When Judy Bell first announced her plans to make cheese from sheep’s milk in the 1980s, from the family farm in Yorkshire, people said she was crazy (or baamy, it being God’s own country). They told her it would never catch on.
But Bell persevered and a quarter of a century later her family-run business, Shepherds Purse, turns out some seriously tasty cheese, from the rich and creamy Mrs Bell’s Blue to the more unusual Katy’s White Lavender. Today made with milk from cows, sheep and buffalo, the family’s artisan products are all handmade using local supplies, and have won a slew of awards.
This year the Bell family is celebrating 25 years in business. Judy’s daughter Caroline tells Northern Soul that it’s been a busy year, one that has seen Shepherds Purse re-brand its Yorkshire Blue to Le Yorkshire Bleu for the Tour de France, and create six new recipe cards showcasing the cheese.
These days you can buy Shepherds Purse cheese across the UK and Ireland, but it hasn’t always been that way.
“In the early days, our dad, Nigel, was literally out in the family car, visiting all the farm shops and delis in the North, letting the owners taste the cheese and securing listings that way,” says Bell.
“While we do it a little differently now, we still rely of people having the chance to taste our cheeses – we find that’s when they understand why we’re different.”
Shepherds Purse now has expert wholesalers who serve farm shops, delis, restaurants and cafés – and the cheese is also stocked in Tesco and Marks & Spencer.
“We began working with the supermarkets way back in 1993,” says Bell. “Tesco first approached us after we won a trophy at Nantwich International Cheese Show, and they fell in love with a little waxed sheep’s milk Wensleydale we did at the time. We modelled the wax to look like a Christmas pudding, with a sprig of holly on top. I think we produced 200 for them for that Christmas.”
It’s not always been plain sailing though. “Foot and Mouth in 2001 brought with it huge challenges,’ says Bell. “We had just completed an expansion project and then this really horrendous thing happened. Not only did it have an impact on the business and the market, but we saw friends and family put out of business and the landscape of British farming did shift. Apart from that, while we’ve had challenges, they’ve also been opportunities for us to grow, and to get better.”
The business is now moving into a new era, as the second generation takes over. “Myself and my sister Katie have taken on the running of the company,” says Bell, “allowing mum to retire. Though she’s taken on the chair of Deliciously Yorkshire and is the chief steward of the Great Yorkshire Show for Cheese & Dairy, so ‘retire’ is used in a loose sense.”
“Product quality and customer service are everything to us,” continues Bell, saying that family is a key part of the Shepherds Purse brand. “Excellence matters to us, as does health, authenticity, tradition and innovation. But words only signify, we need to live and breathe our values. We need to impute them into everything we do. So our values are really used to help us make decisions as a team and keep us on the right track as we grow. You should feel them when you experience our products and when you interact with our company.”
By Clare Wiley