I’m not a chef, but I do like cheese; so when Thomas Hanson came round to my home, late one winter’s afternoon, inviting me to have a peep into the back of his van there was little hesitation on my part. What beckoned was a vast chiller cabinet of cheese.
I found myself drooling ponderously over a spectacle the likes I’d never seen before. Is this what a mouse feels like in heaven? My olfactory sense, dulled by supermarket’s plastic wrapped variations on a cheddar theme, was reawakened. All the familiar Cornish favourites stacked in vast truckles of Cornish Blue and rounds of nettle-wrapped Yarg. My eyes were on stalks at a display of staggering proportions; cheeses of all sizes, from the familiars to the intriguingly untried. I was instantly drawn to the little, paper wrapped ‘Blue Horizon’ from Treveador Farm Dairy and eager to know more about a mild goat cheese from Allet.
“To be honest I’d had enough of being made redundant,” explains Thomas. “I wanted to start my own business but I didn’t want to have to employ too many other people. The idea was really given to me by a chef I knew. A van, in a previous place he’d worked, came round like a mobile delicatessen and, for a chef, this was like a being a child in a toy shop. It was an idea which made sense, having been in catering for 25 years; food and drink is what I know best.”
We’re discussing the number of miles he covers making deliveries to hotels and restaurants to virtually every part of the county and, although the business has now extended to two-man two-vans; I’m in awe of the long hours he puts in. “It used to be 6 days, so be able to employ someone else has improved things.” In the meantime, Thomas happily cuts open fresh new wheels of cheese just to slice me one wafer after another to taste. This feels truly indulgent. I’ve learnt to welcome the divine in delicate flavour for nibbling. I’ve discovered I’m shy of a strong cheese unless it’s accompanied by the side kick of a meaty steak and a rich red wine to soften its punch.
There’s discussion about textures, various types of hard, soft and cream cheeses and the varying flavours from sheep, goats and cows. His knowledge is comprehensive, “Cheese is a natural, organic product,” he says, “different types of cow, different grass, and it is even dependant on the different time of year. All of these factors give each cheese a variant in style. There was one cheese that blew holes in the spring, but I was able to sell it because I could explain why the holes were there, the taste was still as good, it just looked a little different to normal.”
As Thomas picks up cheese from the farms, on his rounds, and takes them to hotels and restaurants he is the direct link from the producer to the chef. He is the buyer, the salesman, the telesales operator as well as the deliveryman, and provides a truly personal service. “No one else does it the way I do it. I can suggest cheeses to chefs for different recipes.” The other benefit is that Thomas knows the artisan producers of the cheeses and he knows what they are making. “I’ve made cheese; I understand how it is made. I know the chefs; I know what they want so I can give feedback to the producers.”
Thomas is always on the look-out for produce that will complement his product list. Already he sells other Westcountry cheeses, however he is keen to sell other products, “Unique to me. The plan was not to be limited to cheese but offer an ‘on-wheels’ delicatessen.” His website also enables private customers to buy online and, “As I travel virtually everywhere in Cornwall on different days, I will be able to offer Cornish customers free delivery.”
I asked him if he might be expand to make a domestic round to people’s houses, harking back to times when, greengrocers and butchers would sell their produce around the streets from the back of a van. “I don’t see why not,” he said, “I could follow the fish van round. Fish is pretty expensive, so if they will buy fish then surely they will buy great cheese?”
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