We recently interviewed Martin and Hazel Tkalez, from the Pevensey Cheese Company to learn more about their journey to becoming cheese makers over the last two and half years.
Can you in tell us a bit about your business Pevensey Cheese Company?
We are Hazel and Martin Tkalez and we constitute Pevensey Cheese Company – we make one cheese, a soft, creamy blue cheese – in East Sussex. The milk comes from a local organic dairy herd that grazes the Sussex Wildlife Trust marshland of the Pevensey Levels – hence our name and the name of the cheese- Pevensey Blue.
Where did the idea to make cheese come from?
Our idea to make cheese came out of a bundle of thoughts and aspirations whilst Hazel and I were still in London. I think there were two very important factors of several that shaped our decision to start our cheese making company.
The first one was the ambition to make something. Having worked with hand-made products – selling cheese at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London for about 15 years – the people that I had met through the business were all remarkable in different ways, but the common denominator was the constant satisfaction and struggle to produce something excellent in the face of varying factors – it seemed to bring out the best in people and the most successful people were those who were devoted to their craft. Our thinking was “lets be happy, through a simple goal – focus everything on the product and then build from there”.
The second major factor was that we wanted – eventually – to work together, to build something that we could put labour into and draw satisfaction and an income out of, and that we didn’t have to slog in a city for to raise a family – but we could slog together in rural East Sussex! If you have to slog in life, maybe at least you can choose how and where one does the slogging!
Haha – slogging together in rural East Sussex doesn’t sound too bad! Can you tell us about any major milestones you’ve achieve to date?
In October this year, a few of the milestones that we had set out to achieve had been met. We became an Approved food producer with our own Healthmark, we have managed to make a good blue cheese – which is tough – we have started to make the business modestly self sufficient, we have changed our company structure to give our milk suppliers partial ownership of our company and we have got the support of some incredible cheesemongers in the UK (and perhaps beyond). Most satisfyingly of all – strangers have tried the cheese and decided to buy it based on the flavour and then returned to buy more. These goals were set in May of 2018 – and now two and a half years later we are a real business.
We are not big, we are not experienced, we make small amounts of cheese, but we have reached the next “square one” and we are determined to increase production shortly and to meet the next year with goals of sustainability and improvement in quality – and with spirit!
How did you go about setting up a micro-dairy? Did you receive any funding? How did your previous experience working at Neal’s Yard Dairy shape your business strategy?
Getting to our position right now was quite meticulous work – it was incremental and required patience. We began by writing a business plan and a business model based on that plan. Key to the strategy was focusing on getting LEADER funding – which we couldn’t get without planning permission. When we started we had not heard of LEADER and we thought- perhaps naively – that we were exempt from planning – so we started with a “script” and then took some opportunities and challenges on when they presented themselves It sometimes felt quite organic and then at other times we felt as if we went from one set of tasks to the next in an organised way.
From September of 2018 when we expressed interest in LEADER and applied for planning permission our time was spent on very intensive project management tasks. We had to get planning permission through on time to meet the grant deadline, which was a very close call. We were approved and received planning permission for our cheese rooms with great deal of support from the local community who wrote in to help us, as well as support from our councilor. It was February of 2019 that we got planning permission and therefore qualified for LEADER funding in “extra time”!
We received LEADER funding just as the clock was ticking down to receive the last EU funding for UK rural projects – that helped us launch as a micro-dairy that could be sustainable financially – and not just a back garden project. We are incredibly fortunate that Hazel’s family and her parents- Monica and Fred – are very kind and understanding landlords – which means that we can work towards paying rent for our premises as the business scales. One other key factor was my knowledge of the cheese industry and the different businesses in the UK that are keen to help develop new cheesemakers – Neal’s Yard Dairy in particular– my previous employer – have had over forty years of experience taking either new producers or cheese makers who need remedial work (perhaps we are both) under their tutelage. So if you look at our strong points there are many – but originally we started without a product – just a great business plan and access to markets.
