Scotland is producing some fine cheeses as Sue Clapham found when she met three quite different speciality cheesemakers
A DEGREE in Italian and English literature might not seem the most likely preparation for a farming life but Pam Rodway smiles cheerfully and points out that at least husband Nick was doing an agricultural course when the couple met at Edinburgh University.
What they did share was an interest in good food but Pam could hardly have imagined that one day she would not only be earning a living as a cheesemaker but also be the proud recipient of first prize in the BBC Food Programme Awards 2001 as the best Small Food Producer in Great Britain.
"As recognition for what can be done on a small scale it was great," she says at Wester Lawrenceton, the 36ha (90-acre) holding the Rodways rent from the Burgie Estate, near Forres in Morayshire.
The productivity of that acreage which supports 4000 hens, 12 Ayrshire cows, 24 goats, and several acres of organic oats and rye is evidence, Pam suggests, of alternative possibilities for land use at a time when much of the farming world is considering its future.
"We decided to make biscuits to go with the cheese using our own organic grain. By doing so we added value to each arable acre and because we found a miller and baker locally, most of the extra money generated stayed within the community."
The biscuits – a plain rye with organic butter and a sweeter rye and oat – have been much appreciated by customers who return regularly to Elgin Farmers Market for the Rodways "sweet milk" cheese.
"Its a type known as Scottish Dunlop," Pam explains. "And is called a sweet milk cheese because its made from whole milk, not skimmed. The essential oils from the plants are held best in the fats in the milk – thats how you get the flavour."
The cheese was first made in Ayrshire in the 17th century – in the parish of Dunlop, hence its name – and is similar to a cheddar though slightly softer and without the sharpness of a very mature cheddar.
"There are very few people making farmhouse Dunlop now," Pam says. "Were trying to get back to something like the traditional recipe."
The Rodways use unpasteurised cows milk for both the Dunlop, which is sold at between three and nine months maturity, and the Carola, a semi-soft cheese made to their own recipe. Among the goats milk products is a simple French-style cheese called Califer, named after the hill at the back of the farm.
The Rodways sell their cheese in specialist cheese-mongers and delicatessens throughout the country but Pam takes particular pleasure from talking to her customers at the local market.
"Many of them recall the cheese-making that used to go on at most farms and are delighted to see the old traditions being resurrected," she says. "We dont make anything were not passionate about – you use all five senses to help get it right – and its nice when the community is proud of its artisan food producers."
Customers who never tire of Dunlop
Pam and Nick Rodway not only make Dunlop cheese, they make the biscuits to serve with it from their own organic butter and grain. Inset left: Pam with a Dunlop cheese made from unpasteurised whole cows milk.
Quality first on shores of the firth…
IF a wealth of romantic stories could guarantee success then Ruaraidh Stone would have it made. As it is, he and his team at Highland Fine Cheeses at Tain, on the shores of the Dornoch Firth, prefer to concentrate on manufacturing the best possible cheeses.
"The stories are all true," he laughs. "The whole thing did start off, back in the early 60s, when my mother made too much crowdie for the family and sold the excess to the local grocer."
Ruaraidhs parents ran a herd of Dairy Shorthorns and it is the old cow byres which were converted into the modern cheesery.
"I never wanted to be a farmer," admits Inverness-born Ruaraidh, who also runs a wholesale fruit and vegetable business. "But I am interested in good, uncomplicated food, so Ive concentrated on the cheesemaking."
From those early, modest beginnings, and using milk from the surrounding Caithness farms, the company now produces a range of five rennet-free, soft cheeses as well as the prize-winning Strathdon Blue.
"The original Highland Crowdie has a pedigree going back beyond Viking times," Ruaraidh says. "Its known as gruth in the Gaelic and is reputed to offer some immunity against the effects of too much whisky."
If that doesnt work you could try the Galic, a medium fat fresh cheese, which is mixed with double cream, salt and pepper and locally picked wild garlic leaf, then rolled in toasted hazelnuts; or the Hramsa which is similar but without the nuts. Then theres the Dhu or Black Crowdie, a blend of two thirds crowdie with one third double cream, which is rolled in pinhead oatmeal and crushed black peppercorns.
