Nestled in the heart of the North Yorkshire Dales, The Courtyard Dairy looked warm and welcoming after a long two-hour trundle from York. Walking in, I was greeted by a halo of bright lights and a mountain of cheese that filled the small shop and was instantly warmed by a friendly team offering me an abundance of tasty samples to blow away the cobwebs of the dreary January day. I found Andy overseeing the ongoing chaos of construction with a chilled-out aura of cool and calm that shone on both the shop floor and into his story. After he kindly chose to pay for my much-needed cappuccino (that’s Yorkshire for you!) we got chatting about where it all began and the power of opportunity and hard work.
So, Andy, where did it all begin for The Courtyard Dairy?
I originally worked for Paxton and Whitfield in down in London which is one of the leading cheesemongers in the UK before moving to Somerset to work as a cheese quality manager. My wife and I then decided that we wanted to come back North. We set up our original little shop down the road completely from scratch and we only had a few thousand pounds to cover the cost of a few fridges. We decided to sell just 20 traditional farm-made cheeses that we knew inside and out and that were made on the farm traditionally from unpasteurised milk, and that is what we wanted to champion.
Around two years ago we bought this place and started converting it, the living room is being converted at the moment so sorry about all the banging! We put in a cheese shop and little museum, purely because I think that people are disconnected from where their product comes from and how it is made. I wanted to tell them more than I could just in the shop in one transaction.
Although we’ve made the shop much bigger, we have stayed selling around the same range of products that we know inside and out. We now champion 30 types of independent farm-house cheese and I try and tell their story and about how people make raw milk cheese.
Have you always had an interest in food?
I grew up in hospitality and my parents ran a country house hotel and restaurant, so I lived in staff accommodation until I was 14. You naturally grow up with an interest in food. I think that I would have always ended up in food, but cheese is just the route that I have gone down. It felt like the right place at the right time and a lot of things clicked together.
Where did you discover your particular interest in cheese?
I studied hospitality and catering before going to work in Fine Dining. I then moved to Edinburgh and worked in Michelin starred restaurants where we sold a really good cheese board and about 10 years ago if you had a good cheeseboard in the UK, chances are that it was French. It really interested me, so I contacted our French supplier and he said why don’t you come abroad and do an apprentice in cheese maturing. I was young and didn’t have anything to tie me down, so I went abroad and did an apprenticeship in cheese maturing in France!
What would you say makes small farm-made cheese unique?
I try and work with individual farms that still make raw milk cheese because when you do that, you capture the nature of that one place. At one time there were around 1000 farms making Wensleydale cheese and every cheese was different. Each one varied everyday through slightly different recipes, or different grazing for the heard and each factor made each cheese slightly different and individual and for me, that’s what it’s all about. It is about having a product that has a depth of flavour and is unique to that one place where it is made.
When we go back through to the cheese shop, I will let you taste two of the same cheese made by the same producer but on different days and you can taste the difference!
Yes please! Do you source all your cheese in Yorkshire?
It’s throughout the UK really. When we started selling cheese there was only one producer left in Yorkshire that made raw milk cheese and he was close to giving up. I would like to get all my cheeses within 20 miles if we could! But we have an ethos when we source, and the first thing is looking at traditional methods of manufacturing, farming, and small family-run farms. Flavour is also really important; if your cheese doesn’t taste good I’m not going to sell it!
What do you think drives farmers to keep making farm house cheeses?
Farmers would always much rather sell liquid milk in my opinion as it is less work and the money goes into your account almost instantly. However, the low price of milk at the moment means that it doesn’t pay for itself. What cheese allows you to do is add value to that milk and make a product unique to your farm.
And how long does it take to make a unique cheese?
It depends on what cheese you are making but a hard-classic British cheese can take anywhere between 5-8 hours but then you have to mature it which could take 18 months or longer.
You mentioned earlier ‘raw milk cheese’, what does that actually mean?
