Taste of Dorset – Vinny, vidi, vici
A van-load of leftover cheese led to the Dorset Blue Soup Company success story, as Giles Belbin discovers
Published in December ’10
Inside a portable office in the middle of a farmyard not far from the North Dorset town of Sturminster Newton, women in hairnets, all having a well-earned tea-break and excitedly recounting their weekends, are waiting for Emily Davies, owner of the Dorset Blue Soup Company. To trace the company’s origin we have to go back nearly three decades, to when Emily’s father, Michael, decided his farm had to diversify. As she explains: ‘My father was working really hard on our dairy farm, getting up at the crack of dawn and putting a lot of effort into providing a product that at the time no-one really wanted – these were the days of butter mountains and milk lakes so he started to think about what else he could do.’
Michael had trained as a cheese maker before going into farming and so this presented a natural option for him, not least because he would be able to use the milk produced by his 200-strong herd of cows. The question was: what type of cheese? It was a difficult decision, particularly considering the farm’s relative proximity to Cheddar. After careful thought Michael opted to revive a cheese that had traditionally been made in Dorset for centuries but by the 1960s had all but died out: Dorset Blue Vinny.
‘The cheese had been a victim of the arrival of the milk marketing board,’ says Emily. ‘The farmer could suddenly command a better price for his milk and so every drop was being sold. The days of farmers making cheese from a few leftover pints of creamed milk were gone. With that, Dorset Blue Vinny was pretty much wiped out.’ Michael managed to source a recipe and started making the cheese at the family’s farm using a second-hand vat. ‘It was a ridiculous time really,’ remembers Emily, ‘I mean really exciting. We left the cheeses in my mum’s pantry to mature but when we cut them open they were blue from front to back, as was the entire pantry. Everything was covered. My father jokes that those first cheeses had a shelf life of about 0.2 seconds.’
Eventually Michael mastered the technique and Dorset Blue Vinny cheese was alive and well again. The business began to grow and Emily’s father was eventually recognised as an original Rick Stein food hero. As the family business thrived Emily started to get involved, learning the cheese making process and going out to farmers markets and shows. She soon discovered that distributors and shops were only interested in taking whole truckles, so any cheese that was cut during the markets but wasn’t sold, couldn’t then be used elsewhere.
‘I hate waste,’ continues Emily, ‘and I was getting frustrated with it. After one market I was coming home with a van-load of cheese thinking what on earth am I going to do with all of this? Then I had this completely hare-brained idea that I would try to make soup with it. On the Monday morning I went to see my godmother with all this Dorset Blue and said, “Right let’s make soup.”’
After a few trial runs Emily started taking the soup with her to markets and began to give it away, asking for feedback. ‘I asked people to be brutally honest with me because I needed to know how they really felt, not what they thought I wanted to hear. Happily most people seemed to really like it.’ With positive feedback from the general public ringing in her ears, Emily took the plunge and set up the Dorset Blue Soup Company.
‘We did four soups initially – leek and potato, celeriac, broccoli, and sweet potato and pear – all with Dorset Blue,’ says Emily, ‘and within a year we were really busy.’ Success came quickly with the company winning reserve champion at the Taste of the West Awards for their Celeriac and Blue Soup. Then came a link-up with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage.
‘Hugh had seen us at the awards and approached us about working together. In fact we were the first people he worked with commercially which, of course, was a massive boost for us,’ says Emily. ‘The first batch we did for him was nettle soup. I remember thinking things had gone a little bit mad when I realised we had over 80 kilograms of nettles in the kitchen. We were making soup until 11 o’clock that night,’ she recalls, laughing fondly at the memory.
The link with River Cottage is long standing, a fact that Emily is justly proud of; ‘Hugh is a real ambassador for small producers and is hugely passionate about good produce, so the relationship is a massive endorsement of what we do. Sometimes,’ continues Emily, ‘when things get a little tough, it helps to remind ourselves of that.’
Seasonality and buying locally is important for Emily and the company tries to adopt this ethos in everything they do. The availability of good, fresh, local ingredients determines what flavours are available at any one time. ‘We get our vegetables from Child Okeford, about eight miles away and of course the cheese comes from our farm here,’ Emily explains. ‘We are still able to satisfy our needs by using the second grade cheese that visually isn’t quite up to standard – I think we eat with our eyes too much. For me the second-grade cheese can be much tastier, which is all I am interested in.’
With seasonality in mind the company has developed a range called ‘A Bolt from the Blue’, which enables Emily to make the best use of what ingredients happen to be abundant locally. ‘Suppliers would tell us they had a glut of a certain ingredient but we were finding we weren’t able to use it because we didn’t have the right labels and packaging ready,’ explains Emily. ‘So we created this range, got some generic labels and packaging in place and now we have the platform to be able to be able to react to anything that might come our way – if someone’s coriander goes bonkers, for example, we may be able to use it now.’
Reflecting on the past six years, a hectic and life-changing period, Emily Davies, winner of the 2008 Taste of Dorset Harmsworth Award for outstanding contribution to food in Dorset, smiles happily. ‘It’s all been an amazing learning curve really. I have a great team behind me and I love working with the ingredients and the cheese. The cheese changes, the taste of it is highly dependent on the weather, where the cows have been grazing and what they have been eating, so that keeps you on your toes. We are working with a real thing here and that is exciting.’
For more information on the Dorset Blue Soup Company, including stockists, visit www.dorsetblue.com
1 Giles Belbin
2 Blue Soup Company
3 Blue Soup Company