How my Shed became the Hub of a Cheese Empire, delivering fabulous Westcountry cheeses to all corners of the land. How I became Bovey Tracey's Leading Shed-Based Virtual Cheesemonger. No, really.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Vindaloo Cheddar

Suddenly we were getting all these emails enquiring about something called 'vindaloo cheddar'. Super-strong, apparently. Naff name, we thought. We also thought 'huh?' - because we don't have anything by that name and have never heard of it. I 'd like to say that cheesemakers have too much taste to use such a terrible name, but there are a few examples that prove me wrong (my lips are sealed) ...

We were also getting more orders than usual for Montgomery's cheddar. Eventually the phone rang. It turned out that those fabled tastemakers Richard and Judy had featured an item about some 'Montgomery's Vindaloo Cheddar' - matured for 24 months. But this proved impossible to track down - and Montgomerys denied all knowledge.

I suspect what we're looking at is Montgomery's cheddar matured on longer by someone like Neals Yard, and it seems likely that some journalist dubbed it 'the vindaloo of cheddars. And the whole thing just spread. I bet Montgomerys are fed up with fielding the phone calls ...

Actually, though, we do have a 24 month matured cheddar, and one with a perfectly sensible name: Quicke's Vintage.

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No more Ashmore

No more Ashmore. Do you see what I did there?

Ok forget it.

We tried to order some Ashmore last week only to find that it is no more. As I understand it, makers Pat and David Doble have retired from cheesemaking. It does sound possible, though, that the recipe has been sold and that Ashmore may Live Again. Hope so, because this cheese - a big award winner at the 2005 British Cheese Awards - is too good to lose ...

Sadly, though, for the time being we've had to take it off the site.

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Bio-degradable packaging

Our use of bubble wrap in packaging up cheese orders had bothered me for some time. So now I'm delighted to announce that we've moved on, and replaced it with a product called Greenfill. This, I have learned, is technically called a 'void fill' product - i.e it fills the gaps in a box and stops things moving around in transit. For us, this matters especially with soft cheese like Brie, which is in danger of getting a bit squashed on its way to the customer.

The common type of void fill is made of polysterene. Greenfill, however, is made from wheat, which means it's completely bio-degradable and could even be composted.

What does it look like? Well, if you recall the snack called Cheesy Wotsits, the answer is ... a bit like that (only a cream colour). It looks quite ok.

Our only slight reservation about Greenfill related to the small amount of moisture which is sometimes produced around the ice pack - which we also include. If the Greenfill gets wet it can turn soft and squishy. We think we've found a way to get around that, but we're asking all customers at the moment for feedback. At the moment - few weeks in - I'd say it doesn't seem like this is going to be a big problem. And it feels great to be sending less plastic out!

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

The lengths we'll go to ...

I had this call from Charlie at Innocent Drinks. They were having a cheese tasting club and could we help? Well, we like what Innocent do, so we didn't want to say no ... despite very short notice and our not having all the cheeses in stock (Charlie was keen to use cheeses from her native Somerset).

We arrived at a list of cheeses (and were one short - but I reckoned we could meet the order if I took a run into Ticklemore Cheese in Totnes to get some Keens Cheddar. That way, we'd have everything we needed and the order could go out the next day. Like I say: time was short!

Into the Figaro and off to Totnes, but got stuck in a big jam halfway, so turned around and went through the lanes (detour 1). If you know Devon lanes you'll know that you really don't want to do this sort of detour - unless you really have to. Several miles of winding narrow lanes later and I'm in Totnes. Into Ticklemore to get the Keens from Sarie, then set off home. Just past the bridge at Hood Manor there's another jam, so its off through the lanes again (detour 2). a few miles further on there's yet another holdup (farm machinery? escaped cows? We'll never know ...) - which ends with us all being waved off down another side road. Detour 3. This is now a detour from a detour, if you see what I mean. By this point I no longer knew where I was, just that I was in the middle of a little convoy of 6 or so cars ... just following the people in front. And that's when my engine stopped.

Courtesy of the guys in the car behind, I got pushed into a farm entrance. When the AA arrived (no street names, no house numbers ...) the verdict was 'dead alternator'. With the AA man charging my battery about three times (charge up ... drive ... car dies ... charge up ... drive ... care dies etc) I eventually got home. This must have been the longest ever return trip from Bovey Tracey to Totnes!

The final cheese list was Somerset Brie, Westcombe Red, Godminster, Montgomery's Cheddar and Quicke's Oak-Smoked Cheddar.