Well, most milk by the time you buy it is pasteurised which is essential in my opinion because pasteurisation was originally created to wipe out TB and food poisoning bacteria and to also help preserve the milk whilst making it safer. If you use raw milk, it means you are keeping the very nature of your milk and you are not killing everything in it. Cheese making is about adding bacteria, so if you are retaining some of that bacteria from the farm by using raw milk, you are making a product more unique to you and normally very flavoursome.
Do you have a soft spot for any particular cheese?
It’s like asking your parents if they have a favourite child!
Haha mine do!
They all do but it’s not the same one every time! What I love about cheese is the diversity of it and that is why I sell cheese. I do have favourites, but it depends on the time of year and is even dependant on different batches. In the shop I like the Hafod at the moment.
Do you supply to any big restaurants?
We don’t go out of our way to approach chefs and restaurants anymore, they choose to get in touch with us. I think proper cheese should be affordable and loved by everybody, they should be able to see where it comes from and to place the value in it. I love supplying the top end restaurants like The Black Swan at Oldstead, but also don’t think this type of cheese should just be reserved for the top end as it should be able to be enjoyed by everyone.
Would you say that you have built a strong relationship with your customers by selling in person through the shop?
I really like selling directly to the public. We have the likes of customers like Allister who comes in every Saturday at 11 o’clock and you could set your watch by him. He buys a very small £2 piece of cheese the Richard Third Wensleydale and he’s one of my favourite customers. He does all of his other shopping in the supermarket but then comes out of his way to drive to us to buy his bit of cheese. For me, that is a really great thing because he has put value in this cheese and what we are doing.
In terms of staying sane, how do you create a work/life balance?!
When you set up your own business, you put your all into it and we have done just that. I’m extremely proud of our business, but certain things have to suffer and that’s fine. If you want your business to succeed, then you have to work hard. If we are on holiday, we will spend the day with a cheesemaker and have lunch and dinner with them. It’s doesn’t feel like work and you feel part of the family and get involved in their way of life. Feeling part of something more is lovely, and my hobbies usually revolve around cheese anyway!
Would you say you’re a naturally driven person then?
I’ve always worked hard, I think it’s in my mentality as I don’t like sitting around. I would say that I have taken every opportunity that has been thrown at me and some of them worked out and some of them didn’t. The more stuff you do, the more doors that open and eventually you find out what you want to do. I didn’t know I wanted to work in the cheese industry when I took that apprenticeship in France, but I thought why not?
That’s very brave at a young age! What inspires you and The Courtyard Dairy?
There are people out there that really crack on with stuff and push themselves forward and that inspires me. What is really nice is when you look at your business from the outside and see the effect that it has had on other people. You look at businesses that we have helped to set up, and members of staff who have gone on to do their own things and we have been part of their development, and that is a really nice feeling.
Do you have a personal end goal in mind?
What we try and do here is the best cheese in the world, I’m not saying that we are but that is our aim. The only reason that people are going to drive out to the middle of nowhere on a cold dark day in Yorkshire is because our cheese is better than anywhere else. It has to be amazing and using unpasteurised milk can help make it amazing.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy selling cheese and I also like visiting the farms. When you visit a farm and see them creating the cheese you get so connected to it that you just want to sell their product. We are not just selling Kirkham’s Lancashire, I know Graham and I see him once a month and he’s a good friend of mine; I wantto sell his cheese. There is a community connection there. I always say I like to pay my bills because its people that I like.
Do you have any advice that you would you give to someone starting out?
I would say to people if an opportunity comes along, don’t make excuses and just have a go. It might not work out but if it doesn’t, that’s fine. Every decision I’ve made has not been the right one, but I’ve gone and done it.
That’s brilliant advice. And where do you see yourself this time next year?
Hopefully with a living room! I’m not after growing and pushing my business into some mammoth beast. I don’t want to double my staff or my turnover, I just want this place to sell a bit more cheese and be a real hub for people interested in cheesemaking, that’s what I want.
Andy Swincoe, 15/1/19
York Talks would like to thank Andy for taking the time to share his story, and all the team at The Courtyard Dairy for letting me try their delicious cheese! If you would like to find out more, check out their website or follow them on twitter @CourtyardDairy.
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