Talented Nicole brings German expertise to handcrafting cheese in Banbridge

Banbridge resident Nicole Stronge learned how to handcraft artisan cheese at home in Germany from her grandmother.

Saturday, 4th December 2021, 6:00 am

She grew up in Bonn, the capital of West Germany before unification with the East, and became passionate especially about Gouda, the Dutch favourite, the cheese she’s now crafting and selling in Banbridge.

“While we had an extensive range of German cheeses including the Alpine varieties, of course, we tended to turn to Gouda because Bonn is relatively close to the border with the Netherlands,” Nicole explains.

“It’s also a region of Germany with strong Dutch influences. Therefore, I grew to love a great gouda. It’s a cheese which Germans, in fact, have been making for around 200 years and remains one of the country’s most popular. Gouda is made from full cream milk and has a mild and buttery taste when it’s young. If allowed to age, the cheese becomes more piquant and is popular with melted snacks.”

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Artisan cheesemaker Nicole Stronge started crafting gouda in Germany

Gouda was Nicole’s natural choice when she decided to resume cheese making at home in Banbridge a year or so ago. The popularity of her tasty cheeses, which are handcrafted from fresh milk sourced from Brookvale Farm, near Dromore, Co Down, have the talented artisan to expand her range and to become one of the small cadre of cheesemakers developing steadily here.

“I’ve found that Brookvale’s milk is ideal for making cheese because it’s pasteurised at a low temperature and isn’t homogenised which means the rich cream is left floating on top of the milk, continue Nicole, resident here since 2002.

A mother of two, Nicole has vast experience of the hospitality sector in her homeland and here with respected restaurants such as The Plough in Hillsborough. “I loved working at the Plough because it’s such a great restaurant with a reputation for fine food,” Nicole says.

The role at the popular restaurant was the outcome of an interest in Northern Ireland that developed when she was working in Germany.

Some of the artisan cheeses created by skilled Nicole Stronge

“I’d heard so much about Northern Ireland and decided to find out more for myself about the country,” she adds. “I’ve come to love this place largely because the people here are so friendly and supportive.”

She subsequently met Nigel, her husband, around this time and the couple settled in Banbridge.

The experience at the Plough also encouraged the entrepreneurial Nicole to resume making artisan cheese.

“I saw that Northern Ireland, which has a tremendous resource of quality milk from predominantly grass-fed cows, didn’t then produce much artisan cheese. While I’ve enjoyed some delicious blue and soft cheeses here I reckoned the market could support other varieties such as gouda and edam,” she adds.

“Germany, although a much bigger country of course than Northern Ireland, has more than 600 different types of cheeses, all influenced by its varying landscapes, methods of production and regional traditions. There’s now a strong market there for artisan cheese, a number of which are also being exported.”

While 75 percent of Germany’s cheeses, she continues, are produced in Bavaria, northern and western areas such as Bonn in North Rhine-Westphalia also provide some of the country’s more famous cheeses including gouda.

Nicole says she saw scope to develop gouda and other artisan varieties from “the type of superb milk produced, for instance, at Brookvale Farm”.

The popularity of her gouda has led Nicole to create other varieties including Edam cream cheeses and originals such as a Madagascan Vanilla Brie, an Alpine and a mustard cheese washed with ale from Hilden Brewery in Dunmurry.

There’s also garlic and chive cheese using McIvor’s cider from Portadown, a Limburger style, a tomato and garlic cream cheese and a cheese washed with Jagermeister, the German alcoholic digestif made with 56 herbs and spices and matured over three months in her extensive portfolio.

Nicole is currently exploring how best to scale up production for retail sales in delis and farm shops.

“It’s still a very early stage in the development of the business and in the creation of the best cheeses for the market here,” she continues.

“I’ve been immensely encouraged by the feedback from local people who have bought the cheeses from my weekly pop-up shop at Brookvale Farm, further important support for my small business by farm owners Richard and Pamela Lilburn. I am deeply appreciative of their tremendous encouragement and opportunities they are offering for my business,” adds Nicole.

Set in the rolling countryside off the Redhill Road in Dromore, Brookvale Farm has been at the forefront of innovation in the farming sector for decades and is renowned for its rich and creamy top-quality milk which it supplies directly to many well-known local businesses. The enterprising farm is also famous for its home-made milk shakes.

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