Rob Bookam and Tim HarrisonRob Bookam (left) and Tim Harrison ©Alexandra Joseph

Cheese on toast may not seem like the classical cuisine that would be served to sophisticated and stylish British racegoers.

But Sussex Charmer cheese is proving to be a firm favourite at Ascot, among celebrity chefs, and it is even a popular late-night snack with festival revellers at Glastonbury.

Its uniqueness is a key ingredient to the success of the brand, which has snowballed since its launch in 2007.

See also: Farmer diversifies into vodka production

It is a hybrid between a traditional farmhouse cheddar cheese and that of a Parmesan, which gives it a crumbly texture and a long, mature taste profile.

Sussex Charmer facts

  • 2008 Sussex Charmer cheese won bronze at the World Cheese Awards
  • Won best new dairy product in 2008 at the Nantwich International Cheese Awards
  • Won gold at Nantwich in 2012, 2013 and 2014
  • Won gold at the Great Taste Awards in 2010 and 2012
  • Best catering and food service cheese in show 2014 Nantwich International Cheese Awards
  • Milks 1,200 Holstein cross Friesian cross Jersey cows across three dairy units
  • Yielding 6,000 litres/year

The brains behind the brand are cheesemaker Rob Bookham and Sussex dairy farmer Tim Harrison from R Harrison and Sons.

“At the time we were selling milk through our co-operative Milk Link that supplied Mr Bookham at Twineham Grange.

“Mr Bookham wanted to meet us and that’s effectively how we got together,” Mr Harrison explains.

“We recognised an opportunity to work together and wanted to add value to our milk.

“So we went off to Reaseheath and did a basic cheese-making course. Within three weeks we’d made our first batch of Sussex Charmer,” he adds.

“I also went because all I had been making was Parmesan,” explains Mr Bookham.

Cheese-on-toast trailers

Just a few years into the launch the duo became fed up of the “industry standard” of giving cheese away for free at local shows to build up a brand reputation.

Instead, they commissioned a cheese-on-toast trailer in 2009 to take on the road.

It has now become an integral part of their business, helping to sell a host of their cheese products.

“Events have changed massively in recent years because the shows are judged on the food they served.

“But five years ago all you could eat were cardboard burgers,” recalls Mr Harrison, who says that was something they were adamant to change.

“Cheese on toast is a great nostalgic food; it harks back to childhood. We saw it as a fantastic promotion for the raw product,” he adds.

The cheese is served on bread made from UK milled wheat, along with their own Southdowns butter. Two slices cost £5.

“It is simple food done exceptionally well. That’s our mantra,” says Mr Bookham. 

Rob and Tim in the Cheese-on-Toast trailer

Rob Bookham (left) and Tim Harrison in the Cheese-on-Toast trailer ©Alexandra Joseph

Milk

The quality of milk is paramount to the flavour of the cheese and for this reason consistency is king, says Mr Bookham.

“At Twineham Grange we would get milk from different farms every day so our quality was up and down.

“As a customer you remember the last piece of cheese you’ve eaten so consistency is really important. That is why we chose to source the milk solely from the Harrisons through Milk Link,” he adds.

The Harrisons operate a grass-fed, low-input, low-output, autumn block-calving system with great emphasis placed on quality of grass and forage. Typical butterfat and protein levels are 4.6% and 3.9% respectively.

“One of the difficulties we’ve had is running an autumn block-calving herd that stops production in July.

“In an ideal scenario we would have continuous production all year, but our land doesn’t suit that approach,” explains Mr Harrison.

“It is a compromise, but it is a challenge we manage. Each year we produce an extra 20% of cheese and that’s our buffer to help manage supply.

“A lot of our time is spent discussing volumes and supply. It is a good challenge to have because we are a growing business, but if you make too much you have to start selling it cheaply,” adds Mr Bookham.

Processing

Finding a niche in the market has given the brand a unique selling point.

“There are a lot of farmhouse cheddar ranges. It gives us something to talk about over and above cheddar.

