It has been said that age doesn’t matter unless you are a cheese. Belfast native Mike Thomson spent his early twenties hatching a plan, having decided that there was a gap in the market for a high quality, locally made small batch cheese. Despite his young age, he took the first steps towards capitalizing on this niche, founding Mike’s Fancy Cheese in 2013.
It can’t be denied, Northern Ireland is undergoing a food movement with The Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink 2016. The North is a hotbed for exciting restaurants from EIPIC to OX and notably, unique and intriguing artisan products. As Northern Ireland’s first raw milk cheese, Mike’s blue cheese, Young Buck, epitomises this exciting time in the Northern food industry.
Anthony Bourdain strongly believes that ‘you have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese’ and it would appear that Mike epitomises this character. As a young boy he dreamed of a career as a footballer but recalls fondly how finding ‘wine, woman and song’ in his teens led him to see himself as ‘a bit of a raconteur’, enjoying the scenic route to finding his passion.
Having dabbled in university life as a social work undergraduate, Mike packed it in feeling he hadn’t found his calling. His answer? ‘I blew my student loan driving around England and Wales living out of the back of my car, for a few months until I ran out of money an moved home, tail between the legs!’
Mike would find his way back to education, this time with a definite goal in mind he headed to the School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire to earn a Diploma in Dairying. The course put huge emphasis hands-on work placements which Mike found invaluable – ‘I just became Mr Cheese for the year I was there, asking cheese makers to go work for them at the weekends and on holidays.’
Immersion in the industry from the beginning was paramount for Mike with his ultimate goal of producing his own cheese. Mike recalls making the most of the misfortune of mislaying his passport after one too many tipples in London, the night before heading off on a course trip to work with French Comte producers. He capitalised on his free week off by offering to work for a Hampshire-based camembert producer, Turnworth, and owes what he learned about start up cheese business, from kitchen to production, to this happy accident.
When dreaming up what his own brand would encompass, Mike set his sights high and sought to develop a cheese which would avoid commercial retail altogether, focusing on high end restaurants and artisan markets.
I always loved the idea of a cheese made well enough to sit on the finest restaurant’s cheese board, but that is reasonably priced enough that people will buy a big whack to bring to a friends to sit and share with a beer
Young Buck has taken pride of place on menus across the country as the go-to blue for decadent cheese courses and this is in no small way due to Mike’s strategy of letting the flavour speak for itself, getting as many people as possible to taste. Dropping batches into all the places he dreamed of seeing Young Buck on the menu led Mike to make a delivery to Belfast eatery Hadskis. Here he had the good fortune of running into owner Niall McKenna, who immediately recognised the quality of Young Buck and requested some for another of his restaurants, James Street South.
He is a great supporter of local and has been great with us right from the very beginning, letting us know when batches aren’t as good, making sure we keep standards up. Buy once because its local buy twice because its good.
While the variety of blue is called Young Buck, the company’s unique name ‘Mike’s Fancy Cheese’ came about accidentally. ‘I’d be reading loads of old American dairying books from the 1800’s and they would always talk about fancy cheese. It was a term used to describe anything that wasn’t cheddar, and I knew that we wouldn’t be making a cheddar, but I just loved the term fancy cheese.’
And fancy cheese it has proven to be both in Northern Ireland and beyond, as big names from Bastible to Craft have embraced it, as has the deli where Mike’s passion was hatched initially, Belfast’s Arcadia. It was here that Mike’s journey as a cheese-maker began, working for four years as a deli assistant and becoming transfixed by the world of high quality cheese. He describes his time in Arcadia as ‘accidental market research’ as he began to note how many cheese brands relied on ‘marketing buzzwords and misleading pictures’ to create a certain image.
I want people to know where it is made and how it is made, and what modern food production is about, but you can still make a product that is traditional and of its place.
A light-hearted approach to his business carries through to Mike’s marketing strategy, with the tag-line ‘Keep it mouldy’ finding its way on to signs as the Mike’s Fancy Cheese slogan. ‘We find when we do markets people still have pre-conceived notions of not liking blue cheese without even trying it because of the mould, we embrace that and try and make it positive! I don’t care if people spit the cheese out in front of me but you gotta try it at least!’
