Andrew Kay heads inland to find out more about the cheese at High Weald Dairy
When I first moved to Brighton 22 years ago, my biggest disappointment was the food shopping. Brighton had very few great food outlets and apart from a good out-of-town farm shop very little local produce. I was lucky enough to be commuting back then so I would pile back on the train with bags of groceries. How things have changed. Now Brighton has become foodie heaven with plenty of great food retailers and lots of local produce to choose from, especially cheese. I buy most of mine from Francesca at Brampton’s in Kemp Town Village and it was there that I first tasted St Giles, which is made by the High Weald Dairy. It has become a firm favourite and so have many of their other cheeses so I decided to go out there and meet them to find out more.
High Weald Dairy is close to Haywards Heath in the heart of the Sussex Weald and I met Sarah Hardy there.
It’s very much a family business with Sarah, husband Mark and Mark’s father Guy very much in evidence seven days a week. Mark was brought up in Kenya where his father Guy farmed a huge estate of mainly maize. When Mark returned to England he went to school and then to agricultural college in Cirencester. It was there that he became interested in cheese making and did a project on milking sheep which progressed into making sheep’s milk cheese. He went to Cyprus to learn how to make haloumi and from there the passion grew.
At their original farm they started to make sheep’s milk cheeses and their eye was pretty set on the health food market – sheep’s milk cheese is a great alternative for people who have an allergy to cow’s milk. They also made yoghurt products believing that as a small producer they would need a range of things to offer directly to retailers.
Now they make only cheese but a wide range using organic sheep’s milk, organic cow’s milk and now organic goat’s milk, too. And they have outgrown the original dairy and moved into the new facility which they were able to do with a grant from DEFRA.
“Mark became interested in cheese making and did a project on milking sheep which progressed into making sheep’s milk cheese”
They still make the original Duddleswell cheese which continues to be massively popular but the range is ever-expanding and developing. Sarah, who was originally a geography teacher, has now turned her back on education to work full time at the dairy and is as passionate about their cheeses as husband Mark, who she says is a workaholic. “But he denies it.”
Both seem fully committed to the business, as does father Guy, who is very much in evidence on the day of my visit. But Sarah is keen to point out that this is a team operation. “We are very lucky to have Michael Wisdom who is about 70 and has been making cheese all his life. He’s a perfectionist. We also have Colin Brinkhurst who was originally a chef and brings a very creative element to the cheeses that we make.”
So popular is the cheese that they now not only supply local food retailers but their cheese can also be found in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose and is very popular with many local chefs.
They are also about to convert the space above their cheese store into a meeting room and education unit where they can hold tastings and seminars. Sarah is also looking at doing cheese making workshops and classes, returning in a sense to her teaching background. Marketing is also starting to become an online factor. Their website offers a variety of products from whole cheeses and cheese wedding ‘cakes’, to gift packs that come in two sizes or can be created in a bespoke manner. They make ideal gifts for foodie friends or as a marketing idea. Visitors are also welcome to come to the dairy, ideally on Thursdays and Fridays, and they have just held an open day for the whole family with a huge range of farm and nature events as well as their great cheeses.
And the cheese are great. The walls of the corridor are covered in certificates saying so, bronze, silver and gold awards, a catalogue of success that they are very modest about. I ask about receiving the title for best British cheese and Sarah almost blushes. She needn’t have – they certainly deserve the accolade.
High Weald Dairy,? Tremaines Farm, Lewes Road, Haywards Heath, RH17 7EA, 01825 791636, www.highwealddairy.co.uk