Clare Finney talks to Mike Thomson of Mike’s Fancy Cheese about the new wave of artisan cheesemakers in Northern Ireland and how they’re helping to shape the country’s food scene.
In most cultures, the history of producing cheese is inextricably linked to survival – to making ends meet or preparing for a long, harsh winter. In the Republic of Ireland, for example, farmers have long struggled to get a good price for their milk, so making cheese is a natural way of both preserving milk so it can get to market and adding value along the way. In Northern Ireland however – well, things are a little different. Farmers here have almost always managed to make a decent living from their milk, and making the range of dense, creamy butters for which Northern Ireland is known for was as far as they needed to go in order to make a living. As a result, says Mike Thomson of Mike’s Fancy Cheese, there has never been a real history of making cheese in Northern Ireland. ‘In Arcadia Deli where I worked in Belfast in my early twenties, we sold local meats, fish and vegetables – but the cheeses all came from the Republic of Ireland or the rest of the UK.’
There was no need for cheese – or at least none that was widespread enough to warrant the production of it on any scale other than household. ‘Cheese and butter have been kicking around here for thousands of years, of course – legend has it the Queen of Ulster was killed by a slingshot of cheese in her eye – but not in a commercial, territorial way,’ says Mike. There were no cheddars in Northern Ireland; no Lancashires or Cornish Yargs: just farmers making enough for their families in a stocking above the fire when they happened to have milk left over. ‘In England everything is a territorial; wherever you are in France, the names of the cheese are based around the region. In Northern Ireland, you’re at a loss as to where you start, what you call your cheese, where you make it – and how to get it out there in a market dominated by familiar British names.’
A lesser man would have shied away at the thought. Mike, however, grabbed the metaphorical cow by the udders and set out to become the first artisanal, raw milk cheesemaker in Northern Ireland. ‘I went to England, studied cheesemaking at The School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire, then worked for as many different cheesemakers as I could over there. Lyburn Farm in Wiltshire, Sparkenhoe Farm in Leicestershire, Hampshire Cheeses, cheddar producer Jamie Montgomery – all played host to this aspiring Irish cheesemaker. But it was spending a week with Joe Scheider, the creator of Stitchelton (a raw milk version of Stilton cheese) as part of his cheesemaking course that made Mike’s Fancy Cheese what it is today.
It struck a chord with Mike instantly. ‘The process of making, the length of time it takes to mature, the taste – it was my favourite out of all the styles I tried during my time there.’ Mike then went on to make Young Buck, a raw milk blue cheese which, when fully mature, ‘is rich, creamy and rounded like the best Stilton, but with a long-lingering finish and just a touch of Northern Ireland,’ he explains. These days he is not the only artisanal cheesemaker in the nation: ‘there’s a South African making Dutch-style cheese along from us on the Ards Peninsula; the Hickey family in Co Derry making blue, mountain and ale-washed cheeses and at Ballylisk Dairy in Armagh Dean they make a triple cream cheese using milk from the family farm – they’ve been dairy farmers for decades.’ Yet he is first producer to champion raw milk cheese, and is determined to make it as mainstream in Northern Ireland as it is in France, Italy and, increasingly, England.
‘Over in England you have the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, a group of small-scale cheese producers which get together every summer,’ says Mike. ‘You have shops like Neal’s Yard Dairy and (in the Republic of Ireland) Sheridans, which can showcase these cheeses. It’s what I was hoping to happen over here – but I guess cheese is a slow-moving industry.’ Researching the process, devising the recipes, finding the funds, kitting out a dairy and building a market are time-consuming enough for a new cheesemaker, without opening a shop or rounding up the handful of Northern Irish makers for an annual meeting. Now, though, Mike feels more established. ‘We’ve been going five years, we feel more comfortable and demand is increasing.’ The nation’s food scene has leapt from strength to strength, and along with locally produced meat and vegetables, delis and restaurants are clamouring for home-grown, artisanal cheese.
‘There is definitely room for another handful of Northern Irish cheesemakers – and we think, if we open a shop in Belfast with a focus on Irish raw milk cheese – south and north – it might inspire people.’ After all, the Northern Irish food revolution had been bubbling away for years before it finally broke out in earnest – a moment which happily coincided with Mike’s return from his adventures in England making cheese. ‘That’s what encouraged me to set up: I thought as one of the first Northern Irish cheesemakers we’d be in demand and we might get funding from local businesses, as well as friends and family.’ Now it’s his turn to encourage a new wave of raw milk cheesemakers into the industry.
‘Over the next five years I think there will be a big backlash on commercial dairy farming in Ireland,’ explains Mike. At the moment the Irish cheese industry is dominated by Glanbia Cheese, suppliers of mozzarella to places like Lidl and Aldi (‘it’s a popular pub quiz question that – which country produces the most mozzarella in the world after Italy?’), but younger generations seem determined to raise the standards of food production ethically and environmentally. Then, of course, there is Brexit – and the as-yet-unresolved question of the Irish border. ‘Who knows what we’ll be able to import and export,’ says Mike. ‘We may need to become largely self-sufficient. Apparently, not being able to import cheese from Europe has genuinely done wonders for the standard of cheese being made in Russia.’ No one wants a Russia situation in Northern Ireland. But there is, whatever happens, a bright, ripe and creamy future for Northern Irish cheese.
Article courtesy of Great British Chefs