By Jack Owen and Ben Goldstein
"Hello, where's the nearest bus stop?"
Ben was on the phone to the Stagecoach Buses Customer Service Team. It was 1.30pm, and we were on the Bordon High Street (number of shops: 3).
We were knackered (read: Jack was knackered). We (Jack) didn't want to cycle any more. The hills had proved a tough challenge (for Jack), made worse by cycling only on a diet of cheese and meals from Indian restaurants in the Southampton region. We (both) just wanted cheese, and we were on course to miss our next appointment by at least two hours.
When the bus arrived an hour later, we were informed that bikes weren't allowed on. F*cking brilliant.
Thankfully, we located Tom the taxi man who owned a people carrier big enough to fit our bikes in the back. We got in as he removed the empty beer bottles from the front seat.
"It's usually used to take big groups of people on nights out," Tom explained. Needless to say, driving two scrawny boys in cycling kits craving fine British cheese wasn't part of his normal daily routine. Conversation was a bit stilted to be honest.
When we finally arrived at Hampshire Cheeses - gasping for its famous stinky Tunworth cheese - we immediately suited up in hair-nets and wellies. We were beginning to pull the cheese look off. We were welcomed inside by Stacey Hedges, who set up the company nine years ago.
Before Hampshire Cheeses, Stacey was a chef with a love of dairy. One year at the British Cheese Awards Stacey met cheese consultant Val Bines (she consults, about cheese). Before she knew it Val was teaching Stacey to make cheese in her own kitchen. From there Hampshire Cheeses was born. Along the way, Stacey recruited Charlotte from the school playground to manage the production to allow Stacey to focus on sales. They employ two part time staff and the 'boys' - four strapping lads who looked most confused when confronted with Ben's lycra.
As we entered the factory, the 'boys' were stirring the cut curd in small troughs. Stacey explained the curd is then salted and poured in to the moulds.
What a big load of curd
We were then taken to the cooling rooms, where the 900 cheeses the factory produces each day are left to mature. Here the Tunworths, sold to Waitrose and Neal's Yard Dairy as well as other cheesemongers far and wide, gain their white penicillin coat before being sold four weeks later. Last week, Tunworth was exported to Australia for the first time.
Tucked next to the tall shelves of Tunworth is Hampshire Cheese's new experiment. Winslade is a softer gooier cheese and is held together by a spruce bark wrap.
"This might be a stupid question," started Jack, "but does that wood coating give it a kind of woody flavour?"
"Yes," Stacey replied.
It had been a stupid question.
"After Tunworth we thought our second cheese would be easier to make, but we were wrong." Stacey and Charlotte have been working on Winslade for two years now, but they still aren't quite happy with it. Tunworth is proving a tough act to follow.
Hampshire Cheese was the biggest factory we visited but Stacey and Charlotte showed the same welcoming homeliness that we had experienced everywhere. Earlier this year, 16 cheese makers from Slovenia visited Hampshire Cheeses looking to pick up tips. The artisan cheese industry is not characterised by fierce competition, but instead by a real sense of team spirit.
"At the end of the day, there is enough room for all of us," Stacey explained. She's right - no one is really doing what Hampshire Cheeses are doing and, even if they were, cheese is such a complicated thing to create that it would be almost impossible to replicate Tunworth, with or without a tour of the factory.
As we stepped back into the main hall of the factory, the boys had all moved round and were busy filling the moulds with curd.
"Every day we get 2000 litres of unpasteurised milk delivered- now after we have processed it's time to put it into the moulds. We have a 20 minute window to get 900 done otherwise everything gets out of sync."
We decided that this delicate and important moment was the perfect time to get a selfie before we left. The photo demonstrates two things: a cheese factory that matches high quality with a hand crafted approach to production, and two students who really should have learnt to at least appear more professional when pretending to be journalists.
The seventeenth and eighteenth century was a very exciting time for the English cheese making industry. We know this because Jack had read a book on the history of cheese and the book had a whole chapter on the period. It was a good chapter. Jack had made notes on it in preparation for our trip. He was very keen.
Unfortunately (for Jack), the cheese makers we had met didn't share quite the same enthusiasm for cheese history that Jack did. Wherever we went, Jack would drop in the odd reference but the cheesemakers we had met were ruthlessly focused on the future - or they just didn't have time to read books on the history of cheese.
The oldest producers we had visited were Rosary Goats who had set up almost thirty years ago, which was ancient when compared to Gimblett Cheeses' embryonic project but decades barely scratched the surface of centuries of cheese making. Jack had yet to properly share his passion for cheese history.
Until, that is, our final day, safely back in London, when we visited Neal's Yard Dairy and had a chat with Andrew Lowkes. Andrew joined the Dairy two years ago whilst still studying History of Art at the Courtauld Institute and - most importantly - he had read the same book about cheese that Jack had! Jack and Andrew swapped reading lists while Ben nodded along, intensely grateful that this hadn't happened at every stop along the journey.
We left Ben's chin in Basingstoke
Perhaps it's no surprise that we had come across a slight disconnect between the current English cheese industry and its history centuries earlier. "The British cheese scene has only really got going in the last 10 to 15 years," Andrew explained.
The Second World War had finished off the handmade cheese producers, while the industrial decades of the 70s and 80s weren't suited to the development of new cheese and Britain was left with a vacuum of artisan produce. No wonder they all look so angry in Billy Elliot!
The recent revival came long after the dairymaids of the nineteenth centuries and earlier had all given up their trade. This break has given British cheese scene a distinctive feel. In France cheese producers can claim their cheese recipes go back centuries to monks, whereas in the UK even big names like the Montgomerys (the family behind the highly renowned Montgomery Cheddar) haven't been going for much longer than 50 or 60 years. Only one farm is still making raw milk Cheshire cheese. "I'd love to be able to sell more territorials," Andrew tells us, when we ask him what his favourite cheese to sell is.
Neal's Yard Dairy is doing their best to foster the revitalisation of the British cheese trade. "We taste a cheese as a representation of a milk source," Andrew told us. If a producer comes to them and they like the milk but think the cheese needs some work, they will work with them to bring out the best in their milk.
Tunworth in the wild
"It's like the relationship between grapes and wine. A herd's milk has potential - wine or cheese is just trying to fulfil that potential, you can never exceed the quality of the original ingredient."
Neal's Yard founder Randolph Hodges set up The Science of Artisan Cheese Conference, which brings cheese makers together to share best practice ("Should you clean the teat before milking?" Andrew says excitedly, "do you do it with alcohol or swab it with hay to introduce more bacteria?").
Everywhere we had been on our quest we had found people who were passionate about what they do and eager to share what they know. There's a community spirit in cheese making - it's a group of people all working towards the same goal: bloody delicious cheese.
Before we setting out on #cheesequest, we were two students who didn't really know anything about cheese.
Now at the end of our journey we were, well, still pretty hopeless (Jack even got rejected from a Christmas job at a cheese shop because the owner "couldn't afford to have someone who doesn't know what they're doing"). However, we had: a) eaten quite a lot of cheese and b) met a merry band of cheese people who had given us a brief peek into an industry that's definitely going uphill. Unlike Jack on a bike.
Follow the action at #cheesequest.
If you want to know anything more about cheese, just talk to the Cheese Lady.