Business & Entrepreneurs People

Churning out the awards: How an Altrincham mum became a prize-winning cheesemaker

By David Prior at

Claire Burt is living proof that you can turn a passion into a successful business.

Only six years after she first started experimenting with curds and whey on her kitchen table, Burt now runs Burt’s Cheese, a favourite of celebrity chef Tom Kerridge and the winner of the coveted ‘best producer’ award at last year’s Observer Food Monthly awards.

She is an Altrincham success story, although space has now dictated that she produces her semi-soft blue cheese at her small dairy in Knutsford, where I met her.

Burt’s story began back in 2008. Living on Grosvenor Road in Altrincham and commuting to Crewe each day for a sales job with a a cheese supplier called Dairygold Food Ingredients, she realised that it was increasingly incompatible with the family she was about to start.

Tom Kerridge at his pub, The Hand and Flowers

Tom Kerridge at his pub, The Hand and Flowers

So in January 2009, with some advice from a friend who ran a cheesemaking course, she “bought some plastic tubs and boiled the kettle”, and started making her own cheese.

Burt wasn’t a complete novice. She’d graduated in food and nutrition and had enjoyed a year out working for a company that made sandwiches and sushi for Tesco.

Her job had also required her to know a Roquefort from a Gorgonzola, so she’d visited a number of dairies and sat through various cheese-making courses.

But when the demands of motherhood permitted – her first child, Noah, duly arrived in September 2009 – Burt kept churning out the cheese.

Blue cheese was the “more obvious startup” choice, she says. “It has the benefit of a quick turnaround. Cheddar can take two years to mature, and you don’t need lots and lots of equipment. I also liked blue cheese and the continental style blues, and I knew that commercially they were proving popular.”

The big break arrived quickly. Only 18 months after those first sessions on the kitchen table, Burt’s blue cheese won Gold at the Nantwich International Cheese Show, the grand fromage of cheese shows globally. With 3,500 entries and over 25 cheeses in her class alone, it was the equivalent of a 100-1 novice winning the Grand National. “I thought, ‘crikey’,” Burt remembers.

The award got her noticed, and through chance meetings she hooked up with Andrew Warnes and Jason Palin at the Cheshire Cookery School. They gave her a “corridor at the back end” of the school, which she cladded out and gave her the space to develop her cheese on a more professional and scalable basis. “Nantwich gave me the confidence that it wasn’t just the family saying it was nice,” says Burt.

The business started to grow, customers started to ring up and the number of stockists grew. You can now buy Burt’s Blue in a number of local stores including The Little Deli Company on Stamford Park Road, Gastronomy in Hale village and Red House Farm Shop in Dunham. It’s also in the Manchester branch of Harvey Nichols.

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Claire Burt at her dairy in Knutsford

More awards followed at the Fine Food Awards and British Cheese Awards, and Simon Rimmer – chef at Earle in Hale – used it on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch.

One of the customers liked it so much she gave a sample to Tom Kerridge at his double-Michelin Starred pub, the Hand and Flowers in Buckinghamshire. The TV chef became an instant fan and soon included it on his pub’s menu, and Burt started sending a supply down every three weeks.

She suspects it was Kerridge’s subsequent nomination that led to the most high-profile recognition her business has received so far, at last year’s Observer Food Monthly awards. “I’d nothing after the nomination so I called them up. They just said, you’ve won, so I was like, ‘great, amazing, crikey,” she adds.

It was also perfectly timed, as Burt had only just moved into her small prefab dairy in Ollerton, near Knutsford, which gave her the means to satiate the demand that followed publication of the award in October.

And the effect? Not quite an avalanche, but production doubled. “We went from making once a week to twice a week,” she says.

The one disappointment has been Altrincham market, which didn’t prove “commercially workable” for her and assistant Tom to justify a presence on a Sunday. Still, she now has 20 stockists, with wholesalers in Brighton, Preston and Yorkshire.

She hopes to be back, but regardless, Burt’s Cheese is ripening very nicely.

A recipe for Rareburt

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[tab title=”Ingredients”]2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup porter beer
3/4 cup heavy cream
6 ounces (approximately 1 1/2 cups) shredded Cheddar
2 drops hot sauce
4 slices toasted rye bread[/tab]
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In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Cook, whisking constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, being careful not to brown the flour. Whisk in mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper until smooth. Add beer and whisk to combine. Pour in cream and whisk until well combined and smooth. Gradually add cheese, stirring constantly, until cheese melts and sauce is smooth; this will take 4 to 5 minutes. Add hot sauce. Pour over toast and serve immediately.

For the cheese sauce…

Melt butter; remove from heat. Stir in flour and seasonings. Gradually add milk, stirring until well mixed. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened and smooth. Cook for 5 minutes longer; add cheese. Stir until smooth and well blended. Serve with pasta or vegetables.
Makes 2 cups.

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