‘Food Hero’ Feature, Published Cornwall Today 2011.
Helen Venning’s tiny cheese shop is creating a buzz in Newlyn, where shoppers are rediscovering the joys of high street food shopping.
It’s Friday afternoon and the counter of Newlyn Cheese & Charcuterie is hotly contested territory, as purchases are made for the weekend, whole cheeses are ordered to be sent as gifts, and locals exchange foodie tips. Helen opened the doors just a few short months ago, yet the tiny shop is already a town institution and trade is brisk. “Newlyn now has everything a well-stocked kitchen could need,” says Helen, whose premises are ideally situated across the road from popular fruit and veg store Lovells, and just a few yards from a local legend, Jelberts Ice Cream. There is also a great butcher, Aunty May’s famous pasties, and of course plenty of fishmongers nearby.
Helen is an experienced language teacher and also a translator. She has lived in Portugal, Spain and France and has a love for the flavours of the continent, which she indulges on trips with her partner, the chef Rob Wright. Yet, perhaps as a sign of the times, Helen wanted her day to day life to become more localised. “I was getting fed up with driving all the time to places at the other end of the county. I wanted to work where I was part of the community. I also dreamed of having my own business, where the amount of energy and drive I put in directly related to what I got in return.” Walking past a neat, attractive shop-front in Newlyn one day with a ‘To Let’ sign outside got her thinking. “I thought about what we were missing down here; what you need to travel a relatively long way to find. The answer was a good cheese shop!”
The possibility of filling this niche with her own start-up business rekindled Helen’s passion for all things food. “The time I spent on the continent taught me a lot about cheese and food in general; for example about not being afraid to try new things and to experiment. The way people feel and respond to food in countries like Spain and Portugal has certainly influenced me.” Yet despite Helen’s love of European cuisine and culture, her main inspiration came from Cornwall itself. “If I was starting a cheese shop ten or twenty years ago, it would have been filled with continental cheeses. Today, some of the most delicious cheeses in the world are made here in Cornwall and in Britain at large.”
Helen only stocks European cheeses if they are irreplaceable regional specialities – Gruyère, Parmesan and Manchego for example. Such continental flourishes punctuate a diverse selection of British regional classics. “This is a celebration of British cheese; of the knowledge that it no longer has to be French to be good,” says Helen. With the focus on Cornwall, all the favourites are represented, including St Endellion Brie, Miss Muffet, Yarg and World Cheese Award Winner, Cornish Blue. Helen also stocks a variety of goat and sheep’s milk cheeses. “Lots of people ask for these products because of intolerances or simply for health reasons.” Each different type of cheese is kept in perfect condition.
Just like Helen’s own change in lifestyle, her choice of products was also made with environmental considerations in mind. “We all have to consider environmental factors when we make lifestyle or business decisions. So, as well as the fact that the diversity and quality of cheese being made in Cornwall is excellent, it seemed an ecological requisite to source as locally as possible.” Helen works directly with some producers, and would like to do so on a larger scale in the future. She also stocks a good selection of local sidelines, including chutneys and quince conserves from Crellow, juices from Cornish Orchards and the nearby Polgoon Vineyard and Orchard, and Sarah’s Relishes (from Sennen). Vicky’s Bread, baked in Helston, also deliver every day except Monday.
Helen’s new venture has also freshly ignited her love of learning. “Cheese is a fascinating subject. There are lots of parallels; for example with wine, which, like cheese, reflects the region in which it is made. How people perceive and describe the taste experience is also similar to tasting wine.” Indeed there are plans in place to hold a series of tastings alongside some interesting and unusual wines at Helen’s partner’s new restaurant in Penzance. Untitled by Robert Wright, housed in what used to be The Abbey Restaurant, will no doubt be the scene of many such exciting culinary encounters. In the meantime, Helen is to be found behind the counter in Newlyn offering her customers helpful advice and a taste of something new.
Newlyn Cheese and Charcuterie, www.newlyncheese.co.uk, 01736 368714.