Martin Tkalez, former retail manager with us at Neal’s Yard Dairy, jumped from cheesemonger to cheesemaker a few years ago. He and his wife Hazel now make Pevensey Blue, a soft, creamy gorgonzola-style cheese in East Sussex. We spoke with both of them about how they managed their transition into their new careers as cheesemakers.
Pevensey Blue is currently available in limited quantities in our shops and to wholesale customers.
How did you first find your way into cheese?
Martin: in 2003 I was 20 years old, and I needed a part-time job. I saw an advert at my university in London that said, “If you like cheese, and you like customers, apply here.” So, I emailed them, came in for an interview and had loads of fun. I had no idea about anything to do with cheese or with nice food, I just loved their attitude. Everybody had loads of passion and were very driven. So even though I got into it from a just a need for a part-time job, I stayed because I loved the cheese, and it was a place you could really thrive. That’s how I got into cheese, and I didn’t look back.
Hazel: I’m a farmer’s daughter, that’s the key thing. I grew up on a farm, my parents are livestock farmers, my friend’s parents are dairy farmers. I’ve always been in food production. After university I started representing growers and selling fresh produce to supermarkets. Then I met Martin, we fell in love, and Martin made me fall in love with cheese.
Why did you decide to start making cheese yourselves?
Martin: There were a couple of important drivers. First, we wanted to start a family business together. You’re always going to have to work hard in life, and I thought, I don’t want to work hard away from my family, if we were going to start one. If you read a business book, the constant advice is that you should figure out what you know really well, and then do something in that area. For me, that’s cheese. Second, I wanted to make something – I’ve sold cheese for so long and I know my way so well around it, aside from what it was like to actually make it with your own hands.
Hazel: I’d add that we wanted to start making something because we were working so hard and passionately for our respective companies, and we simply wanted to put that energy into something that was our own. We want a legacy that we can pass on, we want to make an impression on the world.
Martin, Third, I simply thought, it can’t be that hard! I thought, milk comes out of cows, it used to be grass, oh yeah add a bit of starter, stir it a bit… even though I’ve known cheesemakers for a long, long time I still naively thought, sure it can’t be that hard!
How did you get started on the practical aspects of starting a cheesemaking business? For example, finding a location to make the cheese, building your cheese room, and understanding how to make it work financially?
Martin: In our case we had some savings, and we also had Hazel’s parents who had a farm in East Sussex and a building on their farm that they were willing to let us convert into our cheese room and not pay rent for the time being. We started by building a business plan, which we began whilst we were still living and working in London. I would go to the library and read a lot of books on starting your own business and project management, learning how to run a company and sell a product. When it came time to begin building the make room, Hazel’s mum Monica prompted us to apply for the last bit of EU funding called the LEADER programme – they were literally saying ‘last orders for some funding before it’s gone!’ We submitted our application without really thinking they would be interested, but they wanted to back us, so we needed to have everything they needed, including planning permission, back within 3 months. We started running a building project, getting quotes from contractors, endless phone calls, endless visits, we just had to do it. Meanwhile we had to write our business case. It was a race to the finish. We then had to design the building for the cheese room. We phoned up Martin Gott and Jenn Kast and Neal’s Yard Dairy and Joe Schneider saying, what about this configuration? Would this work? What about this?
Hazel: When I went to work in Chichester selling fruit and veg to supermarkets, Martin would spend his days in the Chichester library and teach himself about building regulation, how thick the insulation should be… I’d come home from work and open a bottle of wine and say OK what did you learn today? What are we going to do? And we’d get our graph paper out again and rebuild things.
Martin: The planning permission just barely came in on time because all the local farmers and families wrote into the council to support us and made it work for us before we lost the chance for the funding. Then we got the funding - and thought - now we must make this work! We’re really so happy to have built our own cheese room, because now we know every quirk of the building.
How did you begin learning the craft of cheesemaking itself?
