Updated: Aug 31, 2020
Tell us a bit about you
Alison and husband Jonathan
My name is Allison and I took over Teesdale Cheesemakers from Brian and Esme Dedman, here in County Durham. Previous to that, I worked for a charity for 5 years, and before that, I worked for the council, but I found that was a bit constraining for me, lots of rules and regulation, which is quite right, applying public money, but I found it a bit constricting.
Prior to that, I ran my own therapy centre and school for about 18 years where I taught complementary therapies and had a range of therapists who worked with me; I have always wanted to be in charge as I am a bit of a control freak, which is a perfect thing to be when you make cheese.
If I were not making cheese, I would be writing fiction, because that is what I was doing before: writing fiction between jobs and children. Two years before I took over this business, I wrote a book that was very important to me and when I came to the end of that, I was getting ready for my next challenge.
My husband calls it horrible fiction; I like to write about the unpleasant side of human nature, it is my attempt at understanding what happens in the world, the crazy things, why is someone an alcoholic, why does someone abuse someone, why is someone like that. I had a ghastly upbringing, it is not so much what happened, it is how you deal with it and move forward. I chose to process and deal with it in a different way, through writing. So I got an education and made a better life than I was expected to have. In most cases, people are good, and circumstances make them bad, the stories help me to adjust to real life.
My latest book is called Used. That is the book that I needed some time to write and is the one that is closest to my experiences as a child, though it is a fictional story. This is probably the grittiest story that I have written and after this, which was quite cathartic, I was ready to make my next move – to becoming a cheesemaker.
On becoming a cheesemaker, it was just fortunate or unfortunate depending on the time of the day, I learned about the business being up for sale through some friends of the family. Brian and Esme set up the business up in 2012. Esme was a retired microbiologist and it was always supposed to be a hobby, an expensive hobby in the sense that the set up costs are high and they sold the cheese to pay for the equipment. They won some awards and started to get some traction and then it started to run away from them. They had to upscale or close down.
A grandchild came along, Brian bought a narrow boat and the cheese making business/hobby started to take over their lives completely, which was never their intention. They approached us at my father in laws 70th birthday to see if we were interested in taking over. My husband was living in hotels a lot with his job, we were already looking at potential opportunities for other work and it felt like the right thing, at the right time for us both.
The farm at sunset
The milk comes from my husband Jonathan’s uncles’ farm, so it felt like a natural thing to come to the farm. We went to see Brian and Esme and their business, went through the figures, then I spent some time making cheese with them to experience the whole process. I thought it would be a lot of fun, and it was interesting.
Jonathan and I think that the way to happiness is through autonomy and learning, so we took it on and it is good to support the farm as well, as the more milk we take from the farm and pay a premium for it, the better for the family. We started with 2 cheeses, white and blue we now have 8 cheeses and kefir. One is a goat cheese and the rest are made with cow’s milk.
I spent two months with Esme, but two months is not a lot of time. Most of that time I spent at farmers markets, making cheese and washing down, washing up. I felt like the karate kid: when am I going to get to the good stuff. A lot of people think that you are pottering around patting cheese but actually what you are doing is early starts, late finishes, it is a lot of work.
I have my dog, cat, I have chickens, and I love gardening, there is such a buzz out of growing something, especially food, there is something about bringing food in and feeding the family that I really love.
Jonathan and I have just spent a week in Malta and we were talking about spending more time in the garden; there really needs to be a bit more of a balance, life can get to be more about business and not enough time to do other things. I don’t write any more as I am sometimes working 15-17 hour days. At the moment, we have a big project on: we are moving in January 2019 and hopefully during the quiet months of January and February, in addition to renovating the house and creating a new dairy, we will have time to create a new garden and plant some potatoes and beans.
What do you make and why?
We ‘inherited’ two award winning cheeses: Teesdale Blue and Teesdale White from Brian and Esme. People loved them and they have a following.
We launched Teesdale Goat in October 2016 because I have a friend who is lactose intolerant and we kept being asked for a goat cheese. We have also been asked for a blue goat and a hard blue but we are not goat cheese makers. It has done really well and it won a gold at the World Cheese Awards. It was the first cheese that I developed by myself, so winning this was a personal turning point for me to being a cheese maker and I gained a lot of confidence from the win.
