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The natural choice for cheese


Nancy Anne Harbord pays Mario Olianas a visit at his home in Leeds to see how Yorkshire Pecorino – the winner of Best Semi-Soft at the Great British Cheese Awards 2016 – is made.

A quiet, suburban house on the outskirts of north Leeds is not where you’d expect to find quality cheese production. But it is here that I am warmly welcomed by Mario and Sonia Olianas with their friends and family as they showed me where they make their unique cheeses. Cheeses that have been attracting awards in almost every contest they enter, including last year at the Great British Cheese Awards where they won best semi-soft cheese.

Mario, who originally hails from Italy, makes full-fat, Sardinian-style sheep’s milk cheeses, developed from traditional recipes. He has had to adapt his methods to the constraints of manufacturing cheese in a spare room (making raw cheese wasn’t practical in this country for such a small production, for example) but his cheeses are made with love, completely by hand and to the highest standards.

The youngest of the semi-soft cheeses Mario makes is Pecorino Fresco, aged only thirty days, through to Pecorino Stagionato, aged for many months. I tried a very memorable Fiore Sardo while I was visiting, which is lightly smoked before being left to ripen. It had a thick, smoky, umami crust, great for piling onto shards of crispbread washed down with a little red wine.

His cheese is now on the menu at The Gilbert Scott in London, where they pair the creamy Pecorino Frescowith tomatoes, rosemary bread, olives, basil and Ortiz anchovies, or use it for Pecorino gnocchi served with radicchio, sprout tops and chestnuts. Light, seasonal, Mediterranean-style dishes that reflect the sunny roots of this Sardinian-style cheese.

But Mario is not making Sardinian cheese, he is making something more exciting – something completely its own. The milk is from Yorkshire, from sheep that have fed on that lush, verdant green. The cheese is made in Adel by Mario’s hands – pasteurised, curdled, cut, drained, shaped, turned, steamed, salted and ripened, all by him. It is Italian, but it’s also Yorkshire. And he’s quietly confident his cheese is better than his family’s back in Italy.

Mario also makes two sheep’s milk blue cheeses, Adel Blue and Leeds Blue. I had the pleasure of trying the Leeds Blue (the younger and milder of the two) as I feasted at their dining table. It was stand out delicious. Bright, the right amount of salty, with the delicate taste that sheep’s milk imparts. Not harsh at all (like I sometimes find Roquefort to be) and with a light, creamy texture. I ate a lot.

Ricotta is a delicious by-product of pecorino production, which Mario makes by reheating the leftover whey and skimming the resulting curds. Mario tells me it’s good with a little balsamic, but I’m focused on the clouds of fresh, sheep-y cheese. An incredibly white, delicately creamy sheep ricotta is a beautiful thing. His makes it into handmade cannoli, various cheesecakes, as well as filling for his Italian doughnuts, bomboloni. Just writing that sentence is making my mouth water.

Mario and Sonia have had plenty of offers to expand their business, but they are trying to do it right; making fantastic cheeses while mitigating the financial risks of larger production. But people are crying out for their cheese, with those few stockists that carry the Pecorinos offering to take whatever Mario and Sonia can make. So for now, you’ll have to keep an eye out at The Courtyard Dairy in Settle, North Yorkshire, in The George & Joseph in Chapel Allerton, Leeds, and at farmers’ markets in Leeds, Otley and Harrogate where Mario himself can tell you about his lovely cheese. And you too can sample some of that creamy Leeds Blue, his award-winning Pecorinos or that billowy, milky sheep ricotta. Handmade, regional British produce at its best.

Article courtesy of Nancy Anne Harbord and Great British Chefs.