Transcribing our oral history recordings has had to take a back seat for a month or two while we have been producing the Dairy Days Exhibition but we’re happy to be able to get back to it and finish off the final ones now.
We were delighted that Iona Hill agreed to be interviewed for the project as she runs a long-established artisan cheese-making business right in the heart of Hawes called Ribblesdale Cheese. Stuart Barron interviewed her at her unit on Bruntacres industrial estate earlier this year.
Ribblesdale Cheese was founded by Iona’s uncle Iain Hill. He sounds like he was an interesting character, she refers to some hush hush post-war work for the army and a varied career as an engineer and department store manager. He clearly took some time to find his calling. Eventually he took redundancy from the department store he was working at and ended up buying a run-down farm up in Ribblesdale with not much idea of what he might do there. In despair, his mother, who was living with him at the time, gave him some money and told him to go off and do something useful with it. He returned with two nanny goats which he named Victoria and Maud, after his mother Victoria Maud Hill – she was apparently not amused.
Iain was not deterred. It turned out that both goats were in kid and soon after, his flock had increased by four kids. Fate then took another hand through a conversation Iain had with his vet about using up the excess milk produced by the goats. He suggested cheese-making and everything started from there as Iona describes in the following audio clip. :
Soon he was producing delicious goat’s cheese from his Ribblesdale farmhouse. But as Iona describes, getting people to eat it was a different matter:
“… back in the late 70s early 80s, people really didn’t know much about goat’s cheese. You know, the Dales has a tradition of, well, sheep farming and then some cows as you get further up dale where the weather is better and it’s not so high up, but there’s not really a history of having goats around, so it tied in with the whole idea that goat’s cheese was really quite a different concept. I think, back then most people’s memories, recollections of goat’s cheese was going on holiday to places like France and having this incredibly smelly piece of cheese put on their plate at meal times. Goat’s cheese has moved on tremendously from that. It’s a very different thing, different commodity these days, but back then it was a very new idea to make goat’s cheese. The fact that he was making goat’s cheese here in this house in a home-made vat I think is fantastic, my hat goes off to him, it really, really does.”
Iona Hill, ‘Ribblesdale Cheese’, Hawes
Nevertheless, the business seemed to thrive and Iona has kept some of his publicity materials like this poster on the cheese-making process. It’s interesting that Chris Hill is credited with evolving the original goat’s cheese recipe they used.
We have been given a set of typed cheese-making recipes collected by Chris and Iain. The introduction reads as follows:
“Most cheese are now produced in commercial creameries, using sophisticated equipment and technology, but there is still considerable interest in the traditional recipes and methods of farm-scale manufacture. The preservation of these recipes and the acknowledgement of the patience and skill which led to their establishment in the object of this collection. In the first half of this century, dairy students at Farm Schools and Institutes used these recipes and in the early 1960s some were demonstrated at the Royal Dairy Show and the Bath and West Show. Much of the equipment described is unobtainable in its original form but there are available alternative materials and utensils, which can be suitably adapted…”
Chris & Iain Hill (1983 unpublished) ‘Country Cheese Recipes’. Courtesy of Ian Millward
Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to include Chris’ goat’s cheese recipe!
After a few years Iain’s health began to decline. Arthritis meant that he could no longer manage the physical labour involved in hand-making cheese so he began to have it made at dairies elsewhere, for a short while at the Wensleydale Creamery, but also in dairies as far away as Cornwall. The 100 strong goat herd was retired.
In the meantime, Iona was pursuing a career in London and abroad as a chartered accountant. She was in contact with her uncle though.
” I have quite a business background, and to be honest with you…let’s be honest with you, I knew nothing about cheese. Absolutely nothing. My uncle would from time to time he’d send me these huge very mysterious chunks of cheese wrap packed in large plastic bags which were always a complete mystery to me and I always received them very gratefully of course, but I couldn’t tell you much about them!”
By 2006, Iain had decided that he could no longer run the business so he asked Iona to come up and value it for him with a view to selling it, which she did. Sadly, within three week he was dead. Iona then had the opportunity to take over the business as no-one else in the family was interested. She describes finding herself at a crossroads in her life, feeling the need to put down roots and loving the Yorkshire Dales (except for the snow!).
So she bought her uncle’s farmhouse and started a new career as an artisan cheese-maker from scratch.