What's missing from the list? You got it - the Keens that had me driving to Totnes in the first place. Quite funny really!

If you want to see the cheese tasting in action, you can have a look at Innocent's blog here.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Christmas 2006

The effect of Christmas 2006 on our mental state can be illustrated by the following story. One night in November, my Cheese Shed partner James' wife was awakened by a mumbling sound at around 4am. Gradually the words became distinct.

They were: "pass me more Yarg".

The Cheese Shed had opened in May 2006 - six months after the initial idea - and it was in May that we had our first customer - such an exciting moment that we felt it should be committed to film. James is the bloke in the hat. I'm the other one.

We had no idea how far things could go from that first customer.
cheese se
Orders grew and grew through the autumn, and really started to accelerate from the end of November. James is used to running a shop, but even he was taken aback by the number of orders that were coming in. We stopped taking orders on 15th December in order to be able to deal effectively with all the ones we had. By that point it was actually a relief! Over the last few days we sent out hundreds of boxes, a team of four of us working in the evenings, finishing in the small hours. Then at 7am James and I were back in, putting the ice packs in the boxes and taping them up for the courier. James, his wife Jill and our helper Jack then worked all day in the deli. I don't know how they coped!

Here's Jill and I very, very late on Tuesday 19th December.

And it all went pretty well. There were a few problems of late delivery (in two cases, no delivery) but we were pleased ... if exhausted. It went ok, and we know how to do it better next year. Best of all, we've had all the confirmation that we need to tell us that the idea of the Cheese Shed works.

People are enjoying the website, and the idea of sending selections as gifts is really taking off. This is for two reasons, it seems to me. One is what I heard described as the phenomenon of people who are 'cash rich' and 'time poor': for them, internet shopping in general is really attractive. But there's another thing. So many people have loads of things. They don't need more! It's hard to buy them anything they'd want or need, which is where buying them an experience - rather than a thing - is attractive. And what better experience than a bunch of great cheeses?

NB: Can you have a bunch of cheeses?

Return to the Cheese Shed? Here's your way home.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Why we like Burts

We use Burts potato chips in our cheese gift boxes: a couple of bags in each.

We like Burts partly just because they're delicious.

But also: when my nephew was getting married a few years ago, he rang Burts to ask if he could call in to buy some chips for the reception. After a good look around their place in Kingsbridge, they told him to pick out whatever he wanted. Then they said he could have them. No charge. And that was quite a lot of chips!

There's another reason why we like Burts.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Ian's Grand Day Out in Cheltenham

One Friday at the end of September I got into the Figaro and drove up to Cheltenham for the Great British Cheese Festival. This was the 'Trade Day' for the weekend event which has become a real institution on the cheese scene since it began in the 1980s. In charge is an apparently redoubtable New Zealander called Juliet Harbutt (learn more about her at her website, The Cheese Web).

This was my first 'trade' outing on behalf of The Cheese Shed, and as I pinned my badge on and walked onto the site - a park right in the middle of the town - it did seem to me that I might now be a 'real' rather than a 'virtual' cheesemonger. The badges suggest a sort of democracy, but it only goes so far: one well-known maker suddenly switched her attention rather too suddenly from me to another badge-wearer. The thing was: my badge said "The Cheese Shed"; his said "Marks and Spencer".

In one huge marquee are around 100 cheese makers - the organisers call it 'the biggest cheese market in Britain' and I don't suppose anyone's going to argue. I spent most of my time there wandering slowly from stand to stand, getting to know the cheeses and intruducing myself to the makers. Although I already knew most of what was on display, there were some items I only knew from photos. And there's only so much you can learn about cheese from a photo.

I met some great people: Mary Quicke, who was great fun, Diana Smart, and Charlie Westhead (of Neals Yard Creamery), along with some familiar faces, like Dave Johnson from Norsworthy who had helped out with the Cheese Shed's recent publicity. That's him in the picture above, with Sharpham's Mark Sharman at the top and yours truly at the bottom.

As a result of meetings and tastings in Cheltenham, I've now listed two new Quickes cheeses (Vintage Cheddar and their Goats Cheese), Smart's Double Gloucester and Simon Weaver's variations on Cotswold Brie.

What I really came away with, though, was inspiration. The makers are passionately engaged in something really exciting: they're not likley to get rich, they have an uphill struggle against their larger competitors, regulations, the supermarkets (not to mention the vagaries of the cheese-making process itself with its wayward bacteria), but they continue. And they create extraordinary things. And I think they know that the public mood - ever more concerned with quality, with local distinctiveness, with the fresh, the real, the individual - is flowing in their direction.

