An interview with Mike Smales: farmer and maker of Old Winchester cheese
Tell us briefly about your business and your career.
We have been milking cows here (starting with just 3!) since 1952, on the tenancy farm we obtained. The farm has now seen four generations working there, with my current eldest Jono now running the farm. Currently we have about 170 Holstein Friesians. As well as that, we grow vegetables – with about 100 acres of organic summer veg, and in the autumn we grow about 30 acres of Halloween pumpkin.
Fifteen years ago we started to make a bit of cheese, in a very small way, and it has evolved into about 1.5 tons a week.
So what made you start making cheese 15 years ago?
We made the decision, in 1999, as a means of adding value to our cows’ milk. The writing had been on the wall for some time: supermarkets were becoming more and more powerful, we were finding them virtually impossible to work with, and so we needed to prevent us becoming too reliant on them. Hence cheese making … and soon old Winchester cheese would follow.
Why the name Winchester?
When we came to name the cheese we originally chose ‘Lyburn’, that being the name of our farm. At the same time I was involved with Hampshire County Council in setting up Hampshire Farmers Markets, which covered a number of venues in Hampshire, the principal one being Winchester. When we aged the cheese, the choice for naming became obvious, and so Winchester cheese was born. Then, when we aged the cheese to 18 months we added the ‘Old’.
What is your philosophy for your food/business?
For small producers to survive in the market place as it is, they have to have their own unique selling point and branding, and the product has to live up to its reputation. Nothing else will do, and having done that, the product has to be consistent.
Describe a typical working day.
No two days are the same; I can be all over the place during the week with lots going on around the farm, from milking to veg, to making Old Winchester. You find me running the pasteuriser, or driving the lorry or tractor, but not milking the cows [Andy’s note – Mike’s son Jono does that side!] I also deliver cheese locally on Friday, and do a Hampshire Farmers Market on a Sunday.
What’s the best part of your job? And do you have a favourite memory from work?
Clearly the best part of my job is our customers: we have in the region of 400 customers, from the smallest village shop in Sparsholt to the biggest cruise line in the world. They are all different… Some customers we have served for 15 years at Farmers Market – they have almost become family. There are plenty of stories, and not all can be told, but working behind the counter in Harrods for a week ten years ago, now that was a story!
When you are at home what is your staple dish for the family?
Sorry, I don’t cook – we would all starve if I had to cook! [Andy’s note – we once asked all our cheese-makers to come up with a recipe using their cheese: all of them gave detailed recipes on their favourite way to cook with their cheese, except one… Mike submitted … an Old Winchester Sandwich!]
What is your favourite place to eat (if you are not eating at home!)?
We are truly spoilt for choice with places to eat where we live, and we choose different places at different times of the year: if it is a hot summer’s evening in July, it might be the cliff top at Pebble Beach, Barton on Sea. If it is a cold winter’s evening, and you need log fires and 15th century atmosphere, it might be Chesil Rectory, Winchester.
Do you have any other hidden foodie gems you think are worth people knowing about – shops, producers or otherwise?
We have been so lucky to have had Hampshire Farmers Markets and Winchester, not only has it just given us cash flow in the early days, but a great sounding board, and the market is full of foodie gems, too many to pick a favourite.
Do you have a favourite cheese at the moment? If so, why is it your favourite?
Barkham Blue from Two Hoots has to be on the list: not too much salt, beautifully smooth.
Where do you look for inspiration in your business?
Inspiration comes from many places, from the ‘will to survive’ in a very difficult market, individuals that you work with, and business friends who operate in different parts of the market place, to the customers that wax lyrical about your cheese….
What couldn’t you live without?
The world’s most important invention was the telephone, not the mobile, but the landline. It works all the time, and when you live in the country you can connect with the rest of the world. The mobile phone is the only thing I pay for on a monthly basis, and I know full well it will have no connection, most of the time!!
What is the best success you’ve had with your product?
Old Winchester was reserve champion at the The Bath and West Show some years ago, and was on the top table at the World Cheese Awards in 2014.
What are your plans for the future?
With milk having been designated by the supermarkets as effectively a throwaway product, it is important to retain our focus, and keep making Old Winchester cheese, consolidate and strengthen our position in the market. Having installed a bigger cheese vat a year ago, we can see more cheese coming forward in September. Your guess is as good as mine as to where we will be in 5 years time!
Read more of Mike Smales’s monthly seasonal notes from the farm, and rants on the food industry, at the Lyburn Farm website news page: http://www.lyburnfarm.co.uk/cheese2/2013-2015.htm