Meet Mike Thomson, owner of Mike’s Fancy Cheese. Chances are, if you haven’t already tried his cheese, you’ll have heard about it. And if you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out. ‘Young Buck’, Mike’s raw milk blue cheese has built a cult following among artisans and enthusiasts, popping up on the menus of Michelin-starred restaurants and on the cheese counters of top delis. We spoke to Mike about what pushed him from cheese lover to cheesemaker, Queen Medb’s unfortunate death by cheese, and the looming of that awkward second album…
What inspired you to start making cheese?
I'm an accidental cheesemaker and monger. I fell into a job at a deli, Arcadia, on the Lisburn Road, after dropping out of uni. That's were my interest in cheese started. The idea that there was a person behind each cheese really appealed to me. At that stage all I knew was supermarket cheddar, but to see all the different types and hear the stories of how people started piqued my interest. Around that time, I came across a new course in Nottinghamshire in a place called the school of artisan food - it was about retraining people in all these lost crafts like cheesemaking, breadmaking, brewing etc, and that was the start of the journey really.
You've created the first raw milk blue cheese in Northern Ireland - what is it about raw milk cheese in particular that appeals to you?
I just like the simplicity and honesty of it. You have all the bacteria you need in the milk, so it’s just making sure the raw ingredient is of a high quality, and that we handle it correctly and you can make this amazing product. Being a cheesemaker is pretty much lining all these dominoes up and letting them fall, we have some control as to what the cheese will be like, but as regular Young Buck eaters find out, it is constantly changing throughout the season, and as we continuously tweak it.
You describe Young Buck as having 'just a touch of Northern Ireland' to it - is locality an important aspect of your business?
Defo, I was offered the chance to start my own business making cheese in England but coming back to NI was part of what I wanted to do. Cheesemaking in Ireland goes back to 1000s of years ago and features in loads of old Irish mythology - Queen Medb, was killed by a slingshot of cheese, so it’s cool to be part of the revival of that. Plus, Northern Ireland should be a mecca for new small businesses, it’s so cheap to live here that the pressures of starting a business and making lots of money quickly are less, so your business/product has time to figure out what it’s at - at least that’s what I found!
How has this year been for you and have you learned any lessons through it all?
This year has been a bit mad, but we have been extremely fortunate that it hasn’t hit us too badly. We made more cheese than we have ever made in the first few months of the year so the timing wasn’t ideal, but we moved online and did deliveries, and it’s been really rewarding to see so many new customers come out and support us. We have always been a very slow-moving business, and never have done much marketing, instead relaying on word of mouth for people finding us tucked away in the back end of town! I always joked that the shop was us Brexit-proofing ourselves, with the more cheese sold in Belfast, the less we need to stress about exports, and we have found out there is a hunger and passion for local food here.
And personally, how have you coped with lockdown? Any music or book recommendations?
Again, fortunately not much changed for me. I was able to keep busy making and selling cheese and have an energetic basset hound, so I probably have less time than I did pre-lockdown! We have been running virtual beer and cheese nights and after, when I usually end up a bit tipsy, I have been known to post lots of old footage of Joe Dolan, so he's been my soundtrack to lockdown! I love to keep learning about cheese and there was a great book by Ned Palmer, ‘A Cheesemongers Guide to the British Isles’, that I have been working my way through!
Lastly, have you any exciting plans for the future?
We are just about to launch a proper website for selling through, and in new year we will be set up for posting cheese all over the place!
Apart from that, cheesemaking is all about doing the same thing, over and over! Everyone always asks us about our next cheese, but our unit in Ards is tiny so probably no different cheese anytime soon – it’s that awkward 2nd album!
Thanks to Mike for sitting down to chat with us, and if you’d like to buy Mike’s Fancy Cheese, visit his shop on Little Donegal Street or shop online at mikes-fancy-cheese.myshopify.com