When Boston-born Julie Hickey first arrived at Queen’s University in Belfast as an exchange student, the last thing she probably ever expected was to meet her future husband, Derry man Kevin Hickey – not to mind that she would find herself making cheese in the Sperrin Mountains, Co Derry, one day.

“I couldn’t understand a word he was saying,” laughs the former politics student, “and that’s what kept us strong all through the years!”

And indeed, the couple are now among the up-and-coming food producers putting the north west on the map with their award-winning Tamnagh Foods and Dart Mountain Cheese range, with accolades including a gold medal at the recent World Cheese Awards.

Kevin and Julie and their four children Tom (20), Maya (17), Ronan (12) and Maeve (6) live and work in the Sperrins in Tamnagh Lodge, a former hunting lodge built in 1790, which they bought in 2004.

“Originally, it would have had 3,500 acres; today we only own 13. It’s significant to me!” laughs Kevin.

“The good thing about moving into a hunting lodge is that there is a room there to gut your animals, but in terms of insulation … not so much,” jokes Julie.

But part of Tamnagh Lodge’s attraction was an existing outbuilding where the Hickeys could start their own cheese business.

Despite their respective degrees in politics and business economics, the couple have worked in food nearly all of their careers: Julie as a chef and Kevin with an organic farmers co-op, as well as a stint running their own restaurant, which is when they first spotted a gap in the market for a Northern Irish cheese.

“It was just something that we noticed when we had the restaurant: for 30, 40 years, a profusion of fantastic cheeses all scattered through the south of Ireland, each as distinct as the next, and there just wasn’t that up here. We thought: ‘Well, there’s an opening,’” explains Julie.

Having attended a cheese-making course with Silke Cropp of Corleggy Cheese in Co Cavan, Julie began to experiment with recipes in her kitchen to develop her own range from scratch, before tackling the tricky challenge of how to scale up production.

“You say: ‘OK, well I’ve cracked it in a 10 litre stock pot. Now let’s scale it up.’ You know, we’re currently working at a 500 litre vat and so that’s taken some tweaking,” she explains.

“It’s the watching and waiting part in the early days: to see what’s going to happen three months, six months, a year down the road, when you finally core into that cheese and see if your calculations and your method have been correct.”

Meanwhile, Kevin tackled the business end, from applying for planning permission and a diversification grant to convert the existing shed into the dairy, to working through the rules and regulations to bring the cheese to the market.

“So the cheese needs to have a name, the cheese needs to have sort of fixed weights, the cheese needs to have a barcode, the cheese needs to have wrapping and a box, the cheese has to be delivered…,” lists Kevin, who explains that because there hasn’t been a cheese-making culture in the area, it was a steep learning curve for all involved.

By June 2014, however, the Hickeys released their first cheese, Sperrin Blue, having already secured a listing with Henderson’s Foodservice to distribute it to restaurants and cafés.

“So we started supplying them and that allowed us to get up and running,” says Kevin.

Made with milk sourced from Strathroy Dairy in Co Tyrone, the range today includes the mild and creamy “Sperrin Blue”, the Alpine-style “Kilcreen”, the ash-coated “Dart Mt, Dusk”, the local-beer-washed “Banagher Bold”, and the long-aged “Tirkeeran”.

With Hendersons and also La Rousse looking after distribution for food service, the Hickeys have concentrated in developing other markets: namely, sales to shops and delis, servicing their own delivery route locally and offering next-day delivery across the island of Ireland with Fastway couriers, online sales via their website and direct sales at food festivals and events.

This approach has given Tamnagh Foods a variety of revenue streams, though Kevin explains that with cheese-making, cash flow is a challenge, given the amount of time it takes from the day you buy in the milk to when the cheese is ready to sell; and when you actually get paid.

“It could be five months; and that’s our short-aged cheese. If you take our long-aged cheese, that’s 12, 14 months later,” he says.

More concerning, however, is the uncertainty surrounding Brexit; for example, when deciding whether it’s worthwhile to push sales in the Republic if a special arrangement is not negotiated and tariffs are introduced.

Making a complement

However, the Hickeys are working hard to make their business as resilient as possible by thinking outside of the box. For example, they have introduced a range of granolas, chutneys and pickles to complement the cheeses, while they are involved in a local food tourism network and hope to build an extension this year to open a visitor centre for tours and tastings.

They have also explored export overseas – currently supplying the Globus chain in Switzerland – while they have been proactive in entering a number of competitions, with prizes at the Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards, Great Taste and, most recently, going gold at the World Cheese Awards.

So, what’s the secret to working together as a couple?

“Just avoid each other!” laughs Kevin, before elaborating that taking on distinct roles has worked for them.

“We definitely have a different approach,” qualifies Julie, “but where we want to get to and how we want to get there is basically the same.”

And – their jokes about accents apart – when it comes to Tamnagh Foods, they are definitely speaking the same language.

For further information, visit www.tamnaghfoods.com.