, he’s resolutely not a food snob. ‘Look, I grew up on a farm in a family of five and if you didn’t make your space at the kitchen table, you went without. I just love eating and want to make people happy by enjoying food. That’s what Turnbull’s is all about – I want people to leave the shop with smiles on their faces.’

For all that he won’t admit to being more than a ‘gifted amateur’, Charlie is fast developing a name as a retail innovator with his new ClicBoxShop venture that aims to provide an e-commerce marketplace for Britain’s small food and drink businesses. ‘We have a large number of small producers in this country and a small number of large producers, but not enough in the middle. In Dorset I’m a big admirer of the Barber family food businesses as an example of mid-sized producers that have the longevity of much bigger organisations but the understanding you get by handing things on through a family. There’s a lovely goat’s cheese called Woolsery made in Up Sydling by Annette Lee, but when she stops, there’s nobody to take it on and the danger is that the cheese ceases production. That’s how it works in this country – it’s not like making camembert in Normandy, where when one producer retires there are 90 others to carry on.’

Under EU law – ‘and it’s good EU law, by the way’ – Britain now has twelve Name Protected cheeses, either as Protected Designation of Origin or Protected Geographical Indication. France has 64. There’s work to be done, says Charlie. ‘It’s the British way. We’re natural traders but we’d sell our heritage for a song. West Country cheddar is known the world over and it’s down to a man called Joseph Harding, who originated the recipe for modern cheddar in the mid-19th century. He didn’t keep it all in Somerset, though: he spread the love.’

Conversely, Dorset Blue Vinny, which does enjoy geographical protection, has something of a chequered history and had all but fallen into extinction by the 1970s. ‘Its reputation is fully restored now,’ says Charlie, ‘but it just wasn’t a very well-made cheese and 50-odd years ago, it was in a terrible state. Today there are something like 700 named British cheeses and we’re getting much better at things like branding and telling the stories and social histories that come with those cheeses.’

At the other end of the spectrum are the mass-produced cheeses that ensure eighty per cent of cheese sold in this country is discounted in one way or another. It’s a statistic that would give most epicures heartburn, but not Charlie. As far as he’s concerned, the more people eating cheese the better, because a greater number of them will find themselves exploring the wider of world of cheese – today’s consumer of industrial ‘mousetrap’ is tomorrow’s turophile. The same reasoning has seen Charlie, through his involvement on the board of the Guild of Fine Food, get behind the not-for-profit Academy of Cheese and Britain’s first professional cheese qualification.

‘The Academy’s agenda is all about educating people and informing them about the range of cheese so that more people come to love cheese and understand what they are eating.’

Although Charlie’s ardour for cheese has long since melted the border with obsession, there are things in his life that are more important than cheese – albeit they’re all improved by a carefully compiled cheeseboard… providing yet another parallel for the incorrigible Mr Turnbull.

‘Cheese nearly always gets the last word at dinner. It’s last out and so people spend longer with the cheese than any other course, it’s when stories get told, secrets are shared and an evening can turn into a long night. People have their own pleasure with cheese, often in quite a quiet and passive way, but it’s definitely there.’

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine

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