Which leaves the Caboc, an unashamed piece of dietary naughtiness (fresh double cream cheese rolled in toasted pinhead oatmeal) or, as Ruaraidh puts in mischievously, "a little heart grenade". It also comes complete with its own story. First made in the 16th century, the Caboc is believed to have originated with the daughter of The Macdonald, Lord of the Isles, Mariota de Ile, a direct ancestress of Ruaraidhs mother, Susannah.
"The story goes that Mariotas grandmother hid the young girl under a cheese barrel to save her from abduction by the Campbells," Ruaraidh explains. "They succeeded in removing her from Cawdor Castle but she managed to live to a good age and went through more than one husband into the bargain!"
There is a nod to all this history in the distinctive Pictish stone-shaped blocks in which the soft cheeses are packaged but Highland Fine is creating its own legends now. The relatively new Strathdon Blue took a Gold Medal for Best Scottish Cheese at the 2000 British Cheese Awards and was described as "mellow, aromatic and very more-ish."
"Were still learning and always trying to improve," Ruaraidh says. "Keep it simple but absolutely top quality and talk, preferably face to face as much as possible, with your customers and hopefully you cant go wrong."
Ruaraidh Stone with the prize winning Strathdon Blue.
Rennet-free soft cheeses are among the varieties made by Highland Fine Cheeses.
Mild cheese from croft finds a keen demand
The coos are the real workers," Sandy Sutherland says. "I just made the cheese."
Its a typically self-deprecating remark from a man whose middle name could be resourcefulness for, along with wife Sandra and sons Graham and Stefan, Sandy has put Caithness Cheese firmly back on the map.
"It was originally produced in the old railway station at Lybster," Sandy explains, "and then, to keep up with demand, production was moved to Wick but for one reason and another the dairy closed in 1975."
Sandy and Sandra took up the challenge of making the creamy, mild cheese in the early 90s, at their croft, perched high on the cliffs overlooking Occumster Bay.
On around 28ha (70 acres) of what Sandra calls good farming land – "if you cant farm here you cant farm anywhere" – they established their small herd of Friesians and invested in the equipment necessary to bring their enterprise in line with modern requirements.
"Its a different thing to the kind of cheese, butter and crowdie making I learned to do as a kid," says Sandy. "But we aim for the same very high standards."
In fact, if things had turned out differently, Sandy might have been farming in Canada for, like many others from the area in the early part of the last century, his parents embarked on a new life in Saskatchewan.
"My mother couldnt settle so the family came back but I still have cousins out there," he says. After working as an electrician and, latterly, a fisherman, Sandy eventually returned to the family croft and began searching for ways to make a living.
"I saw people producing sheepskins on my travels and thought I could make a better job of it," he says with a grin, producing a beautifully finished sample to demonstrate the point. "We also knit tartan socks which have proved very popular."
But its the cheeses which bring a steady stream of visitors to the croft where Sandy is happy to offer tastings and talk about good food.
And while the Sutherlands wont compromise on quality, theyve been happy to incorporate new ideas.
"The local hotels and shops loved the original cheese but began asking if we had any other flavours," Sandra says.
The result was a range of small cheeses including black pepper, smoked, garlic, mustard seed, chives and caraway seed, each flavour sealed in its own distinctively coloured wax.
Now the cheeses sell throughout the UK, have been exported to America and even been requested by climbers embarking on a trip to the Himalayas.
"We work long hours but theres a lot of job satisfaction and we have our independence," Sandy says. Like most craftsmen, he wont divulge any trade secrets but hes more than happy to show off his beloved coos.
"Youll never build a fancy house with bad bricks," he smiles. "We know everything there is to know about each one of them and they come first because if it wasnt for them we wouldnt be here."
Caithness Cheese: 01593-721309
Cheese is a family affair for the Sutherlands. Below: Sandy with his beloved cows on the croft.