We meet four people who are keeping it cheesy
“No one makes a tonne of money making cheese so you might as well have a nice time doing it,” says Mike Thomson, creator and cheesemaker of blue masterpiece Young Buck and the brains behind the massively successful Mike’s Fancy Cheese in Belfast.
After chatting to four different makers from across Northern Ireland, I’d have to agree. Each one of them had nothing but positive things to say about the small scene here, nothing but praise for the help and encouragement of cheesemakers further along in their journey and every one of them was really, really nice.
Maybe, as the old Monty Python joke goes: “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”
Certainly, when you chat to producers here, Mike’s name comes up again and again; he’s something of a trailblazer and one-man cheerleader for those interested in getting into the business.
After training in the UK, Mike moved back to Northern Ireland and set up Young Buck in 2013, making his first batch on November 26 that year.
“I had a really nice job in England; the reason I wanted to come back was because I felt there was going to be a big wave of people starting,” he says.
“And because I’d no farm or money or anything I thought if you’re the first at doing anything it would be easier to raise a bit of money.”
Mike ended up crowdfunding his business, but the cheesemaking wave that he was expecting to sweep over Northern Ireland didn’t happen. This might explain, at least in part, why he’s become such a champion for the industry.
“Whenever we started making cheese over here, we felt very isolated,” he tells me.
“Ever since then we’ve always tried to find out wherever people have started to make cheese and be as open as possible about what we’re doing with them so they can come and see what we do.
“Hopefully that will help them gauge what cheesemaking is as a skill. It’s always been the more of us there are up here, the better it is.”
In fact, part of his rationale for setting up Mike’s Fancy Cheese shop was a bit of a “build it and they will come” idea. He mentions the Courtyard Dairy in Yorkshire which, after it set up a shop for selling cheese, saw an uptake in local producers.
“That’s what we wanted to replicate, have a shop in Belfast that is just about Irish cheese so if someone were thinking of starting there would be a market already there.
“We can buy ‘this much’ or say we don’t have this cheese in Northern Ireland so it would be great if you could make something like that. That was the thinking behind the shop.”
In the last year, because of lockdown, Mike says they’ve never seen such an increased interest in their product.
“The small-scale Irish cheesemakers probably never sold as much cheese and never will sell as much cheese again,” he says.
But what has cheered him too is the change in demographic, and he says that there’s been a lot more interest from younger people keen to eat, shop and support local. There’s also been a number of new producers putting their head above the parapet in recent years, so Mike’s plan to build a Northern Irish cheese A-Team could finally be coming together.
As for his plans for the future? Well, with demand outstripping supply of Young Buck there’s hope for expansion, perhaps in 2022.
But as he says himself, “With a raw milk cheese you’re never finished. Any time you think you’ve got it sorted you get worried because something will go wrong. You see me in photos? I’m always wearing a hat. I used to have a beautiful head of hair eight years ago and it’s all disappeared. That’s what you expect as a raw cheesemaker.”
To find out more about Young Buck and Mike’s Fancy Cheese visit www.mfcheese.com
When it comes to what makes cheese here so special, what comes up time and time again with the cheesemakers is the quality of Northern Irish milk and, as Mike puts it, “happy cows, happy cheese.”
Certainly, milk was the jumping off point for Ballylisk of Armagh. Mark Wright co-founded the business in 2017 with his late brother Dean, who sadly passed away earlier this year.
They used high-quality milk from the family farm to create their signature cheese, the acclaimed and luxurious triple cream Ballylisk Triple Rose. Mark says they’d done extensive research when deciding what kind of product to make and this kind of triple cream cheese really wasn’t being made anywhere else.
“I thought, imagine somebody described this cheese to you, before even looking at it or tasting it you’d already created desire and your mouth started watering,” he tells me.
Mark says that quality was always their end goal when making the Triple Rose, “We had a plan and the plan was to take our time. Expectation had started to appear but we didn’t want that to exceed what we could produce.”
They began production in earnest in April 2018 and since then the Triple Rose has been a smash hit.
“We’d caught interest because of our brand and because of our story,” he says.
“Within a year, by April 2019, our Triple Rose was listed in Fortnum and Mason and they’re now our biggest customer for it. Through their hampers it goes all round the world.”
In what was a major coup for the brand, Ballylisk was one of a select number of brands invited to set up shop at a festive food and drink market on Downing Street which took place on November 30. Mark says that he was really excited about the exposure such an invite could bring.
Ballylisk has expanded its repertoire, with a smoked and a cider-washed version of the Triple Rose and a brie, called The Single Rose. For Mark, his hope is to expand further afield again, potentially into the Middle and Far East markets, and he has a number of trips planned to hopefully promote his cheese to these markets.
“I’m going to Dubai in February, there’s an event called Gulfood [in February]. The Asian market is probably where I’d like to go as an export.”
For Mark, the sky’s the limit for his brand. Like Mike, even though he’s well-established, Mark is just as keen and complimentary about the cheese scene here, particularly new up and comers.
“We feel privileged to be part of a movement here in Northern Ireland, a very vibrant one with really good people supporting each other. It’s so small but everyone is doing something slightly different in their own way... I think we’re doing something really good but there are others doing something equally as good if not better. It’s so rewarding to be part of that group.”