Martin: We had the benefit of knowing people in the cheese world who shared their knowledge and experience. We visited a lot of cheesemakers, and when Todd Trethowan heard I wanted to start making cheese, this is about 2017-2018, he said look, come and work with us and learn what it’s like to make in a 3,000 litre vat. So, I spent a year living at his mother in law’s house while I made cheese with them. Everything was happening at once - I proposed to Hazel, we started a business, we started a building project, and we were applying for grants. At the same time, I was spending 2-3 nights away from home driving from London to East Sussex and then driving to Somerset to make cheese three days a week, and then on the weekends we’d come back to design our cheese room and make cheese on the weekends in a spare room. We did this for a year while also planning our wedding at the same time. It was amazing.
How did you go about deciding the style of cheese you were going to make?
Hazel: When we decided to become cheesemakers, we initially wanted to make Stilton. We love Stichelton so much, and we thought we want to make a cheese as brilliant as that. But between that decision and when we started to make the cheese, the blue cheese market in Britain changed a bit. More Stilton-styles had been developed, and it had become a bit more crowded on the slate. So, we set out on a cheese safari around London. We visited many cheese shops and bought all the soft blue cheeses we could find and sampled them all. We decided we could bring something new to the softer blue market and had a rough idea to make a gorgonzola style cheese.
Knowing what we know now, this was a tough choice, because while you can open cheese books and there are recipes for most cheese styles, the gorgonzola makers in Italy guard the recipe so carefully because it’s protected under the Italian DOP status.
Martin: To my knowledge, there really isn’t such a thing as small-scale, farmhouse gorgonzola, it’s all made on a large scale ((but I’d be very happy to be proven wrong.) We went to Italy for our honeymoon and tried to nose our way through the doors of the gorgonzola factories but were told, no – the tour ends here! We decided to just use a few recipes we found in book as a base.
What were some of the challenges you faced in developing the cheese?
While we were still making experimental cheeses while the cheese room was being built, we were making some blue cheeses like Stilton and brought it up to Bronwen (Percival, cheese buyer) to try, hoping that it would be ready to develop further. We took up a sample up to London in a Tupperware box. She took one look at it, didn’t open the box, and said “everything you’ve done for this cheese, now do the opposite.” So, we came back, kept experimenting, and finally brought back another cheese for her to try. We opened it up and we were all floored – it was fantastic. Bronwen said “make this cheese – don’t do anything different, just make this cheese from now on.” That took about a year to develop. It’s a long process, as it turns out the first few cheeses you make are flukes. You have some middling ones, then it all goes off the rails, and finally we found our feet.
Cheese is a kind of kaleidoscope of things that happen all the time. We had some trouble when we scaled up from a half batch to a full batch, meaning that we had been making batches that were half the capacity of our vat and now were making to its full capacity. Making cheese isn’t obviously scalable, because the physics and chemistry of the cheese are completely different when you double up. You have to change how much you stir the milk, how much you drain the cheese, when you mould up, and we learned these lessons the hard way. The team at Nea’s Yard Dairy, especially Phil, Gareth (cheese maturation) and Bronwen (cheese buyer), helped us understand the metrics behind the finished product to aim for. We had to increase the drainage, drag more moisture out and put in more salt.
We’re also learning how to adjust the make depending on the changing composition of the milk throughout the year. For example, we need to stir the milk more in the winter to drain water because there’s higher levels of fat and solids in the milk. In the spring there are less solids in the milk because the cows are drinking more water and eating more fresh grass, so it’s a more balanced composition that may affect the amount of stirring needed. It’s really hard to make one cheese consistently!
Pevensey Blue is made with organic milk from the Court Lodge Dairy, whose herd of cow’s graze on the Pevensey Levels nature reserve. How did you come to work with them to provide the milk for your cheese?
We knew that we would be building our cheese room on Hazel’s parent’s farm. Hazel’s family are good friends with another family who farm on the Pevensey Levels, and that’s David and Marian Harding of Court Lodge Dairy. They produce organic milk and yogurt, and Hazel said you should really meet these people because they’re really lovely, they’ve got a really great farm and they really care about what they’re doing. I phoned them up, and said can we buy some milk off you and try and make some cheese? And that was the start of it!
We didn’t select a milk source with particular criteria in mind, we simply happened into like-minded people who care about the product. They are open, communicative, and importantly, they allowed us to be able to experiment, to begin to understand what we can do with this milk as a cheese. Myself, Hazel, David and Marian can talk for a long time about yoghurt, cheese and dairy farming. Marians got a degree in microbiology, they’re both expert farmers and really openminded so they’re interested in what we’re doing and how changes on the farm manifest themselves. When you work on your own in a white box, it’s great to have a relationship that when you see each other collecting milk it’s like seeing colleagues.