I really love cheesecake, but I don’t like cheesecakes from the supermarket, they taste like they have something in them and if you buy cheesecake from a deli, it does not have a long shelf life, so I decided to make my own cheesecake topping. We have a lemon and ginger and occasionally I will make a blackcurrant, they are like a dessert. You often see soft spreadable cheeses with herbs or garlic in, I have just gone the other way and made it sweet. The curd comes in a jar so if you spread it on a biscuit, it tastes just like a cheesecake, you can also put it on fruit, or eat it with a spoon from the jar, so it is a dessert cheese.
I started to make Barney Brie in 2017 and it won an award at the Great Taste Awards. I like brie but I think English brie can be a little bland, so I took
my inspiration from France, where they are not all white and come in all flavours, shapes and sizes, and I wanted to do something relating to our area –hence the name Barney, after nearby Barney Castle.
We also make kefir: I heard about it on the Archers and then I went on a trade mission to Aruba with the DTI and noticed a trend in fermented foods. Having had my gall bladder out over 5 years ago, I had digestive issues and pain so I made some and tried it for myself. It made a massive difference to me, so I thought I could sell it with integrity knowing it worked for me. I still take it regularly.
I have just made a very young garlic cheese, and am in the process of deciding how to present it, whether to wax it or something else. It has a really light flavour of garlic in it. I wanted to call it after a Maltese cheese I saw during my recent visit to Malta, Gbejniet, but think that might be a tricky name, so am still thinking about what to name it.
I love creating new things but the problem is that you have to have the space, though this issue will be solved when we move into our new premises in 2019.
Tell us about your dairy: where is it, what do you have in it, favourite bits of kit, things you would like to change (if anything) or something that would make your life better/easier
I have the usual sinks, a hand wash and utility, trays, moulds and spades, that is pretty much it, a cold room, the
Having everything under one roof, having a wash station to wash the moulds when you have 3 hours of washing up to do, and having someone to do that for me, would be great and having somewhere to dry everything. We went to for a site visit yesterday, to our new premises and did a film on YouTube and I think I am going to get all of these things. A bigger cold room, that will be fabulous – and an extra pair of hands, an extra 24 hrs in the day would be great!
How has the dairy industry changed since you started making cheese and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of being a cheesemaker?
In terms of advice to new cheese makers: we just plunged right in there and got on with it; if I were to do it again, I would do a cheese making course. I recently went down to Wellbeck, and that was well into my second year and it was so helpful. I think a good quality cheese course is worth the money. Meeting other cheese makers and talking to them is great, they are generous with their time and advice, so go and visit a cheese maker, ask them what equipment you need.
Also, don’t make too many sizes because you will end running out of one size, keep it as simple as possible. Be authentic, don’t try to be something you are not, people want to know your story and who you are, don’t make things up, be yourself and share your story.
One of my challenges is upscaling, it can be a tricky balance and whilst I think it is important to maintain your artisan roots, you need to be able to upscale enough to make a reasonable living; you need to be able to make more than a small amount, a 300 litre tank is not enough to make a good living. Creating a good brand and a good following helps.
Have fun, we were talking earlier about creating things, if you make the same cheese all the time, I can make the white and the blue without too much thought, I have a good feel for it, so it is not is not as much of a challenge – don’t get me wrong, it can be challenging, but when making the Maltese cheese and Doris, I sometimes don’t know what is going to happen. You need to do different things from time to time, you do need to challenge yourself making new cheeses. The next biggest one is doing something different other than the washing up!
Cheese making is hard work, some people think that cheese making is an idyll, I would say be prepared for hard work, long days and early starts. You have to be patient and wait for the curd to be ready, got to turn and move, the cheese is in charge.
We are one of four cheese makers in this area, but we are all different brands with different stories. We had someone on the phone asking us to supply them and we had to say that we cannot take anyone else on until next year. We need to make more. I am happy with what we have, but we do not want to overstretch ourselves, as I am a little worried if we over extend ourselves, the quality may suffer. Cheese making in France is booming and I think it is the same in the UK, it is growing and that can only be a good thing, the more cheese makers there are, the more choice there is, the more aware consumers become.
Where can we find your cheese?
Favourite cheese making music?
In the dairy I have a play list of soul and Motown, I love boogying and I can frequently be found dancing in the dairy, because it is just great music. Motown Gold is on my playlist most often and sometimes a bit of Dolly. When I work in the cold room, because there is no radio reception, I listen to podcasts: BBC drama, Homefront and The Archers.
Name: Allison Raper, Teesdale Cheesemakers