Tell us a bit about you
I studied a food and nutrition degree at university and was really interested in nutrition when I was younger; I did a lot of sports and was keen on health and fitness. During my university placement year, I spent a year at Solway Foods, who became part of Northern Foods, working in the NPD team, coming up with ideas for salads, sandwiches and sushi for the multiples.
After my placement year, I went back to my degree with new ideas of what I might do; it is a strange thing, no-one ever gives you career advice about entering the food industry, that is exactly what I did: on graduation, I started my career in the food industry and a few years later, got my job at Dairygold Food Ingredients in Crewe in a B2B role that involved learning a lot about cheese and how cheese worked for our customers, in their products.
I attended a cheese making courses at Reaseheath, enjoyed being very hands on and fell in love with cheese making. There is something about the smell of a dairy.
In 2009, I started a family, my life obviously changed, and eventually I went back to Dairygold part time but it did not work with having a young family, the commute etc and it was around this time when I started to make cheese at home: a simple, soft blue.
One of the guys I used to work with, Bruce McDonald who was Dairygold’s cheese grader encouraged me to enter into Nantwich (2010) where I picked up a gold.
When I was thinking of leaving Dairygold, cheese making looked like the next thing to do. Sometimes things just gather momentum, sometimes you may not have a big plan, but it all grew organically and came together in a small way: I took on very small premises, kitted it out with a small vat, draining table, fridges, left Dairygold and started to make cheese commercially.
If I were not making cheese, because my background is in the food industry, I spent 6 years at Dairygold and loved it, I would still work in the food industry, but perhaps doing something for a smaller independent type of business.
What do you make and why?
I make a soft blue cheese, and have developed a range from the soft blue, including a washed cheese and a wrapped version. I make a blue because it is a cheese I like.
One of the advantages of making a soft cheese is that you can turn around your product quickly – you can see what works, what does not, in a matter of weeks, you can tweak a recipe and see what is happening. But if you are making a hard cheese, that could be more difficult as it can take months to perfect. A downside is that a soft cheese carries with it a shorter shelf life, but on the upside, it means selling it faster so your cash is coming in sooner.
Tell us about your dairy
The dairy is now on a farm just outside Knutsford, in a small unit, 3m x 12m long, which works well for us, though it is small. As you enter, we have a change area, wrapping area, production area, then maturing rooms and the chillers are outside now and this works well now. If I had a wish list, spare space would be nice; but because we are limited on space, it forces you to use the space in clever ways. A nice big dishwasher that could wash everything would be amazing, there is always a lot of washing up.
My main vat holds 400 litres and we also have a little home made test vat, alongside a draining table, moulds everywhere and maturing rooms. I am always thinking what could we do to improve things.
How has the dairy industry changed since you started making cheese and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of being a cheesemaker
When I started up, I realised quite quickly that it is not just about cheese making, it is also about running a business. My advice would be think it through properly, be careful; do your homework, don’t get too caught up in the romance. I did cheese making and HACCP courses and also working at Dairygold, I think I gained a lot of info that seeps into your consciousness, I was kind of aware of this. If you don’t have any background in food production, getting up to speed can be hard.
My advice to anyone thinking of becoming a cheesemaker, you can be a great cheese maker but you need to think about all the business stuff: where are you going to sell it, what price, what is your margin is going to be, how you are going to get it to the customer, what happens if I don’t sell my cheese, what about shelf life and put a value on your time. Something is to ask yourself, if I had to pay someone to do this, would I do it?
As far as industry change is concerned, there seems to be more small producers, more new cheese makers coming on, more start ups which is great for the industry.
Where can we find your cheese?
We have a list of stockists on our website plus we also to sell to the usual wholesale culprits plus the Chester Cheese Shop, the Cheese Hamlet, small independent delis and Booths supermarket.
Favourite cheese making music?
I like having radio 2 on, but Tom, our cheese maker likes radio 6 and sometimes there is a bit of a battle. Tom joined me when I moved on to the farm in 2013 when I realised I needed resource. He’s a real asset to the business and he’s been instrumental in growing the business and product range. Our latest edition Thom (named after him!) is made with double cream and washed in Gwatkins Cider from Hereford Tom’s home town.
Thank you, Claire for your time and your chat, lovely to catch up.
Name: Claire Burt, Burt’s Cheeses