Julie and Kevin Hickey run their husband and wife business in the Sperrin village of Park, on the banks of the River Faughan. It is the type of idyllic setting that seems perfectly suited to the production of traditional cheeses – which is exactly what their business, Tamnagh Foods, now does.
In addition to hand making traditional cheeses, Julie also produces homemade granola products and various chutneys and relishes. It might seem a surprisingly disparate product range, but, explains Julie, “this is just how it has gone along”.
Kevin’s role is to manage the expanding business.
“I have always been involved in the food business, including as a chef,” explains Julie. “My husband and I ran a restaurant in Derry until about 12 years ago.
“Then we moved to Park and we had the space and scope to start a food factory. We converted a shed here where the granola and chutneys are made. The other half we converted to make dairy products.”
That conversion was completed two years ago and the resulting food unit is very modern and includes specially constructed cheese maturing rooms to facilitate the controlled ageing of the cheeses.
The business stresses its compliance with the industry’s best standards in hygiene and food safety. Julie and Kevin are strongly committed to low environmental impacts, including local sourcing of ingredients, traceability of ingredients and maximised waste recycling.
The marketing stresses the business’s commitment to the principles of artisan production – carefully producing food with the minimum use of machines to maximise the natural flavours of the food.
“I had always wanted to make cheeses and I already did home cheese making,” explains Julie.
“I attended cheese making courses in England and in the south. So my interest grew from there.
“There doesn’t seem to be much cheese making going on in this part of the world, although there are some fantastic cheeses coming out of the south.”
The business is now taking a significant step forward, moving towards the launching of two new cheese products. The Sperrin Blue, a semi-hard pasteurised cheese with blue veining, will be their first cheese on the market. This becomes available next month.
Trade buyers were enthusiastic about the Sperrin Blue at this year’s IFEX exhibition, where it was trialled on the Henderson Food Service stand, says Julie. It will now be distributed by Henderson’s to restaurants and hotels. A second cheese, the Tirkeeran – a cow’s milk blue cheese – is currently in production and will be available from the autumn, sold, like the Sperrin Blue, under the Dart Mountain Cheese brand.
Getting a cheese right is a difficult process, Julie stresses. It is not just a matter of coming up with an excellent recipe and sourcing the ingredients, but it also requires the correct temperature and ageing process, leading to the right texture as well as flavour. The Tirkeeran is now undergoing that carefully controlled ageing.
Julie and Kevin have spent two years trialling various types of cheeses, experimenting with processes as well as composition. The aim was to produce cheeses that perfectly fit the image of their location. They believe they have achieved exactly that. Now the market will decide if they are correct.