Norbury Blue cheese: blessed are Surrey's cheesemakers
PUBLISHED: 12:57 24 April 2013 | UPDATED: 11:04 04 September 2015
In just over ten years, Surrey's only cheesemaker has transformed from an ambitious kitchen table project to a well established provider for cheeseboards around our county. Ian Lamont meets the brains behind Norbury Blue and gets a taste of the battles faced by local producers
Tucked away down a bridleway at the foot of Box Hill, few would realise where Surrey’s only cheesemaker is found. Such is the lot of many country food producers, perhaps: their wares unsold in supermarkets, hidden from general public knowledge. But it is here you’ll find Michaela Edge, founder of Norbury Blue, and her husband, Neil Allam, creating their latest batch of cheeses for pubs, restaurants and discerning foodies.
“The whole idea was to create a job for myself when my daughter started school,” says Michaela of how cheesemaking began in 2001. When Surrey Life meets the pair, the mooing of Friesen cows desperate to be milked resonates through the kitchen of their home on the farm that her father, Mick Frost, has run for 33 years.
They are no longer a one cheese ‘hobby’ these days though. Now, Norbury Blue has been joined by Dirty Vicar and by the end of 2013 there could be a cheddar added so the business, as Michaela puts it, can supply “a whole cheese board”.
“I gave my dad a lot of false hope in the beginning,” says Michaela. “We were dealing with wholesalers who tried to bully and I didn’t have enough money to pay my dad for the milk. Neil and I were friends and he was looking in from the outside and suggesting that I shouldn’t deal with the big chains.”
A meeting of minds Having got to know each other through farmers’ markets – cheese stalls were often placed next to watercress farmer Neil’s produce – they joined forces for a more personal approach. Wholesalers, it was felt, were not pushing the product enough and as Neil says: “there is only one person who is going to push your product – and that’s you.”
While farmers’ markets proved a good promotional tool in the beginning, the extra time bagging up, labelling and transportation costs proved a great deal of hard work for little return. Instead, they decided to cold call pubs and restaurants to get the cheese on the menu and now supply many within a 50-mile radius. One tip Michaela has for small businesses is to “speak to the chef, not the pub manager”, because the cooks make the food supply decisions. Their products are also supplied to farm shops around the county, from Garsons in Esher to Priory Farm near Redhill.
It might seem remarkable that nobody else in Surrey has tried cow-to-plate cheesemaking in the last decade, a unique selling point that isn’t lost on the pair, but there are more serious reasons for this lack of rivalry than Neil’s joking threats to potential cheesemakers.
“I can’t see anyone else making cheese in Surrey for the foreseeable future at least,” says Michaela. “It’s too much hassle and red tape! Saying that, everyone wants to be a cheesemaker, it’s a trendy thing. What we’ve got over most though is that it’s our own cows’ milk. Across the country there are lots of cheesemakers now, but not many who use their own milk. It’s hard work for not a lot of return, but we enjoy what we do.”
Norbury Blue is the only blue cheesemaker in the South of England to produce from a closed herd of Fresians and they use unpasteurised milk.
“I wouldn’t make unpasteurised cheese with someone else’s milk,” says Neil. “You know if your cow is ill or if something is wrong with it, but if it’s someone else’s you could get some dirty milk.”
Unpasteurised, they say, the home farm milk gives the Norbury Blue cheese a more distinct and stronger flavour than if cooked out by pasteurising. The 80-strong herd, farmed on 150 acres, makes Frost’s one of the smallest dairy herds in Surrey. It is milked twice daily, Michaela and Neil taking their turn twice or three times a week. From there, they fill 900-litre vats and mix the milk with vegetarian rennet and heat it to make the cheese. Matured over four weeks, Norbury Blue is named after a picture of a milk maid, painted onto wall tiles in an old milking parlour by a London designer in the 1700s, which they use for their packaging.
Their second cheese, begun four years ago, is called Dirty Vicar and named after a priest they knew. The packaging quotes Monty Python’s ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’ sketch and it has a Camembert exterior with a Caerphilly texture inside.
The recession might have meant that Christmas 2012 was not as good for them as 2011 but sales of Dirty Vicar have caught up with the flagship blue and, with her father to retire one day and just one of her two brothers involved on the farm, Michaela has a firm business plan.
“We’ve been doing this for 10 years now,” she says. “We would really love to be able to make another cheese, so that we’d have a whole cheeseboard.”
While the blue will always be the flagship, the forecast third would be a cheddar-type product and something that would require kitting out and converting a currently unused dairy, for around £1,500.
“It’s always the case that when you’ve got the money, you haven’t got the time, and when you’ve got the time, you haven’t got the money,” says Neil.
“We’ll do it this year,” reaffirms Michaela. “We’ve got to move forward and we’ve all got to take a bit more interest in the cows as my dad isn’t getting any younger.”
They hint that they have a name for the new product but, for the time being at least, they are keeping it close to their chests – until the time is ripe. For now, we’ll just have to remain content that one of Surrey’s best kept secrets continues to deliciously localise our cheeseboards. n
• For all the latest on Norbury Blue products and to find out where to buy their cheese, visit norburyblue.co.uk
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