Of course in order to launch a successful start up you need more than a good sense of humour and enduring commitment to your product – funding was the next hurdle to overcome.
I was running out of options, had been to every bank…we needed about £80k to get started….and as a 26 year old with no savings no matter how good your business plan is you will never get the money from a bank.
Cue ingenuity on Mike’s part. Stumbling upon Seedrs, an online platform designed to support crowd-funding of start up companies proved to be the godsend Mike’s Fancy Cheese needed. But what made seedrs the right fit?
‘they encourage you to only invest what you can afford to lose. I have friends with investments of £50, if they had given that to me outside of that, it would have been no help to starting a business, its just a great way people can be involved with as little risk as possible.’
Luckily for Mike his proposition attracted more than just the interest of friends and family and the funds flocked in, with a 40% share of the company being owned by 126 shareholders, whom seedr represent. This relationship is managed by quarterly updates and sometimes investors even pop come along to cheese tastings to show their support.
Mike now employs just one other to cope with the production demands of his increasingly popular brand, one of his best friends, Jonny Chambers.’I broke my hand playing football’ he recalls, ‘Jonny came up to help with the cheese I was already making, I jokingly said sure quit your job and come work for me. He did!’ This dynamic works perfectly for Mike, debunking the adage that you should never mix friends and business.
Running a small ship still requires some administrative toil, Mike’s least favourite part of the day, ‘some days you’lll be doing your payroll (and I only have one employee) or some other paper work and it’ll be doing your head in’. This is made worthwhile for Mike knowing that later that day he will get to be ‘in the store room turning cheese, listening to music, with no time frame, just smiling’ – firmly believing that if you love what you do you will never work a day in your life.
Making Young Buck is no speedy affair, as Mike describes the process in stages which range from days to months. A typical day at the office will involve a 7am start, cleaning down milk tanks, picking up the raw milk themselves from the nearby farm before filling the vats and adding rennet before leaving the curds and whey to separate. Next comes the physically demanding job of ladling the curd off the vat to place on the draining table overnight to acidify.
The following day sees the curd cut, salted and placed in hoops where it will sit for a week, being turned every day. ‘After a week we “rub up” the cheese, which is basically like icing a cake so the cheese doesn’t go too blue too quick!’ The nascent blue is then left in (fairly pungent) a drying room for three weeks before its first ‘piercing’-‘Basically we just stab it with a kebab skewer. This allows the oxygen to get into the cheese which when it reacts with the mould already present will turn it blue.’ The Young Buck will then mature for another 12-15 weeks, going on sale at a ripe age of four to five months old.
After playing the torturous waiting game, what can you expect from a mouthful of Young Buck? Mike believes the beauty of Young Buck is that is more like three different types of cheese in one, flavour-wise and texturally. ‘There will be bits where it is still white and fresh and crumbly, but melts in your mouth. Then where there is a bit of blue it is spicy or piquant but so creamy, then towards the rind you get it yellowing or browning which is then almost nutty and biscuity in flavour.’
While cheese boards are traditionally split over a bottle of fine wine, Mike believes the best bedfellow for Young Buck is, unusually, stout- ‘Big stout, its like a dessert in itself’.’ As far expanding the range beyond blue and the future of Mike’s Fancy Cheese, Mike believes in doing one thing and doing it well. His ultimate goal is to produce more Young Buck and consistently improve upon it. Cultivating a very close relationship with his dairy farmer suppliers, relocating Mike’s Fancy Cheese on-site to a farm – Mike believes the interaction with both farmer and animal is vital for a raw milk cheese.
”Well and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk?” once asked James Joyce. In the case of Mike’s Fancy Cheese, it is the embodiment of a new lease of life for the Northern Irish cheese industry and the ancient art of cheese-making. Having collected numerous awards and caught the attention of the who’s who of fine food – Mike’s blue may be but a Young Buck but it appears to have a long and bright future ahead.
For more information on Mike’s Fancy Cheese and Young Buck visit www.mfcheese.com
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!