Thursday 28 June 2012

Queen Cheese

There are entrepreneurs who simply want to make money and there are those that have a vision of a broader context and their place within it. Helen Venning, owner of Newlyn Cheese & Charcuterie, is a shining example of the latter. Yes she has a passion for cheese, but she opened her little shop because she is driven by a genuine desire to put Newlyn and Penzance on the map as a destination for food lovers. 

Born in North Cornwall, but moving to this area at the age of ten, Helen fondly remembers a time when Penzance was jam-packed with independent shops and the town glowed with a positive aura. While she has witnessed a distinct decline in this respect over the years, Newlyn has managed to cling onto its core of high quality food retailers; as well as its fishmongers, there's Lentern the butchers, Newlyn Bakery, Lovells fruit & veg shop and Jelbert's ice cream.

Helen simply sees her cheese shop as a missing piece of this jigsaw. In fact, much of the success of the business has come by perfectly complimenting the other sellers; she keeps tabs on what the other shops offer so there's no overlap, and she's happy to recommend them if customers come seeking an item she doesn't stock. While she does carry a small number of cheese-friendly items, like selected charcuterie, breads, crackers and olives, she is insistent that the shop is not a deli, and passionately upholds its singular purpose (much inspired by Jelbert's unbending 'vanilla only' policy). She believes in doing a few things well and not over-diversifying, and that's surely the secret to why her produce-selling neighbours are still going strong.

Interestingly, the final decision to focus mainly on cheese was dictated by the premises itself; in Helen's mind, the quirky little building by the bridge screamed 'old-fashioned dairy', and the concept grew around that vision. Inspiration also came from similar businesses like Country Cheeses in Tavistock, as well as other small retailers in the vein of Labour and Wait in London, who are channelling the vintage corner shop vibe exquisitely, with painstakingly chosen products, meticulously curated shelves and servers in crisp aprons. And yes, Helen's shop is beautifully styled and would look equally at home on Marylebone High Street as it does on New Road, Newlyn, but it works because it's simple and without pretensions; it's a real shop, selling everyday things that people want.

Cornish cheeses are the shop's central product. Helen has a good dialogue with the local makers which allows her to get to know the individual stories and to learn about new products. Local cheese connoisseurs and frequenters of the shop should be familiar with Yarg, Helford Blue, Helford White, Cornish Crumbly, St. Endellion Brie, Keltic Gold and the award-winning Cornish Blue. Sadly, Menallack, the producer of 16 fine Cornish cheeses including Menallack, Nanterrow and Tala, is no longer running (but panic not, Allet Farm is now producing their goat cheeses and there are plans afoot to bring the others back too).

Cheeses from further afield are also featured; a number of British classics and oddities are always welcome, and every month a small corner of the counter is home to a cheese representation from a particular European region. This idea stems from Helen's life away from Cornwall; for ten years she lived in Portugal, Spain and France. As well as a love of cheese (and food in general), she came home from her travels with some impressive linguistic powers and, until recently, she has put these skills to good use translating and teaching languages at Truro College. Listening to her authentic pronunciation of the obscure continental cheese varieties is almost as pleasurable as tasting them.

Helen built on her passion for the subject by learning on the job, talking to makers and by picking the brains of her partner Robert Wright, who runs Untitled restaurant in Penzance. Now well-versed in the language of cheese herself, she imparts her knowledge to staff through an in-depth training process that involves visits to suppliers and a lot of cheese eating. 

Of equal importance as the cheese, is service. Helen knows she can't compete with supermarkets on price, but what she can upstage them on is providing customers with an inviting environment, product knowledge and an eagerness to help and respond. A comments book allows her to fine-tune the stock to accommodate frequent suggestions.

To support the core products, Helen has a head full of future ideas, including cheese tasting evenings, a cheese recipe collaboration with local chefs, a picnic box service and the sale of mini cool bags with ice packs for customers with a long journey ahead of them. In fact, Helen's imagination is brimming with countless projects, and she's only being slowed down by the commitments of motherhood (Arthur is 9 months old). Despite this sweet distraction, Helen's energy is barely undiminished and her achievements are laudable.

Communities need people to act and inject positivity. As a local who's been away and returned, it's easy to stand back and bemoan the decay, but Helen didn't want to be that person. She's made a difference and hopes her contribution will help kick-start a trend in the right direction.

Words © Dee and Gerard Ivall. Images © Nik Strangelove

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