A Cheese Tour de Force
Cheese tourism is increasingly popular. Festivals now dot American dairy lands. Die-hard cheese lovers with deep pockets can travel with elite guides internationally to creameries and shops. Well-traveled itineraries may lead to the Netherlands, France or England, among other destinations.
Europhiles eager to get in on the next big trend might turn their attention northward to Scotland, where farmhouse and artisan cheese are really taking off. Regional flavors arise from Scotland’s wide-ranging climate, from the briny, wind-swept Hebrides and Orkney Islands to the mist-kissed pastures of the Highlands. Scottish cheese is finding consumers through specialty retailers that are springing up in the major cities.
The very first to launch was I. J. Mellis, whose stores are a must-visit for anyone on a cheese-seeking mission. On a recent trip, I had the opportunity to meet Scotland’s foremost cheese seller and tour his warehouse’s cheese maturation (affinage) lockers in the Leith district of Edinburgh. Later, I visited two of the Mellis stores—their flagship on Victoria Street in Edinburgh, and their branch on the Great Western Road in Glascow.
What does it take to succeed as a cheese retailer? Start with vision, add a dollop of opportunity and throw in a moderate appetite for risk-taking. And to stay ahead of the pack? You need to remain a challenger. Energy, focus and endurance.
Up for the Challenge
If these seem more like the qualities of an athlete, it’s no coincidence. These are the traits that Scottish cheesemonger and affineur Iain J. Mellis had in abundance that enabled him and wife, Karen, his business partner, to co-found I.J. Mellis, ‘Purveyors of Fine Farmhouse and Artisan Cheeses’, in 1993.
The Edinburgh-based enterprise has now grown to encompass five shops and an affinage operation with wholesale and online distribution.
Iain’s story began in his boyhood home of Inverness, a city regarded as the capital of the Highlands. He left school in 1979 and landed a job in the laboratory of the North of Scotland Milk Marketing Board. The national milk marketing boards were set up after World War II to regulate the production and sales of milk products. There are several throughout Britain.
When they wanted to set up a production facility in Inverness, they sent Iain to Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands for two years to study cheesemaking. And he loved it!
While the cheesemaking was on an industrial scale, Iain considers the training excellent, even for artisan producers. Mellis spent about 13 years in the labs and industrial production, but towards the end of his tenure, he grew increasingly fascinated by small-scale, traditional cheese making.
Following His Passions
Two passions drove I. J. Mellis as a young man: competitive cycling and flavor. He cheered on his favorites in the Tour de France and spent vacations cycling across the continent, munching regional foods along the way. He fell in love with the local cheeses. And village shops imprinted themselves upon his imagination, only to reemerge years later, reconfigured as his own stores.
A life-changing event occurred in 1987, as he and Karen watched Stephen Roche in the Tour de France in the French Alps. Roche won, but his victory nearly killed him. The high drama inspired, rather than deterred, Iain.
A couple years later, Iain returned to the Alps on his own bike to participate in four major climbs that were part of Le Tour. During his time in the Alps, he tasted hard cheeses that proved inspirational.
Back in Britain, Iain sought out anyone making, selling or aging artisan cheese, finally finding himself in Chester, England, at the door of The Cheese Shop, run by Carole and Ann Faulkner. The Faulkners were not just cheesemongers, they were actually aging cheese, too. Following Ann’s suggestion, Iain went to see Neal’s Yard, the acclaimed cheese seller and affineur in London. Retailing and affinage, that was it!
Scotland is a perfect environment for affinage. You may need a cave in France to achieve the right degree of moisture and temperature, but in Scotland, it is plenty cool and damp above ground as well as in basements. Nevertheless, climate-controlled cool rooms are important when it comes to aging a wide variety of cheeses, and that requires more than a single cave or single cellar environment. Iain explained that the art of the affineur is about knowing how long to age cheese. Getting that right comes back to the maturation specialist’s nose and palate, that is, the essential, innate talent for flavor perception seasoned by years of experience. It means knowing what peak flavor is for each type of cheese and being able to imagine and project that understanding of how flavor and texture will develop.
At I. J. Mellis, approximately 80-100 cheeses are aged at any one time. The cheese comes from all over Britain, the Republic of Ireland and the continent. Mellis’ stocks include soft, fresh cheeses with a short shelf life as well as the those requiring extended maturation. They inspect cheese as soon as it arrives at the warehouse, then select which cold room is appropriate for their placement. The rack-filled rooms range from 4-12 de-grees C (39.2-53.6 F). Room selection depends on the type of cheese and how mature it is upon arrival.
What may follow is a bit like a dance, as the affineur moves the cheese from room to room to speed up or slow down the maturation process.
Iain loves cheesemaking. He told me he still “loves to get hands into the whey.” When asked why he decided not to pursue a career as a cheesemaker, he says, “I’d been interested in affinage from the beginning, and you have to focus to succeed.” He also hailed from a family of retailers. He knew, and felt drawn to, the creative aspects of retailing, in particular, setting up the store environments and displaying product.
Establishing a Store
When Iain and Karen launched their first store, there were no artisan cheese shops in Scotland. Given the Faulkners and Neal’s Yard as models, they decided to establish a shop and aging operation in Edinburgh. Why not in his hometown? Inverness was not sufficiently cosmopolitan then to support an artisan food shop. It was remote anyway. And by then, Iain and Karen were calling Edinburgh home.
Edinburgh was then, and still is, an international city, famous for its annual arts festival. It was ripe for the artisan foods movement. Iain described locating his first shop as beginner’s luck. “Anyone with experience selling food products would seek to locate a store close to a residential area, but we didn’t do that,” he says. Had they tried to cultivate a customer base for artisan cheese in such a neighborhood, they could have gone broke waiting to build a customer base.
Instead, albeit unwittingly, Team Mellis stumbled into a location with ready-made clientele when they found a perfect cave-like shop in Old Town’s Victoria Street, a winding row of colorful storefronts just off the Royal Mile.
There, Mellis benefited from robust international tourist traffic in a neighborhood frequented by people in the arts, including journalists and food writers who gave I. J. Mellis its stellar reputation.
From this flagship store and small affinage enterprise, the couple began selling cheese to restaurants and other shops, launching their wholesale division.
Soon, visitors to the Victoria Street shop were asking Iain to please open a store in Glascow. The Mellis’ found another small store with a basement, perfect for affinage, in Glascow’s Great Western Road.
As Team Mellis looked to further expand the business, the town of St. Andrews drew their attention due to its international importance in the world of golf as well as its renowned university.
Meanwhile, Mellis set up a warehouse in the Edinburgh’s Leith neighborhood to centralize their cheese business and affinage operations.
Two more stores now serve Edinburgh neighborhoods, including a café or ‘cheese lounge’ at their Morningside Road branch.
The Mellis’ charming, hole-in-the wall shops shout farm to table, not only with respect to the inviting wheels and chunks of cheese, but the counters mounted on milk cans, locally-made sausage hung like Christmas garlands and colorful shelves of fruit preserves, honeys, traditional oat cakes and biscuits.
When I asked Iain where he saw I. J. Mellis going in the next few years, he pointed to his eldest son, Rory, now 22, who, like his father, has been a serious cyclist.
He has poured his energy into the family enterprise as he’s grown up in the business, learning all parts of it, including the all-important role of promotion.
Iain listened intently to my question, then spoke with his characteristic humility about stage of life transitioning and plans to increasingly serve in the role of advisor and consultant. “I will leave those decisions to the next generation,” he says.