Interview With a Cheese Shop Owner
When cheese lover Fiona Kay left the teaching profession (because her voice went) she looked for a new challenge. Margaret Paxton of ILoveCheese visited Fiona to discover what which direction she took.
"I'd always wanted my own business, so, after doing the market research and looking around the area, I decided cheese was what I wanted to get into. Supermarkets seemed to offer really nice cheeses at Christmas but the rest of the time..."
Quality and range were Fiona's main criteria for starting her successful specialist cheese shop in Lewes, two years ago. The number of cheeses and cheese-related products in stock has grown considerably since then and includes a range of hand-made breads from an award-winning bakery in Rye.
The Cheese Experience"All the time I'm looking for quality products with a really good flavour. I'm not going for the cheapest; I'm going for flavours and quality. If customers want to try before they buy, that's perfect - people are encouraged to taste cheeses in here! We want them to leave the shop happy and come back again. We take pride in what we do and want people to enjoy shopping for cheese."
It is this very personal shopping experience - combined with Fiona's specialist knowledge and genuine enthusiasm - that encourages cheese lovers to drop in at 'Cheese Please'.
Whether people visit Fiona's shop to discover and talk about new tastes and textures, exciting pairings of flavours (goat's cheese and figs and now even honey with blue cheeses and figs) or simply to buy a piece of their favourite local cheese, they all share in a positive shopping experience. A rapport is built.
Sourcing CheesesCow, sheep, goat and even buffalo cheeses are sourced for the shop, both locally and from elsewhere in the UK.
"We've got between twenty five and thirty local cheeses in stock. We have a good relationship with the local cheese-makers and different cheeses are coming in all the time. I'd love a bigger counter in here to accommodate more cheeses!"
Local dairies send tasters of new cheeses for Fiona to taste, including a new combination of cheddar and a parmesan-type product, called Sussex Charmer. Fiona's customers were among the first to try this innovative variation; which became an award winner in 2008.
All cheeses that Fiona sells must be traceable. "I am very careful about where I get my cheeses from, going through registered places only to get it. If there should ever be a problem with any of my cheeses, I can contact the farm that supplied it and they, in turn, can trace the milk batch it was made from."
This traceability pattern also helps to create trust and continuity between dairy farm and cheese shop.
Friendly AdviceA customer walks into the shop and asks if they have any Edam. Fiona explains that they do not stock any:
"But what we have got, that you might find a little bit nicer if you'd like to try it, is a Sussex Crumble. It is also slightly bubbly but has a great texture and flavour. You'll experience not just that instant first flavour on the tongue, but second and after flavours with this."
United Kingdom Cheese Guilds and Guild of Fine Food RetailersThere are regular courses available for the cheese enthusiast that can lead to a Diploma in Cheese. Bob and Linda Farrant set up these courses and are both: "...absolutely cheese nuts, so enthusiastic, gave me a lot of pointers and support when I started".
Fiona has been one of the judges in the World Cheese Awards every year since doing her Cheese Diploma. It is a fantastic opportunity to sample so many different cheeses and be involved in selecting the treasured Gold, Silver and Bronze awards, in the company of other like-minded people.
Lactose Intolerant CheesesAll the yellow and blue-labelled cheeses in Fiona's shop are either goat or sheep milk cheeses. Many people don't realise there is any lactose-free cheese available, but Fiona provides a variety of choice for those unable to eat cows' milk produce. Buffalo cheese is another of the lactose-free options.
On every visit to Lewes, I leave the cheese shop with something new; Black Bombers, Montgomery, Old Sussex, Mayfield Swiss, Cote Hill Blue, Ashdown Forester Smoked, Sussex Scrumpy, Lincolnshire Poacher...Well, it would be churlish not to, wouldn't it?