8th Mar 2019 in Business

Welcome to the first in a new series of features in which you’ll meet some of the interesting people who make up The Cathedral Quarter.

When you think ‘Cathedral Quarter Belfast’, plenty of landmarks come to mind – The Merchant, Belfast Cathedral (of course), The Black Box, The MAC. But when you think about what makes the Cathedral Quarter magical and memorable, you think about its vibrancy, its colour, its thriving arts and culture, its quirkiness, its buzz. All the things brought to it by the people who live and work in the CQ.

First up, we’d like you to meet Mike Thomson. Chances are, you’ve already tried some of his fancy cheese.

Mike Thomson wearing a blue jumper, navy apron and a striped wooly hat. In the background are different cheeses stacked on a counter.

Mike’s Fancy Cheese opened its doors in November 2018 in a tiny glass-fronted shop unit on Little Donegall Street, just opposite the car park that was once frequented by the journalists and staff at The Belfast Telegraph. It’s best known for selling Young Buck, their own handcrafted, raw milk blue cheese – the first of its kind to be made in Northern Ireland.

The Cathedral Quarter shop may be small, but it’s perfectly formed, and exactly the kind of unique little space the cheesemaker was looking for to sell his wares. Despite having plenty of stockists across the country, he found that people were increasingly keen to buy direct.

We did a lot of markets with the cheese, and we were finding people were actively seeking us out and coming to the market specifically to buy from us, so we thought ‘OK, that gives us confidence to look into a retail space’.

Mike continues, “We make the cheese up in Newtownards, but I live off the Antrim Road, so we actually looked around there first. I’ve been up in North Belfast for about 3 or 4 years and I’m proud of Belfast; that’s why I always wanted to come back. I was trying to create something that I would enjoy visiting and buying from, so it made sense to try and have that place close to where I live!”

North Belfast proved prohibitive in terms of price and footfall, but after a few visits to The Sunflower Bar, Mike began to get familiar with the northerly part of the Cathedral Quarter. Sitting cheek by jowl with North Belfast, it was close enough to the bustle of the city centre to bring a healthier footfall. In late 2017 he discovered the units on Little Donegall Street and the rest, as they say, is history.

Glass fronted small shop, with a white decal design and 'Mike's Fancy Cheese' on the glass.

Although the focus for so many years had been on making the cheese, Mike was confident he could run a shop, having picked up his love of artisan food from his time working in the Arcadia Deli on Belfast’s Lisburn Road. “I just fell into that job after school. At the time, Mark who owns it – he’s the third generation to run the shop – was refurbishing it and I was lucky to be there to see how that was done.”

The deli has been open in the same unit since 1933 and is thought to be the longest-standing retailer on the well-known South Belfast Road. Mark transformed the business into a multi-award winning purveyor of fine foods, and one which actively showcases local food.

Mike says, “That was one thing we noticed, there was no Northern Ireland cheese – a lot from down south and from England, but nothing up north. So I started a bit of market research, came across a course over in England and decided to take it and see where it leads.

Mike Thomson cutting cheese using a wire on a cutting board

“I was away for 2 and a half or three years and made a lot of good connections, learned how to make cheese and then came back and started making Young Buck which is the cheese that we make.”

This is something of a potted history – Mike graduated from The School of Artisan Food  having spent a year immersed in the world of cheese and making “amazing connections in the world of food”.

But the desire to create that Northern Ireland cheese persisted and eventually, after using crowdfunding to source his capital, Young Buck was brought to life in Newtownards, using milk from a local farm.

The idea of a raw milk cheese offered a certain novelty factor back in 2013 when the cheese was launched, and the curiosity of trying something a bit different is something the company capitalised on in the early days, but the main reason behind the decision not to pasteurise was “simplicity” – pure and simple.

“Our whole business model is based on being based in Newtownards; I live a few miles away, and comparatively speaking, you don’t need to do much to turn it into cheese. Whereas if you buy a pasteuriser, it costs about £12,000 or £13,000 and it just completely changes your business model.

And it’s a business that’s not just working, it’s turning heads. This week the Irish Food Writers’ Guild awarded Young Buck Cheese with one of their prestigious food awards

Alongside Young Buck, the shop stocks a variety of other cheeses and foods, including eggs, salami, crackers, pies and chutneys, many stocked in the famous “stolen cage of consumables”!

Although the food is the star of the show, the shop is also becoming a thriving events space. There have been beer and cheese tasting events, craft classes, fermentation workshops… and this is all part of the vision to turn it into a creative community hub. “We want it to be a social space,” says Mike, “somewhere you want to come and spend time rather than just popping in for your cheese and heading away again. That’s why the tickets are promoted online, but you always have to come into the shop to buy them. The whole point is that the events are for people who want to – and will – be coming here regularly.”

If you’re quick, you might be able to get yourself a ticket for tonight’s Cheese and Beer event featuring Bullhouse Beer. 5 cheeses paired (roughly) with 5 Bullhouse beers and they will have William Mayne himself to chat about how why and where he brews all his beers. Tickets are £25 and – yes, you guessed it – can only be bought in-store at Mike’s Fancy Cheese.

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