The French have a word for it – terroir. They apply it to wines, understanding the way in which elements such as the landscape, soil, weather and the air can have an influence on the character of a product.
Heading deep into the Devon countryside towards Sharpham Dairy, you can see the cows in the fields, the grass deep and rich and green, and you can smell the wild garlic and flowers in the hedgerow. This is the very essence of terroir. Nestled in a beautiful valley overlooking the River Dart, Sharpham Dairy looks unassuming, but this is where the magic happens.
Greg and Nicky Parsons were familiar with the Sharpham Estate, often finding themselves here on family walks. Greg had worked in the dairy industry for more than 20 years and was introduced to Mark Sharman and partner Debbie Mumford who had taken over the business from founders Maurice Ash (chair of the Dartington Trust) and his wife Ruth. They established a cheesemaking business during a milk price slump in the 1970s.
Greg came to Sharpham to see how the business worked – meeting customers and looking at the marketing aspects – and liked what he saw. Some months later in July 2019, Greg and Nicky were, appropriately enough, having lunch at the cheese and wine specialists La Fromagerie in London when they got the news that Sharpham Dairy was theirs.
“A massive priority for us was to be highly respectful to what Mark and Debbie had done,” says Greg. “We needed to make sure the quality was maintained, which meant buying the cows. They hadn’t really pushed the brand, but lots of people know it and love it, so we didn’t want to upset the customers. We live and work in this county and we wanted to turn the Sharpham story into a Devon message. We are telling the stories of how these cheeses started – it’s not rocket science; it’s nice to do.”
Like many businesses, Sharpham Dairy was affected by lockdown. Greg, Nicky and their four children found themselves making the cheese when staff were furloughed. “I loved wrapping the cheese,” laughs Nicky.
Demand was high, thanks to national support from Jamie Oliver who singled out Ticklemore for promotion, James Martin who used Sharpham cheese in a recipe and Holly Willoughby who tried their cheese on ITV’s This Morning. With customers clamouring for cheese, the couple’s friend Peter Haworth, a foodie who worked as a baker, stepped in to help out. He turned out to be a natural and now heads a team with over 100 years of cheesemaking experience, producing 140 tons a year.
“We really take pride in the product,” says Greg. “We think cheese is amazing. You get milk in the morning and by the afternoon you have cheese. We feel very lucky we can do this; we’re not driven by money. We love the excitement of being able to try new ideas – we can do a market stall for a couple of months if we feel like it. We introduced cheese ‘wedding cakes’, for example. We have a tasting of our core cheeses and make the cheese just for them.”
When Greg and Nicky took over Sharpham Dairy, they knew the lease on the building near Ashprington in the South Hams had only three years to run. In what feels like turning full circle, they will be moving to the Dartington Estate near Totnes next year – the place so closely connected to Sharpham Dairy founder Malcolm Ash. “Sharpham was part of a new food revolution and we have assumed the responsibility of continuing the legacy that is Sharpham. Dartington is a good fit for that.”
Greg and Nicky’s lives revolve around cheese. Entertaining at home is more likely to be one of their cheese and chat evenings than a formal dinner. They are quick to identify their personal favourites. “Sharpham Cremet, six weeks old. It’s irresistible,” says Greg. “I like a Brie that’s running off the plate,” says Nicky. “But I’m really loving our new Camembert straight out of the oven.”