To find out more about Ballylisk of Armagh see www.ballyliskofarmagh.com
Italian Davide Tani certainly agrees that he’s in good company. “I’ve found my tribe,” says the former electrical engineer who retrained in cheesemaking back in his homeland. Davide currently makes the Kearney Blue brand for Farmview Dairies but is the founder of VeloCheese, so named because of his passion for sustainability and love for the Velomobile, an environmentally friendly, person-powered mode of transport. Davide has one that’s bright yellow which he uses to get about in.
“If people are exposed to this kind of vehicle perhaps then they will use [one], start to learn there is another vehicle that’s not an electric car. It’s between a car and bicycle,” he muses.
The Velomobile being yellow ties in nicely with the fact that Davide’s business will now be based out of the new Banana Block living museum in East Belfast, and he’s currently in the process of renovating his space in the building.
From Sardinia, Davide says that he had planned to bring some sheep to Northern Ireland and make a sheep’s cheese — in Sardinia there are more sheep than people.
But he realised that our climate wouldn’t be suitable for sheep more used to the Italian sun. Instead, he says: “When I moved here I noticed the milk was very good, the pasture was very good,” and that sparked an idea. “I started to make mozzarella for myself because I was craving fresh mozzarella. All the mozzarella in Northern Ireland is imported.”
He spotted a gap in the market, and converted a room in his house into a mini cheesemaking laboratory. Through his collaboration with Banana Block he will now make his cheese there, and demonstrate the art to those looking to learn.
“My plan is also to sell this experience, for me food is experience. When I travel around the world the first thing I’ve found is where the locals eat and go to it. When I get the lab going we are going to make courses on how to make mozzarella, how to cook with cheese...”
For Davide, the connection with cheese and his love for it is one that goes back to his childhood.
“Everyone thinks of mozzarella, that it’s cold, but my love of it started when I was five and with my parents we went to buy mozzarella. In the back of the shop there were people making it and they offered me one when it was still warm. Literally they were making it in front of me. And it was a revelation, amazing!”
Being able to try warm, freshly made mozzarella is something he hopes to be able to offer at Banana Block, and because the space is a living museum, he wants to open up his lab there to different communities and cultures and attempt to make cheeses from around the world.
“Because the area has different communities I will try to make different cheeses from different communities.
“I have friends from Lebanon so we will try to make some Lebanese cheeses. And our friends from Syria, we will make cheese from Syria. I have some friends from Brazil and we will make some cheese from Brazil,” he says excitedly.
“I think Belfast is very receptive about food,” he says. “It’s blooming after the previous years, now it is flourishing. The people are receptive.”
To find out more about Velo Cheese visit www.velocheese.co.uk
A taste of home was the drive behind the newest brand I talked to, Carrickfergus Cheese, which was set up by husband and wife team Carol and Olav Koster.
“We started last January  because Olav is Dutch and with Brexit we couldn’t get our favourite cheese over from his mummy,” Carol tells me.
“Olav and I saw a programme with Rick Stein on it about a Dutchman in Cornwall who started to make gouda cheese… Olav said it can’t be that hard, let’s give it a go.”
The pair who have no previous background in the food industry are self-taught.
“There’s about a million Dutch websites about making gouda so we started there… the internet,” says Olav.
After sourcing a local milk producer, Baird’s in Carrickfergus, they made their first batch. Word got out and suddenly they had a waiting list of 60 people wanting their gouda-style cheese.
“We decided to try it and the cheese went well and was in the fridge for about four months, and we gave some cheese to the farmer [at Baird’s] to try and he put it on his website and then suddenly the phone just exploded with people wanting the cheese. I sold all his cheese that [Olav] wanted for himself!” says Carol. Poor Olav.
Because of the cheese’s success, Carol says she and Olav began to wonder if there wasn’t scope to turn this passion project into a business.
“Basically when we ended up with a waiting list of 60 people wanting the cheese, we thought there is something in this and maybe we could make it into a career.”
The couple are currently making their cheese from home but the plan is to create a gouda style cheese with nothing else added to it in a range of different flavours, and they have a range of dedicated cheese tasters who are currently advising them on which ones they think would work best commercially.
While they are still making from home, they can only sell to family and friends but they are set to begin commercial production in the New Year and are now in the development phase.
The plan is to create a commercial facility to make their cheeses and that would mean they could sell direct to the public and to restaurants. Sustainability and using local produce will be key to their mission, says Carol.
“It’s also about re-educating people because you buy a cheese and when you cut it the shelf life is about a week, and then it will go mouldy. Lots of people are not used to that. You buy a cheese, you put it in cellophane and you keep it in the fridge for two months and you expect it to look yellow and tasty. Well, yes, but at what cost? There are additives in it,” adds Olav.
They have, they say, already been to see cheesy fairy godmother Mike, who Carol says was “so lovely”.
“We’re still in the beginning of this process and there are so many cultures that can make a gouda, and we’re still looking for the right culture that we can reproduce for our climate, so to speak. Because it is a bit more damp here, you need to find the right culture,” says Olav.
He adds: “Although it’s a business, it was never about making money very quickly, it was about the passion of cheese.”
To find out more about Carrickfergus Cheese visit www.facebook.com/carrickferguscheese