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.

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.

Return to the Cheese Shed by clicking here.

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.