The business is named after Torteval, the parish in which I live in Guernsey. Rugged and beautiful, it is the most wild and under-populated of all the parishes. Guernsey, in case you don't know, is a small island in the English channel but is nearer to France than to England. It is part of Great Britain but not part of the United Kingdom. This is an important difference as it is self-governing but swears alleigance to the Queen.
We came here for my husband's job in 2004. After badly missing my hometown, Lewes, Sussex, I have come to love this place with its quiet way of life and proximity to the elements. If you haven't ever been, you must come to discover the history and charm and beautiful coastline... Anyway, enough!
The first cheese went on sale at the end of 2008. That was goats’ cheese. In fact, the initial intention was to be a goats' cheese maker. The milk was supplied by the beautiful Golden Guernsey goats belonging to Chris and Liz Tomlins. Unfortunately the milk supply was too small for commercial viability and so I made the change into a cheese made from Guernsey cows' milk. This cheese I named Fort Grey, named after a local Georgian coastal defence. It first sold in February 2009 and is now my main cheese. The milk is supplied by the Guernsey Dairy and is,probably, the best milk in the world. If I made the same cheese out of, say Freisian milk, I imagine I would have to add cream. No one else here, apart from The Dairy, is making cows' milk cheese. I've yet to work out if this was an untapped opportunity or there was a reason for it !!
After around twenty five years of nursing I decided to go into food production. Why cheese? I’m not really sure but it appealed. It helps that I love eating it but it was also that it is a quirky sort of food and rich in history and tradition.
Apart from growing up in the countryside (Buxted, East Sussex), and having beautiful Jersey cows at the bottom of the garden, I have no background in agriculture. But wish I had.
Rick Stein’s Food Heroes nudged me and the idea of cheesemaking grew and grew.
Gradually the business evolved. From kitchen top to a fully equipped cheese room which was previously the garage of our house. My husband is a tolerant man!
There is no book to tell you how to set up as a commercial cheesemaker but there were a couple of invaluable cheese courses which taught me the basics. Those were the AB Cheese Training courses at Reeseheath in Cheshire. They were really enjoyable and reinforced the idea that this was it for me.The setup took me at least two years. Maybe I'm a bit slow!
I also spent a couple of useful days following the cheesemaker Eddie Bestbier in Sussex.
Much experimentation in the kitchen, chats with a supportive Environmental Health Officer and finally came the confidence to start commercial production. It really is the sort of job that you either dive into prepared to learn fairly slowly and painfully or work for a cheesemaker for a while and learn the right way to do things the easy way. I didn't have the latter option!
Then came the point when the cheese was ready to sell to the public.. Fortunately I live near Forest Stores. It is a marvellous independent food shop run by the Bienvenue brothers. They, along with Jason and Matt, nurture and promote local food producers. They agreed to sell the cheese. Basically, without them, I would have found a secure market very difficult to achieve.
A lot of anxious moments, changes and a great deal of personal growth and I am where I am now; not quite there but nearly! There are healthy sales in Forest Stores, Tapenade Deli and Torteval Stores. The Channel Island Co-Op has recently started to stock the cheese too to add to their growing local food portfolio. There are direct sales too in a weekly Farmers’ market in the beautiful grounds of Saumarez Manor. This is not only enjoyable but a great way to meet the consumers.
Darren Green, chef at The Auberge, had faith in the cheese from the very beginning and the lovely Barbarie Hotel has been a huge support too. As a new business that sort of support is worth a great deal and I really value it and am very grateful.
Sueco is a local outside catering firm which has been brilliant at promoting my cheese and serves it to huge mumbers at a time. Luckily giving me decent notice of their future need! Tony Leck and Shaun Rankin, both great chefs and hugely supportive of local food, have helped me enormously. Tiny producers really need these relationships.
The future is to continue making six to eight batches per month and to sell it all. I imagine that I will remain one of the the smallest producers in Great Britain.
An ambition is to be on a cheese map!
Perhaps a new cheese in the future? The washed rind course at The Artisan School of Food in March (2010) was wonderful but I returned having made the decision to continue improving Fort Grey before embarking on another type. But watch this space!
