Curds from Kernow
After years of farming and odd-jobbing, Sue Proudfoot decided to produce cheese to make ends meet. PATRICK McGUIGAN took a trip to Cornwall to find out how Whalesborough Cheese has grown since the turn of the century.
Cornwall’s cream tea purveyors and surfing instructors might rake it in during the summer months but, for the rest of the year, earning a living in the South West peninsula is not such an easy task.
The county is one of the poorest in the UK with earnings and GDP well below the UK average, which means making a buck requires a certain amount of ingenuity. Sue Proudfoot, owner of Whalesborough Cheese near Bude, is a case in point. Before she started making cheese in 1999, she turned her hand to a dizzying array of jobs to make ends meet – including classroom assistant, sheep farmer, night school art teacher and working for an organisation helping young farmers. She even painted milk churns with bucolic images of country life to sell to tourists.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” she says. “I’d buy the milk churns for £20, put the kids to bed, stay up half the night painting the churns with poppies and field mice, then sell them for £60. It doesn’t sound like much, but it wasn’t easy making money round here.”
It wasn’t easy for her dairy farmer husband Frazer to make money either, with the family farm receiving an abysmal price for its milk, despite having a 300-strong herd of top quality cows.
“We’d got on the treadmill of building up the herd, but couldn’t get out from under the cows to see where we were going,” she says. “We were one of the top 25% farms in terms of the quality of our milk, but we were making just a quarter of a penny on a litre of milk. It wasn’t sustainable.”
As is so often the case, salvation lay in cheese. Local cheesemaker Tony Rich, who had worked for Cricketer Farm and Cornish Country Larder, spent two days showing Proudfoot how to make cheese, using an old 50-litre bain marie that doubled as a vat and tractor weights to press the cheese. The rest she learned for herself, before literally knocking on deli and restaurant doors.
“I would jump on the train and go to London with a rucksack full of cheese,” she says. “That was how I ended up with one of my biggest orders in the early days – to supply Fortnums’ hampers. It meant we could buy a proper cheese press.”
Withiel farmers’ market was also an important channel for the inexperienced cheesemaker, enabling her to get feedback from the public and network with other start-ups.
“It was a comfortable and supportive place to sell,” she says. “It can be hard when you’re starting. There’s nobody to scrape you off the floor when you’re having a bad time or to give you that motivation, so it was a lifeline.”
The cheese was made with milk from the farm’s own herd up until 2004 when, in another diversification project, the cows were sold and the couple built a collection of holiday cottages on their land.
Today pasteurised milk comes from a local dairy processor and the farm is home to 25 holiday cottages, a swimming pool and spa, and thriving café overlooking a lake. Cheese production was moved to a cluster of artisan food units at nearby Norton Barton Farm in 2009 where neighbours include Cornish Charcuterie and North Coast Cider. Proudfoot’s son Andrew heads up production, making around 15 tonnes a year across five cheeses: Keltic Gold, which is washed in cider and won a three-star award in this year’s Great Taste; a washed curd cheese called Miss Muffet; the cheddar-style Trelawny; a zesty Lancashire-style cheese called Cornish Crumbly; and Cornish Smuggler, which has a marbled orange and white interior.
The tractor weights are gone but there’s still a degree of Heath Robinson-style innovation in the dairy. Drain pipes are used as moulds while the bain marie has been replaced with a converted second-hand bulk milk tank. “We took off the condenser and chiller and added two heating elements – it was £50 for the tank and £120 for the heating elements,” says Proudfoot with satisfaction.
In a county with no motorways and plenty of caravans, distribution has long been a challenge for Cornish producers, but as with most other things Proudfoot takes a pragmatic approach, refusing to deliver directly herself. Instead, local wholesalers Longman and Hanson Fine Foods collect from the dairy, while distributor LogistHicks supplies customers further afield, such as Rippon and Harvey & Brockless.
Whalesborough’s logo and packaging were designed by Proudfoot, who took inspiration from the Celtic stone crosses on Bodmin Moor. “When you think of Cornwall, the association is the seaside, wholesome living and beautiful landscape,” she says.
She’s not the only producer looking to tap into Cornwall’s brand image with several new cheese companies launching in recent years, including Treveador Farm Dairy and Curds & Croust (see page 37).
“I don’t look at them as competition – what we do is very different and we are established now,” says Proudfoot. “In Cornwall you are basically self-employed or work in a family business, otherwise you often have to leave the county. I’ve seen enough people go off to university and not come back that it’s good to see new businesses starting. Anything that keeps people in this beautiful part of the world is a good thing.”