The long and short of it is that we didn’t just select the milk, but selected the people we wanted to work with.
At the moment Pevensey Blue is made with pasteurised milk. Would you like to eventually make it with raw milk?
I used to think as a cheesemonger that raw milk was the ultimate goal, but then you come to realise that you’re trying to make a living out of this. it’s hard enough to make something good and safe so that that you’re not worried about the next testing result that comes in. We’re already incredibly rigorous of course with our hygiene, probably over rigorous, and we’re so careful with how we work that we’d almost be ready to move to making with raw milk if we wanted to. But we wouldn’t want to jeopardise our new business and also the business of the Harding’s as our supplier. We have to go one step at a time.
How do you and Hazel share the responsibilities of the business?
From the inception of the idea to start the business, up until a few weeks before our first child was born, we shared everything 50/50. Even though Hazel was still working during the week, she would insist on making cheese on the weekend on her days off. It was quite relaxed, we’d make cheese in the morning and then come home and talk about the results. Now with a 6 month old baby, it will be predominantly me in the cheese room until we’re able to have some more help and get Anna into nursery. Having said that, we work together a lot. We’re talking about getting Bluetooth headphones so we can stay in constant contact throughout the day. Two days a week we’ll drop Hazel off at the cheese room to work on her own for a bit while I look after Anna. We’ll have tea and toast together, then Hazel will go back to work cleaning and or piercing the cheeses, and I play with Anna. It’s really hard if she’s not going to sleep, because I’m her entertainment!
It feels like we might be hobbling ourselves by doing it this way, but it’s really precious to be able to look after my daughter, and Hazel really appreciates being on her own just working for this time. By sharing the responsibilities like this, both of us are fully in every success and every mistake – we do it together. People laugh at us because we both come from fairly large companies, so we tend to talk about everything as if it’s a business case. Every Friday we have a KPI (Key Performance Indicators) meeting at the kitchen table, just me, Hazel, and baby Anna. The challenge is being sure you communicate – but it means we’re in it together.
What are your short and long-term goals for your cheese?
In the short term, we want to reach a point where we are making a consistent product and be able to replicate this three days a week. Reaching a production of 10 tonnes per year is the magic number that we are reaching towards. We are currently at 6 tonnes if we made every week of the year. At 10 tonnes, we could start to pay rent and give ourselves a salary. We also need to run it in a way that is ergonomically easier, with easier storage and better equipment.
Longer-term, we want to establish sustainability goals and energy saving projects and investigate ways to save water and energy. We are also considering in becoming a certified organic product. David and Marian are organic farmers and were in at the ground floor with this movement, and we feel it would open up more doors for our cheese. We are not farmers, I am just a food processer and a cleaner and a hole-maker in cheese, but there are so many exciting things happening in this area of the country that we’ve moved here to take advantage of. We don’t trust ourselves to get involved until we have mastered our cheesemaking, but a next stage would be to learn more about what David and Marian are doing with their farming practice.
Lastly, what advice would you give to someone looking to start off cheesemaking?
If you don’t work in cheese – get a part time job or a Christmas job at Neal’s Yard Dairy or any cheese shop. Learn, eat more cheese, ring people up, contact people on Instagram, just get into the world somehow. There’s so much to learn, so go meet people and make relationships. Then, if you really want to go for making cheese yourself, go and work with someone. Go “learn as you earn” and just apply for jobs in cheesemaking. The biggest thing I was afraid of was starting, because you’re afraid of making mistakes. But you don’t always need to have prior cheesemaking experience, cheesemakers often want to hire people who are interested in the product and can take direction and do the work. There’s plenty of work in cheese if you’re willing to knock on a few doors, you just need to be willing to get up early and work hard and independently.
There are gaps in the fabric of the industry that need filling, and there’s definitely milk that can be converted into cheese. For example, a cheesemaker may not use their make room over the weekend so that’s potentially free making space. In farming, people are thinking how can we get in on this cheese wave? There’s more growth in the market for micro, small, and medium-sized businesses to break in.