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Guernsey is famous around the world for its Golden Guernsey cows and their incredible milk. Fenella Maddison is an award-winning Guernsey cheesemaker who uses this amazing local product to craft a small range of young blue and white cheeses from her cheese room on the island’s west coast. Torteval Cheese can be found on many menus across Guernsey and in several local shops, with Fenella also attending some markets and food festival events to sell her cheese direct. As her original Fort Grey is an ever-popular choice on the Bella’s cheeseboard, we thought it high time we share Fenella’s story.
What prompted you to get into making cheese?
Having been a nurse for 25 years I was looking for self-employment and a completely different occupation. Being really interested in food, I watched Rick Stein’s Food Heroes series and the idea of a food business developed. The only idea that stuck was cheesemaking, especially as we’d just moved to Guernsey, which has arguably the best milk in the world, and no one apart from the Guernsey Dairy was making cheese from the milk .
Perversely I started with goats’ milk but the supply vanished and I changed to a blue cheese made from cows‘ milk. There already is a very good goats’ cheese made on the island but there was no blue cheese at all - the spores from blue cheese can spread to all dairy products so I knew the Dairy would not be a rival!
How has Torteval Cheese developed over the last eleven years?
There have been several changes over the last 11 years, the main being that I no longer make any goats cheese, and I now make two other cheeses in addition to the original Fort Grey.
I used to attend markets but found that the time is better spent limiting that to occasional special events, as I’m better employed actually making the stuff! In the beginning I would deliver to restaurants, but now I have the local distributor Cimandis to do it for me. That works very well. Three shops in (or near) town sell the cheese, as well as the stores in Forest, next to the airport .
I close the cheese room at the beginning of every year, as January and February are very quiet; everyone is still on their diets!
What are the differences between commercially shop-brought cheese and your products?
Every batch differs slightly and each one is priced separately, as the curds are poured by hand and all end up as different sizes. Sometimes the rind differs from barely-blue to very blue (on the Fort Grey) and you wouldn’t get that in a commercial cheese. Some ripen more quickly than others, which can be a pain but I tend to always sell the softer ones first.
The other difference is that you can buy a perfectly tasty commercial cheese for a 1/4 if the price of mine – I’m honestly not being greedy though, it’s purely down to economies of scale!
Can you tell us a bit about how you make your cheeses?
I fetch the milk in my car from the Guernsey Dairy, which is supplied in 13.6 litre boxes. It’s a round trip of 11 miles. On average I will have around 170 litres. It goes into a long rectangular vat (found in Alderney!) and the milk is gradually heated. Commercially produced cultures are added to acidify the milk in a controlled way - the old way of doing it was to leave the milk to go sour. The cultures also add to the taste. I then add a sprinkling of blue mould if I’m making Fort Grey.
Next, vegetarian rennet is added to ‘set’ the milk into a finished curd. This is cut into squares and eventually poured into moulds. The next day the moulds are removed and the cheese is salted by hand. Later it goes into a ripening fridge for three weeks, during which time it is turned every three days as well as other small processes. The cheese is sold at 4 weeks old, and has a life of 8 weeks from the date of production. The white cheeses - Lihou and Hanois - are white on the inside but bluish on the outside.
You’ve mentioned before that cheese making is a solitary affair, but you clearly enjoy it. What’s your favourite part of the process, and why?
I love working on my own but if I had nothing to listen to, it really wouldn’t be as good - Radio 4 and favourite music are the order of the day. I get my social interactions when I deliver to the customers!
Place is clearly important to you (Torteval being a parish in the south west of Guernsey and your two cheeses being named after West Coast landmarks). Can you tell us a bit about the little part of Guernsey that inspires you, and where you make your cheese?
We are lucky enough to live in a very beautiful pat of the island and the cheeses are named after local landmarks. One of them, Lihou Island, I can see from my house. Fort Grey is a Napoleonic defence ten minutes walk away, and Hanois is named after the lighthouse.
I make the cheese in my converted garage attached to the house. I have no commute to get to work, and during the waiting periods in the cheese making process I can leave the room and get on with domestic tasks. It’s ideal!
What’s your favourite cheese from your range, and how do you like to enjoy it?
I’m not sure which of my cheeses I prefer - being so close to them for so long makes me unable to taste them objectively! The blue, Fort Grey, is the best seller.
You can find Fenella's Fort Grey blue cheese on the cheeseboard at the Bella, or if you're lucky you might be able to pick up a round if you spot her at one of Guernsey's food markets.