In the UK, blue cheese used to pretty much begin and end with Stilton. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it’s one of the great British cheeses. But today there are dozens (if not hundreds) of British blues lining our cheese counters. And Barkham Blue, made by Two Hoots Cheese near Reading, is one of the best.
Founded by Sandy and Andy Rose in the early 2000s, Two Hoots is a small operation that grew out of Sandy’s cheesemaking hobby. ‘My dad was a dairy farmer and I grew up on his farm in Berkshire,’ she explains. ‘Later on I set up a smallholding with Andy in Hampshire where we kept rare breed cattle and a few goats, and we’d operate as a mobile farm going out to local schools. We were milking the goats just for ourselves, but my cousin – who’s a cheesemaker – said we should try making some fresh cheese from the milk. Our first batch was created in a bucket in the kitchen in 1999, then left to hang in a muslin bag in the shower. We mixed in some herbs and garlic and it was really nice, and that’s where it all started.’
Sandy and Andy started selling their fresh goat’s cheese at local farmers’ markets and a few shops, and decided they enjoyed the lifestyle. They moved away from the smallholding to Barkham, on the Hampshire/Berkshire border, and started to look at making cheese full-time. ‘Our children were happy because we were a bit nearer civilisation, and the land had outbuildings, which were perfect to make cheese in.’
While they brought the goats with them, Sandy wanted to move away from the fresh cheeses she’d been making previously and turn her attention to something a bit more involved. After going on a few courses to hone her skills and coming across an old cheesemaking book full of recipes, she decided to make a blue. ‘I really like blue cheeses myself, and at the time a lot of them were quite metallic and over-salted so I wanted to see if I could make anything better,’ she says. ‘Everyone seemed to be making brie or hard cheeses, and because we were a tiny family business we needed something we could make and sell quite quickly.’
In 2003, Barkham Blue was born. With a buttery, creamy texture, a mild, peppery blue tang and an attractive shape, it was always destined to be a hit. But initially, Sandy was told to try something else. ‘My dad always used to have Jersey cows but I wanted to use milk from the Channel Islands, which has a higher fat content,’ she says. ‘A lot of the old cheesemakers told me I was mad to try and make a blue with it as it’s hard to know which starters to use and a lot can go wrong, but I went for it anyway. That same year, Barkham Blue won Best New Cheese at the World Cheese Awards.’
The award acted as a catalyst for Two Hoots, confirming Sandy and Andy’s belief that they wanted to be cheesemakers. ‘Once you start winning awards people take you a bit more seriously,’ says Andy. ‘It really gave us the recognition we needed and the wholesalers started getting in touch, so we decided to increase production. But we were still only making around twelve cheeses a day – I would pour the milk into the vats in the morning and head off to work while Sandy made the cheese. It wasn’t until 2008 that we got our own pasteuriser.’
2008 was a good year for Sandy and Andy – they won Supreme Champion at the awards, a massive boost for any cheesemaker. They now make around 500 cheeses a week, but the site itself is still on the small side. Outbuildings have been extended, more maturing rooms have been added, but it’s still very much a family affair. ‘Our daughter trained as a teacher but decided to join the business in 2009,’ explains Sandy. ‘Then there’s my sister Leslie and even my dad still comes in and helps with labelling and packing.’
Two Hoots does make other cheeses – Rosethorn Blue, made with Jersey milk, Loddon Blewe, made with ewe’s milk and Baby Barkham, a smaller version of their flagship cheese. But it’s Barkham Blue that makes up the vast majority of production, thanks to its popularity. ‘The cheese is soft and buttery, peppery rather than metallic, and it isn’t over-salted,’ says Sandy. ‘It’s the buttery aspect that people really seem to like. The shape helps it stand out on the cheese counter too, and it looks good on the cheeseboard.’ It’s certainly a great cheese, winning Best Blue at the Great British Cheese Awards in 2016, and becoming available in more and more cheese shops up and down the country. Sandy and Andy have come a long way from hanging curds in their shower, but the small, family-run business is still brimming with friendly charm.
Article and image courtesy of Great British Chefs