John McKenna meets Mike Thompson, an iconic artisan making Northern Ireland's first raw milk blue cheese.
A Right Young Buck
Remember the date: November 26th, 2013.
That was the date when Mike Thomson made his first Young Buck cheese, in a wee room in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Newtownards, in County Down.
Young Buck is iconoclastic, for it is a raw milk blue cheese. No one in Northern Ireland has ever done this before, which is what makes the date of the start of production of the first cheese so significant.
To put the significance of a young Northern Irish guy making a blue-veined raw milk cheese into context, you have to remember that, not so long ago, all Northern Irish dairy farmers were required to sell their milk to the Milk Marketing Board. As a consequence dairy products were mass-market, pasteurised, factory productions, as far away from one-man-and-his-rennet as you could get.
Whilst there were occasional attempts at artisan cheesemaking through the years – does anyone recall the fine Boley Hill cheddar, made by John and Elizabeth Magowan in County Armagh in the late 1980's, a ground-breaking raw milk cheese? Or the Caora and Drumiller sheep's milk cheeses made by the McBride family in Dromore? – no one managed to sustain artisan cheese production and the best-known Northern cheese brand, Fivemiletown Creamery, is today owned by the Dale Farm dairy conglomerate.
And yet, despite the almost total absence of any encouraging precedent, Mr Thomson simply walked into this vacuum, with his skill and his determination, and produced what is probably the most significant artisan food in the history of Northern Ireland.
He got bitten with the cheese bug when working at the priceless Arcadia deli, at the top of Belfast's Lisburn Road, and began to write a cheese blog. From there, there were studies at the School of Artisan Food at the Welbeck estate in the U.K. He worked with Randolph Hodgson at Neal's Yard and with the legendary Montgomery family, before a stint making raw milk Leicester cheese at Sparkenhoe Farm.
Right from the start, Mr Thomson was focused on raw milk – any new cheese needed a lot of USPs, he reckoned – but his obstacle was to come not from the health authorities, but from the fact that no bank would lend him any money to start. He turned to crowdfunding and raised £80k in three weeks to get Young Buck started. By March 1st 2014 he had sold his first cheese in Arcadia, and there was a silver medal at the Irish Cheese Awards soon after.
Young Buck has bucked the trend in many ways, but where it plays with a straight bat is in being fulsomely delicious. The real surprise is that Mr Thomson is such a skilled blue cheese maker, for the craft is particularly demanding, especially when you work with raw milk. But that very first bite you get will turn you into an acolyte – we had our first taste at Sheridan's Food Fest in May and it was immediately obvious that Young Buck was out-of-the-box, very complete and total in both taste and texture.
“I always had the template for the cheese in my head”, Mr Thomson says, and he is a splendid advocate for his cheese, full of enthusiasm, confidence and energy. Young Buck is radical, and here is a cheesemaker to match the best and the brightest in Irish food. Read other articles in Megabites...