The British Cheese Awards are a key part of the GBCF, and several of 'our' makers won Gold: Sue Proudfoot's Keltic Gold, Sharpham Rustic with Herbs, Montgomery's Cheddar and, last but certainly not least (it won two Golds!): Cornish Blue.

Follow the links above to check out all of those cheeses back in the Shed, or this one to return to our homepage.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Cheese Gifts

Here's a scenario you might recognise. You need to buy a present for a friend or relative. But ... they don't want anything! They don't need anything! Help! But just a moment ... what's that distant drumming of hooves? No, it's not the 7th Cavalry, it's The Cheese Shed riding to the rescue!

One things that quickly became clear is that lots of our customers are looking for a great present for someone they care about. Flowers and chocolates are the traditional standbys. Susie and I used several times, and the ease and simplicty of that service has been an influence on The Cheese Shed. In a few minutes you've sorted a great present which is quickly delivered by post to anywhere in the country. We had the hunch (hunches have played a big part in this project) that cheese might work for people as a gift.

So we put together a range of gift boxes and cheese selections. The selections are based on five contrasting cheeses - two cows cheeses, a goat, a blue and a soft cheese. The first one we brought in was the Cheese Shed Selection - five of our favourites, changing according to what we've got in stock, followed by the Devon Selection and Somerset Selection.

They were joined by the Dorset Selection (tricky! only ended up with three cheeses in this one ...) and finally the Cornish Selection (by contrast - spoilt for choice here), so that we now have a box for each of the Westcountry counties.

The final step was to create the Cheese Shed Gift Box. This is based on a five-cheese selection, but adds a lot of other lovely things. There are Bath Olivers and Otter Vale Chutney to go with your cheese, plus two bags of Burts Chips and a bottle of Luscombe Apple Juice. To top it off we add a selection of Brownes handmade chocolates.

Presentation matters. The cheeses are carefully wrapped in waxed paper and neatly boxed: we like to think they must be quite exciting to open! Ice packs keep the cheese cool, and delivery is by overnight service. We include a letter with information about the cheeses, and a card with whatever message the customer has asked for.

Here's an interesting fact. Our customers are mainly women; when they're sending cheese as a gift, it's usually for a man.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bringing the story up to date ...

That was 11 months ago. The Cheese Shed's up and running now, with over 60 cheeses listed plus several gift boxes / cheese selections. The whole operation has been 'running in' and seems to be working. There are more customers each month. I would never have imagined that I'd be excited about selling cheese, but what can I say? It's great to see it growing all the time!

But a few basics: what's all this shed stuff? We live in Bovey Tracey, Devon, England. The shed is my office - it's up at the top of the back garden and looks out over the roof of the house towards the moors (we live on a hillside). When Susie and I married in 1997 the shed was a way to give me some quiet working space given that there were 4 of us in a small terraced house. I wrote a lot of music there plus my PhD, but that's another story.

I knew from the start that I wanted the cheese business to be called The Cheese Shed. It felt quirky, fun, a bit rural-rustic, and not too obvious. After someone nabbed the domain name from under my nose, I secured, but all without much idea of how the business would work.

The big obstacle seemed to be: how could you list a lot of cheeses (I knew I wanted it to be comprehensive) without stocking all of them, all the time? How much of it would 'go off' before enough buyers found the site? I'd need fridges and have to be inspected by the food hygiene people. A total no-no.

James Mann's deli - down the road in Bovey - was the breakthrough. I realised that if James was on board, then the supply and storage problems were largely solved. Feeling a bit crazy, I described the idea to him over coffee and a slice in the local cafe. "So", he said, "what you're saying is that you'll get the orders over the internet, and I'll pack the cheese and send it out". Bingo.

Cue 6 months of research and setting up. The Cheese Shed had its first customer in May 2006.

Cheese Revelation!

The germ of the idea came last November (2005). A Saturday. I'd suddenly had the idea to sell cheese online. Not just any cheese but Westcountry cheese. A website that specialised in Westcountry farmhouse cheeses and had as many as possible all available in one place.

I mean, supposing you wanted to buy Yarg in Yarmouth, or Blue Vinney in Blackpool. And supposing you couldn't find them for love nor money. Then suppose there was a website where you could get both of them and be tempted by lots of others. It might just work ...

This was the beginning of The Cheese Shed.