Successful cheesemaker Mandy Reed tells Sharon Griffiths how she overcame personal tragedy to hold on to the family business.

TWO years ago Mandy and David Reed were riding high. Starting from nothing, they had built up the hugely successful Swaledale Cheese Company, rescued the traditional cheese from extinction, won great respect in the industry and countless awards. They were about to take a big step into the next stage of their flourishing business.

Then David died unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 46.

Loading article content

If Mandy - in a state of shock and with two teenage children to look after - had given up and walked away from it all, no one would have blamed her. It would have been all too understandable.

Instead, Swaledale Cheese continues to go from strength to strength and Mandy has just been honoured with yet another top prize at the British Cheese Awards - this time the David Reed Award, given in memory of her husband.

"I had no idea. When I went up on stage I just burst into tears and then everyone gave me a standing ovation. It was all very emotional." So emotional, in fact, that a bit of her speech had to be bleeped out.

It has not, of course, been easy. Mandy is the first to say that without the support of her staff and of other businesses on the trading estate in Richmond, she could never have done it.

"David and I were two weeks away from exchanging contracts on a farm where we going to have a visitor centre and pets' corner, all sorts of things. It had taken us months of work to get to that stage. But when David died I knew I couldn't go through with it. I would have been so alone.

"And then I couldn't bring myself to leave here, where David and I had worked together."

After those early days - "The staff told me just to go home, they'd look after everything, and they did. They were wonderful." - Mandy threw herself into the business.

"I know I can be bloody-minded when I want to be and I just worked and worked. I channelled everything into work."

That included embarking on a major expansion programme. "It was mad. We carried on working while the building work was done. We would come in at four in the morning, scrub everything down and make cheese before the builders came in. We were due a major audit - the first I'd ever done on my own because David always looked after that side of things - and I was determined to get everything finished before then."

Inspired by Mandy, builders and cheesemakers rose to the challenge. "And I spent my time buying everyone cream cakes to cheer them up," says Mandy.

The work was completed on time , they flew through the audit. "And it was then that David's death really hit me, I suppose. I had time to grieve. Work had been a way of avoiding it."

However, there was still plenty of work to be done, not least taking on David's role in the business as well. But she was never one to give up.

"I was definitely thrown in at the deep end and there was many a time when I sat and thought 'What have I done?'"

When she and David started the business it had been simple. David, a chef from South Shields, was made redundant from the Black Bull in Moulton, near Richmond, in the same week that Mandy - a former tele sales executive from Sussex - gave birth to their first baby, Louise.

At the same time, Marjorie Longstaff, a farmer's wife from Harkerside near Reeth, one of the last to make Swaledale cheese in the traditional way, probably going back to the 11th Century - decided she wanted to retire. Without her, the cheese would die out and be lost for ever. The Black Bull had sold a lot of her Swaledale cheese. David knew it and liked it and knew other people did too. Maybe he could make it. So, with nothing to lose, David and Mandy and the baby went to see Marjorie who was generous with her help and advice. And they started making Swaledale cheese in buckets in their conservatory. And never looked back.

"That was 20 years ago. You'd never be allowed to do anything like that now," says Mandy, laughing.

"These days I spend very little of my time making cheese. Instead, I spend all the time on form filling, dealing with rules and regulations and officialdom. You wouldn't believe some of the rules. When any cheesemakers get together the first thing they talk about is the paperwork, the logistics."

One of the many special things about Swaledale cheese is, apart from in Waitrose, you won't find it in any supermarket. And it's not because the supermarkets don't want it. They are regularly pleading with Mandy to supply them, but she won't. And she is adamant.

"We sell through private shops and farmers' markets. It's proper shopping. I couldn't believe it when I moved up here and saw people going round town with shopping baskets instead of just dashing in and out of Tesco. It's how it's meant to be, it's part of England to me and I don't want to do anything that will change that. And once producers get drawn in to the supermarkets you lose control of your own product. It's not yours any more."

It would, actually, be a very brave supermarket that tried to tell Mandy what to do.

"Yes, our business has grown in the last 20 years, but it's grown at its own rate. We're really still a cottage industry. You can't rush the cheese. If you try to, you just lose it. You have to do things gradually, steadily."

Swaledale cheese is unique. There is only one recipe and only one maker. It also has Protected Destination of Origin status, meaning it can only be made in the dale - a status which Wensleydale cheese is currently battling for .

"When we started out I think we were very lucky with our timing," says Mandy, "There was a new interest in proper traditional food made in the traditional way and in cheese especially. But it was also before a whole lot more cheesemakers started, so we were there first and did very well."

When David was alive, he was very much the front man of the business. "Even though we'd done everything together, ran the business equally, people still turned to him. Now they've got to speak to me. And, yes, it is quite nice to have that recognition after 20 years."

Never one to duck out of a challenge, back in the early days Mandy used to deliver the cheese - putting baby Louise in her carrycot in the back of a van, packed in with cheeses and then rattling off to London. It clearly influenced the small baby, as just before her father died, Louise had already started working in the company. Younger brother Sam joined them this summer.

"That was really important. For David and me it was a family business. We always wanted to pass it on to the kids and if they hadn't been interested I think I might not have seen any point in carrying on. They've grown up with the business and it's great to have them here. It's very much a family business and that's how I've always wanted it."

There are problems in the industry, of course, not least the rising price of milk and the dwindling number of suppliers. Mandy's reputation in the cheese industry means she is in great demand, especially from other makers wanting the PDO recognition and also to publicise British cheeses abroad. There's been a flurry of television appearances. Swaledale Cheese is a huge success story and more than ever, people want to know about it.

Since David's death, Swaledale Cheese has moved on. Mandy's life is changing too. "But there's not a day, not an hour, probably hardly a minute when I don't think about David."

Dominating the wall of her office is a huge photograph of David testing cheese and grinning happily. If he's sitting up in heaven with Marjorie Longstaff, you can be sure that they both approve of what they see.

Swaledale Cheese is doing just fine.