Shortly after the reel-making Brexit vote I visited London’s Victoria and Albert museum. I was chatting with the security guard whilst he checked my handbag when he suddenly asked, “are you English?” I told him I was and he commented, “we don’t see many of you around”.
A few days later I was in Yorkshire, visiting the Saltburn food festival. I’d found a fascinating-sounding cheese called, improbably, Brie de Weardale. “What’s this like, this Brie de Weardale?” I asked the stall holder. “You’re obviously not from here” came the response (I come from the south of England), “and you’re going to have to learn how to pronounce this cheese properly – it’s ‘wee-er-del’, not ‘ware-dayle’”. I had a few (hilarious) attempts at following his instructions (a crowd had formed) before he took pity, saying resignedly, “oh well, near enough”.
“And the answer to your question” he continued, “is that it’s a brie-like cheese, but with a stronger taste than most French bries”.
He introduced himself as Simon Raine, the maker of Weardale cheeses.
I asked him how he had come to set up his cheesery, launched just last year, and he explained that his father had worked for the Milk Marketing Board, and he’d spent a lot of time as a child with his mother’s family on a farm, “so there was a sort of grounding there in the background”. After some twenty years commuting to “a normal job, whatever that is” he realised that his one ambition was to make cheese, and an ever more urgent internal voice was warning him “Well, crickey, if you don’t get on and do it soon it’s going to be too late if you’re not careful”.
“You can’t dabble at cheesemaking” Simon states, so he then began an intensive year or so of self-directed training, going on courses, visiting local cheesemakers, and generally immersing himself in the subject.
By luck he found Harperley prisoner of war camp which was available and had the right facilities and buildings. The restored exterior of the cabins (it’s English Heritage listed) contrasts with the modern internal stainless steel vats and fittings.
Brie de Weardale, and the two Weardale blues, Prince Bishop and St Cuthbert were developed after his first, and personal favourite, Weardale.
That was my favourite too – it’s lemony, slightly chalky – wonderful – fantastic in a ploughman’s.
“It’s my staple” explains Simon, “a hard, white, dale-type cheese, a bit like Wensleydale, Swaledale or Cotherstone. But it’s delivered the day of milking from two local herds grazing the particular local herbs and grasses growing on our local soil, it’s a natural product with a strong connection with the land and its own personality.”
Simon wraps his cheese in wax. I asked him why. “The wax coating was just an idea I had to make the individual wedges look more attractive. I’d see it done on whole rounds before by my mentor and friend Iona Hill at Ribblesdale and thought it would look good on pieces.” I also thinks it allows the cheese to breathe better once opened – cling film and plastic is to be avoided at all costs.
If you’re reading this anywhere far afield or foreign – the south of England where I come from for example – you’ll struggle to get hold of it for the next year or two. As Simon advises, “The cheeses are sold across the north-east of England in various farm shops, delis, butchers, pubs, restaurants etc and of course direct from me at food fairs, local markets, agricultural shows and the like. I have yet to expand my cheese empire too much further afield out of the north-east although I do supply a wholesaler who has sold the cheeses onto exotic locations such as Liverpool and Leeds.”