“By incorporating some of the Parmesan methods into the recipe it gives a longer taste profile. It grates well, cooks well and has given us a slightly different position in the market,” explains Mr Bookham.

Demand has mushroomed since launch and the pair are now aiming to produce 75t/year of Sussex Charmer. Key to this is having the processing capacity to grow, says Mr Harrison.

Originally cheese was made at a small plant just a few miles from the farm, but when this closed down they were forced to look further afield.

Diversification tips

  • Give yourself a minimum margin of 20% to work with
  • Don’t undercut wholesalers you supply – you can only sell the cheese once
  • Operate on a commercial level – it allows you to be more competitive
  • Having a strong brand gives you much better bargaining power

Fortuitously, family friends of the Harrison family in Somerset had just finished building a state-of-the-art processing facility.

At first, the idea of not making Sussex Charmer at Twineham Grange was a nerve-wracking concept.

But they say using the new facility has been the best decision they have made and both remain very much involved with the production of every batch of cheese.

“It was an alignment of the stars. We are not restricted by processing capacity, which is always an Achilles heel for creameries,” adds Mr Harrison.

“At the start we were looking at about £500,000 to build a new factory and we are so glad we didn’t because we would have demolished it by now because it would have been too small for current production.

“It has allowed us to operate at a commercial level and that’s the holy grail. You will be limited in what you can do unless you think commercially,” says Mr Harrison.

In the region of 6.5m litres/year of milk is produced between the three Harrison farms from 1,200 cows, and about 500,000 litres is sent to the creamy in Somerset.

The cheese is matured over 14 months in a room at a temperature of 12-14C and is dispatched from the farm.

Even though milk is now travelling an additional 140 miles to the processing plant, ironically it has a smaller carbon footprint now compared with when production was on their doorstep.

“Our plant was not very efficient. In Somerset they take the protein out of the whey. It is ultra-filtrated and the water – a by-product, which is very clean – is used to clean the plant,” says Mr Bookham.

Farming-out processing has also freed up more time for Mr Bookham and Mr Harrison to concentrate on the consumer-facing aspect of the business, which they are reluctant to relinquish.

“It is great PR. You are able to talk to customers.

“It is really different when you go somewhere and queue up for food at a trailer and the person who serves you milks the cows that make the cheese. It really does resonate with people,” says Mr Harrison.

Rob Bookam in the Cheese-on-Toast trailer, with some Sussex Charmer cheeses

Rob Bookam ©Alexandra Joseph

Supply

They produce a range of Sussex Charmer cheese sizes from 100g snack packs to 1kg blocks, which retail at between £1.89 and £14.

As well as supplying a plethora of farm shops, delis, co-operatives and the catering trade, Sussex Charmer can also be found on the shelves of 140 Sainsbury’s stores and it has more recently whet the appetite of food scouts at Waitrose.

Although it is easy to get swept up in the prestige of supplying a large supermarket, Mr Harrison says you can’t neglect the basic business principles.

“When we got our first supermarket contract we thought we had made it. However, the reality is that we have other independent customers that sell twice the volume. The key is about balance.

“It is easy to be flattered by those deals and we could have sold our souls to get them. But if you are going to make a living you have to say: ‘This is where it is, that’s our price’,” he advises.

Future

Not satisfied with standing still, last April the duo opened a coffee shop on the farm. Unsurprisingly, it is fast building a reputation for its cheese on toast.

“Last week we had a couple that drove all the way from Bath because they woke up and really fancied some Sussex Charmers cheese on toast,” laughs Mr Bookham.

Their future goals are to continue to grow cheese sales by 20% year on year and double coffee shop footfall.

“We are increasing the herd size very gently and we have the capacity for another 50-100 cows within the existing facility.”

The Sussex Charmer cheese-on-toast trailer is also growing in popularity and will be making its way to the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time this year.

Mr Bookham adds: “Exhibitions increase our exposure. We have a good story to tell that people can relate to and everyone appreciates great food.”