Meet the makers: Jonathan and Allison Raper launched Teesdale Cheesemakers from their utility room and garage... and were soon winning awards

THEY’RE quick learners, the Rapers. Despite knowing nothing about cheesemaking when they took over Teesdale Cheesemakers in 2016, Jonathan and Allison Raper, of Rokeby, near Barnard Castle, recently scooped a gold for their Teesdale Goat at the World Cheese Awards in London. The semi-soft ripened cheese wowed the judges at the 30th annual cheese fest, which had more than 3,000 entries from 35 different countries.

“When you make your cheese in the utility room and mature it in the garage, you don’t really expect to win anything at an international level,” says Allison. “We were blown away when we got the result. To celebrate, we’ll probably all go out for a spot of lunch. We might even order the cheese board!”

Allison’s passion and determination were also recognised when she won North-East Businesswoman of the Year for Best New Business 2017 at the WIN (Woman Into the Network) awards, and the couple have also picked up awards at the Yorkshire Show.

How come you got carried a-whey with cheese?

We were approached by the original owners of the business, Brian and Esme Dedman, who set it up in 2012 but were retiring. I had taken time out of running a charity in Stockton to write fiction and Jonathan was a management consultant – he is still doing that three days a week whilst we build up the business. As Jonathan’s family are dairy farmers nearby, we decided to take the plunge and support them too. I took a crash course in cheese-making with the Dedmans and we renamed the business Teesdale Cheesemakers.

What’s the trickiest aspect of cheese-making?

The amount of variables that have an impact on the cheese and the maturation, from what the animals are fed on, to the temperature in the dairy on production day through to the weather, humidity and temperature throughout the maturation process. They all need careful balancing.

Do you have any animals of your own?

No we leave that to the family. They've been doing it for five generations now so they know what they're doing. We buy the goats' milk from a local farmer. I'd love to find a source of sheep milk so perhaps one day, I may have some sheep… never say never. We have a core principle of paying above gate price for our milk - that's written into our strategy and is very important to us.

Are you ageing well as cheese producers?

It's been a challenge these past two years, but we have plans for expansion in the next year or two, so things will get easier (I say that every week!)

What’s next on the menu?

We have just launched our kefir (fermented milk) and I'm working on a hard dales cheese at the moment. We're at the stage where everything is experimentation. It's incredibly exciting. We seem to be naturals at cheesemaking – and it’s good to find something you are a natural at in your 50s!

Where do you sell your products?

Lots of high-end local restaurants and farm shops and delis stock our cheese. We also sell through farmers' markets and food shows and last year we launched an online shop.

Have you sold any cheese to the French yet?

Not yet. I've been told that semi soft cheese is quite difficult to export, but I'm working on it. We do have several customers who buy our cheeses and take it to friends in France. They remove the labels and ask them to guess where it's from - they can never guess and when our customers tell them, they are amazed. It's a real buzz for our customers… and us!

Have you always liked cheese?

Yes, but I wasn't this passionate. Jonathan is a cheese fiend - always has been.

Outside your own products, what is your favourite cheese and why?

For me, the Italian Dolcelatte - I love this sweet, blue cheese. Jonathan likes all cheeses, but I'd say his top cheese would be a strong hard cheese like Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire or Black Bomber.

What is your favourite cheese recipe?

A blue cheese pasta sauce - using our Teesdale Blue, of course!

What would you recommend to eat/drink with your Goat Cheese?

When it's young, it's great chapped up with beetroot and walnuts and served with a pale ale or a crisp white wine. When it's more mature, it starts to ooze and that's when I like it best - thickly spread on crusty homemade bread. Simple pleasures!