How we slice it

Bronwen Percival is Technical Manager and cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy. Ben Harris is Head Cheesemaker at Ticklemore Cheese Dairy, makers of a fine selection of blue cheeses which Neal’s Yard Dairy has been buying for almost 30 years. Here, Bronwen and Ben discuss taste, trust and how the strength of their working relationship has come into its own in their collaborative effort to create a mature, rinded blue cheese.

Ben on Bronwen

I’ve been working at Ticklemore Cheese Dairy for 18 years now and one of the first people I ever met at Neal’s Yard Dairy was Bronwen. Randolph Hodgson started the Dairy at the same time as my boss Robin Congdon started Ticklemore, about 40 years ago, so when I joined they had already been collaborating for some time. Twice a year she comes here with two or three people from the Dairy to taste and select the Beenleigh Blues and the Devon Blues they are to sell that year. I used to find it scary, but now it feels like we’re part of a family. We try cheeses for a couple of hours then go out for dinner in the evening. Twice a year I go up to London to talk about the cheeses and I stay either in the flat above the Borough Market shop, or with Bronwen and her family. Last year I took my daughter with me and she helped out in the shop.

The Dairy has a very particular idea of what they like and what they think we should be working toward in terms of taste profile. When you are making cheese like we are, which changes all the time, it’s good to have this insight. Bronwen is very knowledgeable. She goes on science-based courses, does a lot of research, works every day with a range of different cheeses, while here we are more hands on, more present-focused. This makes her well placed to help us figure out why some cheeses have turned out like they have.

Recently the Dairy has been keeping some of our younger Beenleigh Blues and maturing them in their maturing rooms for 10 weeks into the Brunswick Blue, a cheese with a rind. It’s been an interesting project. Predominantly what happens is, we make the cheese—our Devon Blue, a rindless blue cheese made with cow’s milk and our Beenleigh Blue, a rindless blue cheese made with sheep’s milk, like a roquefort—and deliver to the Dairy ready to sell.

The Brunswick Blue is a collaboration Bronwen suggested and I wouldn’t let anyone else do it. It seems a bit mad to take cheese into the centre of London to mature, but we don’t have space for the sort of fridges to keep that kind of cheese and they are far more experienced at maturing cheese with rind on than I would be. It’s amazing, the difference the process makes to the cheese. It’s been a real learning curve.

Bronwen and I share a love of food, and of wanting things to be the best they can be. Our ethos fits; mine and Bronwen’s, but also Ticklemore’s and Neal’s Yard Dairy’s. We look after our people and our animals, and we buy from small, well-managed farms. There is no one we work more closely with, no one who takes so much cheese, and at a time like this it means all the more to be this supported. I really feel they are doing as much for us as they can.

Bronwen on Ben

When someone invites you to look at all their batches of cheese, they are putting themselves on the line. It’s a vulnerable position, so you need to have a trusting relationship. No cheesemaker makes perfect cheese all the time—it’s part and parcel of artisan cheesemaking that there is variation and equally, we have to recognise that the profile of cheese we like, and feel can sell best, is not necessarily what others will like. We need to have a relationship in which we can be full and frank, but also kind.

One of the challenges of maturing Brunswick Blue ourselves is that, rather than tasting and selecting cheese on the farm at eight weeks old when it’s pretty clear how they are going to develop, we take a batch at just two weeks old, if Ben thinks it will work for maturation. We then put that in our maturing rooms and try to bring out the character we want. It is a very different way of working together: going to a farm and tasting and selecting cheese that is fully fledged, versus working with a producer to create something together. Trust is key, because that cheese will have their name on it as well.

We need to make something that Ben is happy with and that we’re happy with. We have also learned, in making the Brunswick Blue, that when you’re ageing cheese for longer, there is much more variation between batches than first seems when they’re younger so to refine this cheese, we need to work with Ben on the make itself.

Ben has years of cheesemaking experience. That practical, day-in-day-out ability to turn liquid into solid, is not something we have. What we do have is knowledge about the way cheesemaking works, from a conceptual point of view, and a lot more equipment for measuring fat and protein—for providing analysis and concrete information. Ben is able to take what knowledge and information he thinks is promising, and apply and riff on it.

I have known and worked with Ben for years. We have a deep trust in one another and we are friends. I’ve enjoyed spending time with Ben and watching his kids grow up, he’s a wonderful guy. People come to cheese from all sorts of different directions. Some come from a farming background, some from an academic background. Ben comes from a gastronomic background and that is quite an important skill set and perspective, which not everyone has. I came to cheese from an anthropological perspective, but also with the experience of having worked in restaurants, so I share that with Ben. We understand that we are trying to make something delicious, and what quality looks like. A cheese that is many times the price of its supermarket counterpart must simply taste many times as good.