We knew we wanted to make a blue cheese and we knew we had a business plan and support in place – but we did all that before we needed to act on it. Here is the first bit of advice – you can build your business case, model and support without actually quitting your day job and leaping off into the unknown. For instance, I left my job two years before we got an income from the cheese business – but I had spent 15 years working in all parts of the industry – granted you might be a faster learner and I really only started taking notice of the incredible world of cheese relatively late in the day – but nobody can stop you from laying the theoretical or some practical groundwork in front of you any time. Our cheese business started in a flat in London, went to Peckham Library, lived in our heads and notebooks, up and down the UK before we made any investment. You want to learn about something or to start your business – go ahead – my advice is to go to the library and work there, even with a pen and paper. Anything you can do will come back to help you – even the mistakes and dead ends.
Can you tell us more about your decision to go for a soft blue?
Hazel and I both loved Stilton – almost more than anything else. We started to go down the route of looking at traditional recipes, visiting a stilton-style producer in Nottinghamshire and joining a workshop on Stilton making with some very talented producers and maturers. But then we realised that not only were the existing big five producers of stilton in the UK already 150 years ahead of the game – but our target portion of the market was already being served by micro and small scale producers – a handful of friends who make some exceptional stilton style cheese across the UK. We could have kept going in that direction but in the delicatessens, shops and restaurants that we had targeted we felt better about picking another style to work on. So we decided then to go for the softer, creamier, continental style of cheese that we thought was under-served in our target market.
So we found our niche market, our niche product but we had to get a prototype cheese and we wanted to work with a specific local organic dairy farm. Both of these things- product development and business relationships – take time and can work hand in hand. Just being allowed to take 25 litres of milk at a time, to begin with, every two weeks to make cheese in the farm kitchen for our own development was an incredible head start and privilege. Hazel’s parents and our milk suppliers were friends from way back – which helped myself as a newcomer feel confident in approaching them to develop the cheese. Having high quality organic cow’s milk a five minute drive away is arguably one of if not the strongest card in our hand as a cheese maker.
Did you have any help from other cheese producers?
Development of a cheese is hard and whilst we went on courses, visited producers and I made cheese at Trethown Brothers (cheddar and caerphilly cheeses) for a year – we didn’t have training in soft blue cheese. We didn’t make it on our own but we also didn’t have someone to teach us how to make our style. There are positives and negatives to this – but at least we get to own our mistakes as well as our successes. The artisan cheese industry as a whole has been incredibly supportive – in particular the Sussex producers Alsop and Walker and High Weald Dairy – whose attitude has been fostering towards us and incredibly helpful in our design and build of our creamery – whose insights gave us the benefit of their discoveries in the decades they have spent blazing a trail before us. Between leaving my old job and starting our new company I visited a few other producers across the country – including 4 days at Stichelton and at Highfields Dairy as well as day trips to lots of friends’ places.
What plans do you have for the future?
As I write we are taking a break from making as we wait for the birth of our baby. In the new year we are excited to move to double our production. To date we have made about 70 batches of cheese – from the sublime to the ridiculous, the most recent 20 batches comprise of 12 cheeses at a time. These are now getting a sustainable price from shops and wholesalers – the previous 50 batches were the developmental batches that got us to square one. “If you want to win you need to lose your first 100 games quickly” is a saying from the East Asian game of “Go”.
That’s super exciting on both fronts! I also love that saying! Lastly do you have any parting words of advice for budding cheese makers out there?
If you’re reading this and thinking “I can’t do this” or “this is unrealistic” you might be right – we are lucky as well as hard working. But there are things that you can do to get to where you want to go without our luck: If you are a liquid milk producer – can you add value to your milk? Do you want to change your business model? Can you find someone with the experience or at least the gumption to start a business in partnership? Which shops and which local people care about food – what cheese do they want to eat? To people with a cheese idea but no cows, no money and no training – get a part time job in food, get to meet people, get training, get talking, go visit people – it seems despite Covid people still want farmhouse cheese, they want it sold in different ways but the demand is there and growing.
I tell myself that when I get up at 4 in the morning to collect milk and make cheese that there aren’t many people who choose to and enjoy doing that – so find the thing that you can do that other people don’t want to do.
You can follow Martin and Hazels journey via their instagram @pevenseycheese