My goal is simple: “Just to make really good cheese!”
It was quite a surprise for David Jowett’s very academic school when he announced that rather than staying on for sixth form and applying for a university place, he intended to go to Stratford-upon – Avon College to learn to be a chef.
His father, a university professor and expert on the works of William Shakespeare, was even more perplexed. However David was convinced that it was the right move for him.
Brought up in a home where good food made from scratch was regularly enjoyed at the dinner table by the whole family, David had thought for a while that he would like to earn his living working with food. “Becoming a chef seemed the obvious thing,” he says. “And I was right…I did enjoy the course very much.”
To earn extra money, and for the experience, he started work part-time at a local restaurant. Then another part-time vacancy came up at the Stratford branch of cheesemonger Paxton and Whitfield. In his interview, David said he wanted to make cheese. “I don’t know why, really… but as I said it, I realised it was true. I wanted to be a cheese maker!”
For the rest of the three-year course, he worked at the restaurant and Paxton’s in his spare time, learning everything he could about cheese. On gaining their NVQ Level 3 qualifications, David’s friends from college went off to their first jobs at places such as Claridge’s and The Ritz. Meanwhile, David started a six-week unpaid internship at Ram Hall Farm in Warwickshire, making Berkswell, one of the most highly regarded hard British sheep’s milk cheeses, and helping with the evening milking.
His time at Ram Hall confirmed David’s desire to make his own cheese, and in September 2010 he became one of the first intake of students at Welbeck Estates School of Artisan Food. Here he learned cheese making as his specialist discipline, along with butchery, charcuterie and the business of being an artisan food producer. During his one-year diploma course, David undertook a further internship at Ram Hall, as well as others at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, Mons in Lyons, on the Welbeck Estate producing Stitchelton cheese and at cheesemonger Neal’s Yard Dairy.
It was at Neal’s Yard that David met his future husband, Adam, whose job was to market the cheese. The young cheese maker and cheesemonger bonded over their mutual love of cheese, and now have the perfect partnership: Adam now co-owns an independent cheese shop in Oxford, Jericho Cheese, which stocks cheese made by David.
So why become a producer rather than a chef? What attracted David, he says, is the ability to go deeply into the whole process and to influence every aspect from the start; something that can take a chef several years to reach the seniority to achieve.
Using money from an inheritance, David’s first solo venture at age 22 was to produce Jowett cheese, a pressed, alpine-style cheese made using raw single-herd cows’ milk, natural starter and animal rennet. This was produced in rented premises on the Alscot Estate, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, which David fitted out himself to create the dairy he needed. Small, lactic bloomy rind Alscot cheeses were also produced. A lot of the cheese was sold at farmers’ markets, as well as to retail and restaurant customers, including Stratford’s cheese shop, Paxton & Whitfield.
Working and running a business completely alone at such a young age took its toll, however. The solution was to move over to Gorse Hill Abbey Farm in Worcestershire, where David became Head Cheese maker, continuing to produce Jowett, as well as managing production of Gorse Hill’s own range of cheeses.
An exploratory email from Antony Curnow, farm manager of King Stone Farm, just outside Long Compton, eventually led to a business partnership between the two – and David is once again his own boss. King Stone’s mixed herd, with a large component of Brown Swiss cows, produces high quality milk with high levels of proteins and butterfat. This is used to make Rollright, a washed rind cow’s milk cheese. Clearly the experience of both partners in milk and cheese production has come into its own, with the following awards achieved in 2016:
Artisan Cheese Awards:
Supreme Champion; Best Small Producer; Best Cows’ Milk Cheese; Best New Cheese
British Cheese Awards:
Gold Medal – New Cheese Class; Silver medal – Washed Rind Class
Great British Food Awards:
Young British Foodie Awards:
Winner Honorary category
Great British Cheese Awards:
Best Soft Cheese; Best New Cheese
Rollright is stocked by retailers and wholesalers across the British Isles who specialise in high quality, artisan produce – no more standing in the wet and cold at farmers’ markets! How has the King Stone Dairy achieved this level of sales? Surely by investing some resources in PR and marketing? Not at all. David and Antony use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to promote both themselves and the business (for instance posting idyllic pictures of the cows leaping for joy when they are first let out of their winter quarters to graze the lush King Stone pastures). Entering for awards (and winning) has also clearly been a good move, with the resultant publicity – however King Stone Dairy doesn’t use the stickers announcing the award which winners are entitled to put on their produce.
“We don’t feel that the stickers are relevant, since it is impossible to guarantee that every cheese will be identical to the one that won.”
David’s tips for success
Do your market research
It’s vital to know your market and the industry really well. Know your customer base before you start production.
Do one thing and do it well
A lot of new cheese producers seem to make a variety of different cheeses at one time. It’s better to concentrate on just one and develop it until it is of the best quality, before thinking about adding more to your offer.
Taste every batch – and be honest with yourself
I always taste. I know what each of my customers wants, and what will suit their needs.
Throw away the bad stuff
For the first four months of Rollright production, we were binning 20 per cent of what we made. Gradually we reduced wastage; our target is below 5 per cent, but now we generally achieve less than 3 per cent.
Don’t rely on farmers’ markets
You’ll never make much money! Farmers’ markets are a useful extra – we used them to sell the cheese that was ok, but not of the quality required by our retail clients. I’ve always sold through national specialist and small, local independent retailers.
What about the future?
In the short term, David and Antony are fitting out a new 10m by 7m ripening facility and laying new flooring throughout the dairy. These improvements will create a better product flow, free an existing room and, according to David’s projections, double the amount of cheese produced. This will increase the financial stability of the operation.
In 2018 they intend to produce a second cheese which will be the complete opposite of Rollright.
The new cheese will be a traditional British territorial cheese; a crumbly, acidic Oxfordshire cheese made from raw milk. “There’s no point in growing and expanding just for the sake of it. We want to find peak profitability and maintain it.”
David’s aim is to continue to learn and improve, understanding the science of cheese making, collecting and mapping data in a meaningful way. In the long term, he would like to start a second business… perhaps pork production, raising whey-fed pigs. Whey is excellent for piglets and would utilise a by-product of cheese making which currently goes to waste. “I imagine a room full of rows of delicious hams…” Another possibility is a bar in an urban setting, perhaps in the Jericho area of Oxford “with a zinc bar, low lights, cool vibe…where you could get a negroni…”
David isn’t short of imagination or ideas. But for now, his goal is simple: