In the first of a new series celebrating British cheese-making, Barbara Collins meet the young man behind Ireland’s first raw milk blue cheese. Barbara Collins reports.
Young Buck is possibly the most talked about cheese in Northern Ireland at the moment.
Its creator Mike Thomson learned his craft at the School of Artisan Food, Nottingham, and returned home to make the province’s first raw milk blue cheese.
It started when Mike took a job at Arcadia Deli on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.
He had been studying for a degree in social work, but realised after six months it was not for him.
He says: “At the time, I wasn’t particularly into food. I liked the idea that Arcadia was a small, independent shop. This appealed to me, because I don’t like big business.”
Owners Mark Brown and his wife Laura had just taken over the running of the deli from Mark’s father and had decided to revamp.
Mike says: “They decided to focus on fresh and local and while we were looking for local cheeses, we realised there was no-one to push heavily in Northern Ireland at the time.”
This absence planted a seed and he started blogging via onemanandhischeese.blogspot.com. Through the blog, he came to know about the new School of Artisan Food in Nottingham. It was about to open, so Mike signed up for a one-year diploma.
It was part-funded by a school bursary and the rest of the money came from savings and family contributions.
Mike’s main challenge was getting to understand business plans, health and safety and how he was going to establish himself back home in Northern Ireland.
He says: “Lots of speakers came to talk to us. They were nearly all cheesemakers who had a family farm or who had been funded by a
big estate or a redundancy payment.
“I am not from a farming background and I didn’t have any money, so I knew I would be starting from scratch.”
Money worries aside, Mike realised during various work placements he was drawn to working with raw milk rather than pasteurised.
He says: “It is part of me being drawn to smaller businesses, I suppose. Many farmers had stopped producing raw milk cheese and it is something which is dying out. I love how you can make a safe, great product with it, but also how
it changes between seasons.”
Mike completed a placement at Sparkenhoe Farm, Leicester, and he liked what he saw there. The farm makes three raw milk cheeses including a Red Leicester, a crumbly Caerphilly type called Bosworth Field, and another called Battlefield Blue. Mike was asked to go and work there and he spent a year making cheese at the farm.
But he always wanted to go back to Northern Ireland, and after a year was up, he decided to head home to try to get backing to make the province’s first raw milk blue cheese.
He says: “I had been keeping an eye on things when I was in England and I was talking to Clandeboye Estate, County Down [which has Friesian Holsteins] and Invest NI.
“It is difficult to get backing when you are 27, have no savings and are looking for £70,000, so I decided to try crowd-funding. I put up a pitch on Seedrs and I raised £80,000 in 30 days.”
The money enabled him to set up in a unit in an industrial estate in Newtownards, Co Down, and purchase equipment for making larger batches from the start to avoid more expense at a later date.
Mike had to sell cheese for four months down the line when it was ready, and had to make sure he had enough maturing to meet demand without being left with lots of unsold cheese.
Finding the right supplier was another challenge, because most farmers were tied into other contracts, but he settled on Nick McCann from Simlahill Farm – five miles from his unit.
Mike says: “Nick has Friesian Holsteins and I get 900 litres from him every two days. I had to register as a milk haulier to be able to bring the milk to the unit. It was all a learning curve, but we have a good relationship.
“We agreed I would pay him 45ppl. He invested in a three-phase electric pump and he gives me good credit, so it works for both of us. I wanted to make sure the farmer gets a good price.”
Fat content of the milk always fluctuates, but it is the protein which is more important for making Young Buck.
“Too much fat is not ideal. Young Buck goes through such a slow acidification of the curd that anything in the milk has a big impact on the cheese. Fats and proteins change with the seasons.
“It is never a uniform cheese. Some are bluer; some are more acidic; some are more crumbly. They are all within certain parameters though and the taste seems to stay consistent, which is typical of territorial cheese
Young Buck is never a uniform cheese
Northern Ireland's first raw milk blue cheese
A typical 8kg cheese wheel takes two days to make and four months to mature. Mike sells to wholesalers, restaurants and at markets, and says the biggest share of his business goes to wholesale. He supplies four main wholesalers: La Rousse Foods; Sheridan’s Cheesemongers; Neal’s Yard Dairy; and the Courtyard Dairy.
Recently he went on a trip around Ireland to discover other artisan cheesemakers with products he could offer to his own customers.
This led to him doing business with Killeen from Galway, Durrus from Cork, Bellingham Blue from Co Louth and Corleggy from Co Cavan, among others.
He says: “I will always just make Young Buck, but it is good to buy-in other cheeses to complement it. I am not interested in winning awards, I just want to make good cheese.
“Hopefully, I can inspire more people not only to make cheese, but to do it traditionally, and with a focus on taste, flavour and texture to create a new tradition of cheesemaking in Northern Ireland.”