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Renegade Monk: the UK’s hybrid cheese

Renegade Monk: the UK’s hybrid cheese

by Ollie Lloyd 16 August 2018

This soft, washed-rind, slightly blue cheese is unlike anything else made in the UK, with a seriously pungent smell – and cheese-lovers can’t get enough of it. Ollie Lloyd talks to producer Penelope Nagle to discover more about its origins.

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For such an ancient way of preserving milk, it’s pretty incredible to see just how much British cheesemaking has evolved over the past couple of years. What used to be something dominated by cheddar and a few old school territorials is now a thriving artisan scene in its own right, with new soft, blue, hard and washed-rind cheeses being created each year. Not bad for something which is nothing more than milk, salt and bacteria.

While continental countries such as France, Spain and Italy have had hundreds of years to establish and nurture small-scale artisan cheesemaking, the UK has had to catch up pretty fast. We now produce over 700 varieties and will no doubt reach 1,000 very soon. But while we might have started out replicating what we like about continental cheeses – producing brie and camembert with our own milk – we’re now innovating and inventing, creating new styles of cheese with their own unique flavour profiles. Feltham’s Farm, the Somerset-based producer of Renegade Monk, encapsulates this next step in British cheesemaking perfectly.

Hear more about Renegade Monk on the FoodTalk podcast

Listen to what Penelope Nagle had to say about her very unique cheese on FoodTalk.

Just two years old, this tiny cheesemaking business is run by Penelope Nagle and Marcus Fergusson from their smallholding in south Somerset. ‘My husband Marcus is the cheese brains in our partnership,’ says Penelope. ‘He’s the cheesemaker and has been passionate about cheese since he was six – he even asked for a fondue for his sixth birthday! Our first cheese is called Renegade Monk, which we were inspired to make after many holidays in the south of France. We think of our cheese as an homage to Époisses, as it’s made using roughly the same process.’

Don’t think of Renegade Monk as an Époisses imitator, however – it may be inspired by the famous French cheese, but that’s where the similarities end. Marcus and Penelope have instead created something which straddles several different varieties of cheese – it’s soft, it’s washed-rind and it’s even a little bit blue. The result is something gooey, pungent and – in the makers’ own words – ‘definitely a cheese for grown-ups’. But for people who like their cheeses bold, smelly and strong, it’s about as good as you can get.

‘Marcus did his first cheese course at River Cottage two years ago,’ says Penelope. ‘Today, we’re working with a bunch of wholesalers and one even wants to take Renegade Monk to America, where there’s this whole punk cheese movement. At the moment however we can’t make more than 200 cheeses a week and we can’t make different varieties because of cross contamination, which could cause issues with consistency. But that’s set to change as we expand our capabilities.’

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The actual process of making Renegade Monk is quite labour-intensive, as bacteria has to be added to make it blue, then it has to be washed in ale and turned every few days for four weeks as it matures. ‘If we’d known this cheese was going to be this successful we might not have made it our first variety as it’s such hard work!’ says Penelope. ‘But washing it in ale really adds an incredible depth of flavour. We love our local producers so we work with Milk Street Brewery, based down the road in Froome, using their Funky Monkey ale to wash our cheeses.’

Renegade Monk has already won two stars in the Great Taste Awards and was runner-up in the soft category at the Great British Cheese Awards, but for Penelope and Marcus it isn’t just about the cheese. They are focused on living and working as sustainably as possible, respecting the land and feeding the excess whey to their small herd of rare-breed pigs. ‘You can’t just pour whey down the drain – you need to pay someone to take it away,’ explains Penelope. ‘To us that seemed wrong as you’re adding all these food miles to your production method, and then it just ends up in a landfill somewhere anyway. In the future when we expand our production we’re planning on increasing our herd to 100, so they can then eat all the whey we create when producing up to 2,500 cheeses a week.’

Renegade Monk isn’t the sort of cheese you’re going to find in the supermarkets – it’s clearly something that’s more at home at farmers’ markets and specialist cheese shops. But it’s a harbinger of things to come, as more and more small-scale producers begin to produce interesting, unusual and even experimental cheeses that are in high demand in their local areas. There are hundreds of different alpine cheeses produced in France which are rarely heard of outside their immediate region – perhaps in five years’ time, Somerset will be able to boast a similar number.

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The FoodTalk Radio Show celebrates the entrepreneurs and artisans working to make the UK's thriving food scene one of the best in the world. Catch a new show every Thursday and find out more by visiting the website.

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