Tell us a bit about you
My name is Simon and I run Weardale Cheese, in beautiful Weardale, which is on the eastern side of the Pennines in County Durham. For the previous twenty years, I was leading and working for a distribution company which delivered telephone books!
The legacy of being a cheese maker stemmed in part from my dad, who worked for the Milk Marketing Board and my first job after Newcastle University was working on a graduate trainee scheme for Northern dairies, delivering milk. You never know how much milk there is in a pint bottle until you drop it on someone’s doorstep at 5am! My role progressed to the bulk liquid side of things and after a few years, having taken some time out for travelling, I ended up working for a distribution company, where I became MD.
I had always had this very small inkling in the back of my mind that I would like to return to the dairy business and make cheese, at some point. I went on a cheese making course 14 years ago and that was that and then, as the fortunes of my job started to change, I thought that making cheese, being a cheesemaker was something I would really like to do.
As the idea grew, the only way to investigate it was to go on more cheese making courses and to make at home. It was about 10 years in the making until it came to fruition as I had a job that I was happy with, I had got used to the commute to York – it was a long incubation period.
My other interests in life have historically included sports, more participating than watching, and particularly these days, when I get the chance, I like to run 10k’s and half marathons. I have a (very amateurish) theatrical bent and love taking part in village productions, including pantos, but we do theatre productions and I love theatre and music.
If I were not a cheese maker, I would probably be doing something in a general management position, possibly leaning towards sales/marketing/logistics. However, that would be a ‘job’ whereas being a cheese maker is both a job and a vocation, what I really wanted to do, not just financial success, I am doing this for both head and heart reasons. I am doing the thing that I really have an itch for….but it has to work as a business too!
What do you make and why?
I always wanted to make cheese in Weardale; Wensleydale has had cheese for the nearly 900 years, Swaledale has cheeses and Teesdale has Cotherstone but Weardale has never had a named cheese as such. Cheesemaking was of course taking place up and down the dale and was primarily a female led industry on a small-scale basis.
My initial cheese was a traditional northern style cheese. I wanted to create something made in that manner and that is where the ‘Weardale’ came from.
I was thinking about where and how to sell, thinking about markets, you can’t take just one cheese to sell, so out of that came the firmer blue, the Prince Bishop, then the soft white cheese, Brie de Weardale which has given me most of my challenges and then the soft blue, St Cuthbert. Hard blue, hard white, soft white and soft blue. I felt that would cover a few angles, giving me a range of types and styles. Then the next development was a smoked version, the Bonnie Moor Hen and my latest new product development is a Weardale Nettle, with dried nettle and then a customer requested a cheese with paprika and chilli. I can make bespoke cheeses for certain customers when required.
The name Prince Bishop comes from the pre 1830’s when the bishops were princes in an almost military way, as Durham was the buffer between Scotland and England; St Cuthbert is our local saint and is buried in Durham Cathedral. Bonnie Moor Hen is the nickname of the red grouse around here and I wanted a name fitting of the local area. Brie de Weardale is because I’d had a couple of glasses of wine and couldn’t not think of anything else, one day it might migrate to Brierdale!
Tell us about your dairy
My dairy is quite unique as it is in a prisoner of war camp in Harperley, constructed in 1943 by Italian prisoners and then it housed both Italian and German prisoners from 1943 to 1947. There are a couple of notable buildings that are protected by English Heritage. One was a theatre where productions were put on by the prisoners and another of the huts was a canteen and on the walls there are pencil drawings by one of the German prisoners of his home in Bavaria, depicting mountains, streams and lakes – it is quite special. In recent times, these buildings have become protected to ensure they stay intact.
My hut, which was hut no 16 was a work shop where tools and equipment were made and then the prisoners would go out and help on the local farms and work on the land. After the war, some settled and stayed because retuning home they would go back to general destruction and poverty…..and because they fell in love here!
My dairy is rectangular, the dairy follows a linear pattern, the pasteuriser is at the front door, and my milk is brought in by the local farmer, David, then it goes into the main dairy room where the vat, curd table and press is, and through another door we have a storage room and 2 maturing rooms which are held at 8-12oC.
I acquired a lot of kit from Iona at Ribblesdale Cheese, I started just at a time when Iona was upgrading her dairy. If anyone is interested in buying a peg mill, I have one for sale. I really don’t use it anymore because I prefer to do everything by hand in the artisan way and I also have a vac packer which is for sale.
My wife Julie helps me when she can, and one day, finances permitting, I would love a full-time assistant, which would make my life easier, along with more hours in the day! This is one of the challenges of being a one person operation; the making, cutting, wrapping, all takes time and then there is the delivering and selling of cheese to local outlets and markets.
How has the dairy industry changed since you started making cheese and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of being a cheesemaker
I could not say if the dairy industry has changed much, it has only been three years. For the past three years, I have been head down, tail up and in a bit of a self-contained bubble making my business succeed.
My advice to anyone thinking being a cheese maker would be to find a mentor to help guide you through the process. When you are setting up and you really don’t know how your business may go, go and talk to other people in the business. I was lucky and fortunate to get good advice when I was setting up.
Do as much research and practice making cheese as much as you can, and think about how to scale up; what you think is a large piece of kit now should be not a very large piece of kit in the future. When I bought my 1,000 litre vat, now I realise I should have bought a bigger one. The key point is you are limited in your own ability and time to do what you can with your body and hours at your disposal, so you need your environment and kit to work as much as possible. Don’t be afraid of scaling up.
You need enthusiasm! There will be set backs, as there are in any business, be ready for them, realise that it would be lovely for everything to go swimmingly well, learn by what hasn’t. Don’t let those mistakes get to you, keep your enthusiasm. You need thinking time, you need time to sit back and work out what went well, what not so well and why.
I am still doing everything myself and sometimes it feels too much to do, and that can be a challenge. Having time is a challenge. The challenges I face are time management and trying to make a small artisan cheese making operation into a business, but also having developmental time and review time is tricky while at the same as getting out and selling my cheese and making money.
Where can we find your cheese?
I do a lot of markets and sell direct to the public at food festivals, farmers markets, on stalls. I delivery predominantly in the north-east of England, Durham and Northumberland to a selection of restaurants, pubs butcher’s shops and delis. I also do a little foray into Cumbria. I have yet to get an online presence, it is still on my list of things to do list!
Favourite cheese making music?
Big news for Weardale Cheese was getting a DAB radio this Christmas. I am a huge fan of Radio 4 and BBC 6 Music. My advice to anyone young or old who wants to learn on an ongoing, switch on Radio 4! I also like to have a good old thrash to indie music on Six Music.
Name: Simon Raine, Weardale Cheese
Simon, thank you so much for your time, really appreciate it. This has been a very interesting couple of chats, it is great to get another small, artisan cheese maker’s perspective on all things cheesey.
If anyone would like to buy Simon’s peg mill, (as rare as hen’s teeth!) and a vac packer, please get in touch.
Coming up, Larry, Galway Goat Farm. If you are, or you know a small artisan cheesemaker who would like to talk to Ribblesdale Cheese, please get in touch, we would love to talk to you.