Belfast Telegraph

Meet the Co Down cheesemakers on a mission to teach world about their amazing creations

Mike Thompson of Mike's Fancy Cheese
Mike Thompson of Mike's Fancy Cheese
Christo and Angelique Swanepoel show off one of their fine cheeses
Some City Cheese

By Rachel Martin

Co Down cheesemaker Christo Swanepoel has opened up Northern Ireland's first specialist cheese shop with a viewing area to show the public exactly how the product is made.

City Cheese is also the first and only organically certified cheesemaker in Northern Ireland.

And their Ballywalter shop, Angelique's Pantry, is also the first where customers can watch every step of production as the cheese is made through a window running the length of the room.

The South African-born chef makes Gouda - a yellow cheese from Holland - inspired by his wife's Dutch heritage.

And he said that education was a central part of the business.

The couple started making cheese as part of an educational project for their children and began selling the cheese two and a half years ago. The recipe took a year to get right.

Christo said: "We always said that when we moved to Ballywalter that we wanted to open something educational.

"Since the whole thing started off as a home school project we always wanted to bring it back to education.

"The viewing area was actually our environmental health officer's suggestion. He said, 'why don't you just put your kitchen there and put a window in - that way you're preventing people from crossing your clean lines but they can see everything'.

"It means anyone can see how the cheese is made and you'll not need to put on a white suit, hair net and shoe covers to see what's going on."

The company makes three cheeses on site, including Pitjes Kaas, Angelique and Young Culmore - a nod to the farm where the milk used for the cheese is made. In fact, all three cheeses are made using unpasteurised milk from Culmore Organic Farm in Kilrea, Co Londonderry, before they are matured for three months.

The shop is called Angelique's Pantry after Christo's wife, who runs the sales side of the business. It also sells items made by other small-scale food producers such as Made With Love xo and Passion Preserved.

The Pantry has been open less than a month, but the couple have been working intensively behind the scenes to make enough cheese to stock its shelves.

But the business is not just about educating others, Angelique challenges Christo to come up with new recipes and he enjoys researching new production techniques. As a result his Parmesan-style cheese - which is also called after her - uses the enzyme lipase to add a nuttier flavour.

The first batch of Angelique cheese sold out within a day when it was launched at Comber Farmers' Market.

Christo previously worked in a five star a la carte restaurant in Pretoria, but his career also took him to England, Azerbaijan, Equatorial Guinea and Kazakhstan. But he decided to settle in Northern Ireland.

"I must've done something very wrong in the kitchen," he said. "I've gone from working in an environment where you're always thinking on your feet to one where you put all the ingredients together but then you have to wait. In a restaurant you can't tell a customer to wait five months for something.

"You have to make a batch and then mature it - it's not the same as following the recipe for a cupcake, putting it in the oven and ending up with something beautiful a few minutes.

"We use a Gouda recipe, but we do everything wrong in the eyes of Gouda. We leave the cream in the milk, we don't heat treat it. So we're not killing off all the enzymes in the milk - it's a live, raw product - and we don't press it as hard as a Gouda typically would be.

"We also don't use any plastic to store it and as a result it doesn't get that rubbery elastic and the texture is looser. We want to show people that cheese doesn't just come out of a plastic packet and show them why it looks and tastes the way it does."

Christo said he first learned how to make cheese on a placement as part of his apprenticeship as a young chef starting out in South Africa.

The creamery has the capacity to mature up to 1,800kg of cheese at any one time.

The cheese is matured at an ambient temperature but it means that during a cold snap the cheese will have to mature for an extra month.

But Christo isn't the only innovative cheesemaker in Northern Ireland. Mike Thomson of Mike's Fancy Cheese in Newtownards also runs beer and cheese nights.

The evenings are aimed at educating people about where food comes from.

Mike buys the milk he uses from Bangor farming brothers Nicholas and Smyth McCann.

He collects around 900 litres three times a week.

Mike says he tries to run the events once a month but over Christmas the sessions were so popular he decided to hold around five of them.

"It's not just people who are already interested in food who go. I find there are a lot of couples - you'll find one of them will like cheese and the other will like beer and they'll go thinking they'll try one or the other but usually end up giving both a go," he said.

"It's a good way to try something new and the nights are usually 'pay what you feel' so people can put in as much as they would like.

"We try to make them as accessible as possible so that anyone can come."

Mike is part of a group of raw milk cheese producers featuring nine others from across Ireland. His best-known product is Young Buck, a raw milk blue cheese.

As part of this he also includes cheeses from other producers in the beer and cheese nights - as well as beers from Belfast co-operative Boundary Brewing.

"I'll always like to include a hard cheese, a soft cheese and a goats' cheese and explain how they're made and why they look and taste different from each other," he said.

"Within Young Buck there are seasonal variations - in summer when the cows are outside and moving more you'll find the fat content of the milk is quite low. Even changes in what the cows are eating day-to-day or in the bacteria in the milk will have an effect because it's raw milk."

Belfast Telegraph