Of the last three years of setup and running the business, to sum up: the most thrilling time of my life basically. Not for the faint hearted but a lifestyle that I daily (well, almost!) feel grateful for. I stir the curd, look around the room and really, really love what I am doing.
30/11/11 Some great news ! Fort Grey was awarded a Gold Medal at the World Cheese Awards last week. Class 5509.
Never imagined it would be possible for the cheese to get this as I thought it would need to be unpasteurised and generally pretty complex. Maybe now I should stop wondering how to change it and just continue to make it just as I do. Overwhelming x
22/04/12 Latest news : Cheese featured on Countrywise Kitchen last week. Mike Robinson made the most delicious pastry fondue with the cheese and a wonderful quiche. Always been a little scared to cook with it but this chef picked up the gauntlet and I was astonished. Both dishes fantastic. And he didn't even have to practice !!!
Cheese now for sale at the weekly Town Market in Market Square. Sold by the lovely Sean. Sold by Meadow Court Farm at the Saturday Farmers' Market in St.Martin's.
Have considered the option of supplying the cheese via mail order but have found it too complicated at present. This may change! Still impossible to make export financially viable due to the tiny amounts made. Chilled transport companies will only take a pallet which equates to a years' supply.
More recent awards gained are elsewhere on the site ( apologies, somehow some were slightly wrong - have corrected ).
January 2013 : no cheese being made at present due to my slowly catching on to the fact that it never sells in January. Blame the diets! ! Will resume next month to produce in time for Easter.
It was a good Christmas. Thank you buyers !
What are the plans for this year ? A friend has a smoker and we are going to experiment with a soft/white smoked cheese. How long that will take who knows ?
Also looking into Meet the Producer talks with other producers to be aimed at visitors. Watch this space.
Finally, : would love to enlarge the cheese room but will have to wait until my husband doesn't mind sacrificing his office.... shhh, he doesn't know my plan...
I am much better at updates/ news on Facebook Torteval Cheese and Twitter @ fortgrey. Take a look.
Now I am entering the fourth year of making Fort Grey and know a lot more than I did.
Older, wiser and more tired !
Still think I have the best job in the world. May the curd go with you!
August 2013 : Apologies for the lack of updates . Here we are, four years after the first Fort Grey and sales are very good indeed. In fact sales this summer are the best ever. The problem is that I can only make as much as my energy allows due to the intense amount of labour and time required. But I still love it and daily raise thanks for Radio 4. I'm much better educated after these years of having the rich information and entertainment provided by it ! Gosh, imagine spending hours in the cheeseroom without it. in fact, I plan the boring bits according to the time of my favourite programmes.
Yesterday a new cheese, Hanois went on sale. I took fifteen to the Farmers' market and quickly sold out. Only fifteen as the rest are hard. Let's hope the rest slowly follow. The great news is that the cheese stays white despite being in close proximity to the blue. It is a bit more labour intensive in that it needs very frequent turning but at least I don't have to spike it as I do the blue.
It will be a cheese that I continually tweak until it is really tasty so I will put it into the competitions only when I'm really confident that it is special enough although I am very pleased by the present taste. Simple and creamy thanks to our glorious milk.
The cheese is named after our lighthouse ( just out of sight of my window ) which still blinks to save lives on our treacherous west coast. The label is pink as I can't recall seeing a pink cheese label and I hope will be eye-catching. Also I chose the pink in the anticipation of adding to my new Torteval Cheese Collection which currently consists of one tea towel. The tea towel is grey and features Fort Grey Museum with a nod to the cheese of course ! My friend Caroline Cummins ( www.littlepapergallery.com ) has done a beautiful job with this design and I am hoping she will do one of the Hanois next. Which will be pink !
You may wonder why we have diversified into gifts but needs must to add value to the business and I am really excited about it.
The other good news from the past year is that my distributor, Cimandis, have got the cheese into Sark where it does really well. In fact I can't make enough. Soon I will have to consider some help in the room for a few hours per week and perhaps rent some extra fridge space once the cheeses are wrapped and chilled in order to maximise space in the ripening fridges.
I haven't had time for many Farmers' Markets either but did such a good one yesterday will go again next week ! Selling the olive wood from Naturally Med was a good idea especially when the cheese sells out....
Have not used my friends' smoker yet but still plan to do so.