“When I took on the business from that point, I thought two things. We either have to have our own milk supply, so we either have to have goats or we become cheese-makers ourselves and I couldn’t envisage doing the two at the same time, so I thought, I know less about goats, let’s learn to be cheese-makers, let’s find a source of milk and we need larger premises. And it just so happened, we’re sitting here right now, that we found these premises in Hawes, it’s a light industrial unit which I know doesn’t sound terribly romantic and farm-like. People often said ‘can we come and see your farm!’ Hmmm, ‘of course you can’ [laughing] ‘it’s on an industrial estate’ [laughing].”
Taking on a business just as the economic recession was about to bite may not have been the most sensible move as Iona describes in this audio clip:
Nevertheless, she signed up for a course and worked with a Lancashire cheese-maker for a while to gain experience; sourced some second-hand equipment and then simply had to plunge straight in. She recalls that her first three batches of cheese were pretty bad, but each one taught her something about the process.
“One reason was it wasn’t pressed for long enough, another reason was that the renneting wasn’t done at the correct temperatures, but my goodness, these are massive, massive things that you learn very quickly. Once you learn your mistakes like that you don’t do them again, then you start to refine and hone your skills. I think when you’re making a new cheese, because I love making new cheeses now, this is twelve years down the line really, I love making the new cheeses and I don’t expect it all to work out straight away. It’s good if it doesn’t, because if you make mistakes when you are making new cheese you can work out why it isn’t the way you wanted it. So then you identify what happened to make it not the way you wanted it to be and then the next time you make it you eliminate that stuff or you make sure that doesn’t happen. So in lots of ways I think it’s good if you make mistakes, because you take those out, you look at what they are, you don’t do it again.”
Although Iain’s original business wasn’t in very good shape financially, he had built up a good network of customers which Iona took on and has continued to grow. They now mostly sell to wholesalers, the length and breadth of the country, although you can still find a couple of their products on sale at Elijah Allen’s up the road in Hawes.
Iona continues to develop new cheeses, often at the request of customers, like her popular and prize-winning goat curd product.
They source their milk from local farmers as much as possible. Their goat’s milk comes from a farmer near Skipton who keeps his animals in exceptionally good conditions.
“So we have a single source of milk and it’s quite important to know that you’re getting your milk from one source, so we have had this arrangement with the goat farm near Skipton for, gosh, about six years or so, which is fantastic, really pleased, because a consistent supply of milk, if we didn’t have milk, we wouldn’t have a business, it’s as simple as that.”
Making a living from such a small production unit was never going to be easy and nowadays they face pricing pressure and competition from supermarkets with all the consequent downgrading of quality and lack of public appreciation that entails.
“I bought some Manchego from Aldi, I thought it was excellent. I’ve now started to make our own goat version of a Manchego, and I want to be as good as that one, it’s a very good cheese…so you’ve got relative newcomers like Aldi and Lidl who are selling very good quality cheese, you have the supermarkets [Tesco or Asda] who are selling cheese increasingly cheap and cheerful. If you’re educating the public that this is good quality, it’s a bit sad, because, quite often, it’s not. Look at Stilton, beautiful cheese. Was it called the King of Cheeses? And now you can buy Stilton in a supermarket for £7.50 a kilo. That’s devalued the whole idea of Stilton so much, it’s very sad. So you have these external pressures, all to do with cost and how much the public I think expect to pay for your cheese.”
Goat’s milk cheese still makes up the majority of their production but they also use sheep’s milk and make a raw cow’s milk Wensleydale with all the attendant issues surrounding the use of unpasteurized milk as Iona describes in the following audio clip:
She ends her interview discussing cheese-making in Britain more widely and the desperate need to pay producers of raw materials like milk a living wage for their products.
“If we want to make decent quality products with a really good quality raw material like milk, we need to pay them for it. And we do [laughs], we know that we do, but that’s not the case with the large processors, because again, they’re driven by the public, they’re driven by the supermarkets who want everything cheap.”
She recognises how tough the market will continue to be for small artisan producers but she ends on an optimistic note, proud that she’s managed to grow the business her uncle started, and hopeful that it will continue on well into the future.
“For us, and people of our size and our nature, I think there’s always going to be a market for people who will seek out good quality and can afford it.”