Jane Pikett meets two one-woman food businesses to hear about lockdown business launches and happy collaborations
For an inspiring story of lockdown changing lives for the better, take Hannah Bramble and Ania Trocinska. Hannah, an artisan cheesemonger, and Ania, grower of microgreens and edible flowers, often collaborate on stunning cheese celebration ‘cakes’ dressed with edible flowers and shoots. They also share a passion for superb produce and both founded their businesses, somewhat unexpectedly, during lockdown.
Hannah, who used to personally deliver cheese to Prince Charles when she was a cheesemonger with the royal warrant-holder Paxton & Whitfield in Jermyn Street, London, was working part-time on a cheese counter when last November she was ‘pinged’ by the Covid app and forced to isolate at home in Whitley Bay. “So there I was, shut in a bedroom at home, and I thought, well, I’ve always wanted to set up on my own, and this is my chance. I emerged from my little lockdown 11 days later with the business all worked out,” says Hannah, who named her business Crosby Loves Cheese, after her seven-year-old son Crosby (who really does love cheese).
Ania has a similar story. The first lockdown prompted her to explore means of boosting her family’s immune systems and she hit on nutrient-packed microgreens. She had no plans to set up in business, but within weeks of establishing a growing corner in her dining room and posting the odd photo on social media, chefs were getting in touch asking her to supply them. Thus Northumberland Microgreens was born, supplying chefs, retailers and individual customers locally, keeping food miles as low as possible.
I meet them in Ania’s back garden in Blyth, which is packed with flowers and shrubs, bird feeders and bug houses, and where I find Hannah midway through constructing one of her celebration pieces dressed with Ania’s edible flowers. They are both decked out in striking aprons, handmade by Whitley Bay-based Jules Capper, who calls her one-woman business Five Little Pins. “My background is in fashion and I love her aprons,” says Hannah. “I wear them all the time and I really hope you mention her in the article because she’s fantastic.”
This becomes a theme. Will I mention the brilliant bakery Northern Rye, which is a huge supporter, and Phil’s Plaice Fishmonger on North Shields Fish Quay, asks Hannah. Both give Hannah space for regular pop-ups, Robbie at Northern Rye paying forward the support he had from Anna Hedworth at Cookhouse, Ouseburn, when he started out. “This sense of unity between small businesses is so important,” says Ania. “We support each other through social media and word of mouth, and it’s wonderful.”
Both deliver to local customers door to door. Ania’s customers leave the Kilner jars she gives them with their first order on their doorsteps, and she replaces them with clean jars filled with produce, taking the used ones home to sterilise and re-fill, like a milkman. Local retailers sell her produce in recyclable punnets, and her growing space, now upstairs at home, is filled with shelves stacked with trays of delicate shoots, fans keeping air from the open windows circulating, a whiteboard detailing temperatures and harvest dates, low-energy LED lights encouraging the plants to grow. The cultivation of these shoots, by turns exquisitely beautiful, deeply flavourful and highly nutritious, is complex. They’re prone to mould and pathogens, temperature control and air circulation is crucial, and Ania has learned by trial and error.
She shows us around, Hannah and I plucking exquisitely pretty yellow popcorn shoots (yes, they taste of popcorn, only better), coral stemmed micro-radish (similarly beautiful and packed with flavour), micro fennel, sunflower, garlic chives, beet, chickpea shoots and more. This is a spare bedroom microshoot microcosm where, committed to remaining a small, home-based operation, Ania produces some 25 trays a week, cultivating and harvesting her delicate crops by hand. “The point of this is to support local businesses with minimum impact on the environment,” she says. “Hence the recyclable punnets, glass jars, LED lights and minimum food miles. There is no need for pesticides, insecticides or herbicides because the crops grow inside. We use natural products, such as vinegar to sanitise the trays, punnets and equipment, and all processes are environmentally friendly and chemical-free.”
She supplies shops, chefs, bakeries and individual customers weekly and only delivers locally in order to keep food miles down. “I also love the fact that by supplying local, small businesses, we can connect and form collaborations,” she says.
Whitley Bay-based Hannah, meanwhile, is on a mission to share her passion for artisan cheese. A client, an international cheese judge, was recently so impressed with the selection Hannah curated for him that he nominated her to judge the International Cheese and Dairy Awards. Soon, she will join a world-class team of judges at this, the biggest awards of its kind in the world.
Hannah’s passion for cheese knows no bounds. Her enthusiasm bubbles over as she describes her favourites, and she has a loyal band of regulars who come to her stalls at Phil’s Plaice on North Shields Fish Quay, at Northern Rye bakery in the Ouseburn, and at Middleton-St-George community market near Darlington. Here, she brings cheesemakers’ stories to life, taking the time to talk customers through their selections, each cheese expertly wrapped in wax paper and accompanied by tasting notes.
Not surprisingly, she can’t name one favourite. She rattles off numerous names, including Picos blue, made in the Picos mountains of Northern Spain from a mixture of cow and goat or ewes’ milk (depending on the season) and wrapped in sycamore leaves to mature. Her preferred goats’ cheese at the moment is Dorstone, made by Charlie Westhead at Neal’s Yard Dairy in Herefordshire, and she adores Blackwoods’ Cheese Co’s Graceburn – a soft cheese steeped in truffle oil.
Hannah studied fashion and her first career was as a retail buyer. Then, in the mid-2000s, taking time out do a chef’s diploma, she saw an advert for a trainee cheesemonger at Paxton & Whitfield and found her passion, working her way up to assistant manager at Jermyn street. In those days, she used to personally deliver Prince Charles’ orders – always British cheeses – direct to him, stopping for long chats about the produce. “And all the high end restaurants in London got their cheese from Paxton & Whitfield, and I’d travel around in a taxi delivering to them. Gary Rhodes used to call me his cheese girl,” Hannah says. “Ronnie Corbett was one of my customers at the shop. He was wonderful, a big blue cheese lover. He always asked for me and we’d discuss cheese for ages. That personal touch is at the heart of what I do now. There are lots of cheesemongers around, but my passion is for giving my customers a really great experience, talking to them about the cheese, telling the cheesemakers’ stories.”
She reels off more names, such as occelli, a northern Italian cheese rolled in chestnut leaves. Little discs of Loire Valley crottin goats’ cheese, often dressed by Hannah in herbs, spices or flowers, fly off her stall, each one a little taster which piques customers’ curiousity. In addition to her stalls, customers contact Hannah direct via her website, mobile phone, or social media. “A chap texted me yesterday asking for raclette. I don’t have it, but I have an amazing English variety, ogleshield, made with rich raw Jersey milk by Jamie Montgomery and Wayne Mitchell of the Montgomery cheesemaking family. We talked about his raclette machine and his requirements and I cut it specially for him and delivered it. He was delighted.
“This is my passion, and I think if I’m excited by my cheeses, potentially customers will be too. Cheesemongers are storytellers, we bring cheesemakers’ products to life; my hope is that you’ll leave a conversation with me with cheeses that you never knew you wanted, having had a really great experience.”
Crosby, as mentioned, loves his cheese, apparently the more sophisticated the better. “Yesterday, he did a tasting of ogleshield, dorstone and bix. He loves cheese as much as I do, and he’s a good example of how important it is to let children taste things and make their own minds up. I mean, is there anything in the world better than cheese? I don’t think so.”
To shop and find out about Hannah’s pop ups, go to: www.crosbylovescheese.co.uk
To shop and find out more about Ania’s microgreens and edible flowers, go to: www.northumberlandmicrogreens.co.uk