CHRIS READE - ARTISAN CHEESEMAKER
As young, first generation farmers, struggling to make ends meet in Somerset, Jeff and Chris Reade had a romantic dream of one day moving to Scotland where they hoped to escape the “farming rat race”. In 1976, their dream became a reality when they purchased a derelict farm on the Isle of Mull, a small speck of land settled in the vast Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Scotland. Jeff and Chris were joined on Mull by their four sons (Garth, Matthew, Brendan and Joe) and over the past forty years have built a fully functioning dairy farm, which produces award winning artisan cheese. While Jeff has sadly passed away, Chris and her four boys still live and work on the island. Brendan and Garth run the cheese business while Joe makes organic Isle of Mull biscuits and Matthew is a hotelier and artist. I speak to Chris about the story of how the family ended up on Mull, their interest in sustainability, and the history of the artisan cheese business.
In the 1970s, the good times for UK dairy farmers were coming to an end as milk lakes started to overflow and butter mountains built up throughout Europe. To scrape together a living, Jeff and Chris were slaving away on their farm in Somerset, milking three times a day, to produce milk it seemed like no one wanted. In many ways the situation mirrored the challenges facing dairy farmers today; according to the National Farmers Union, as many as one in five of the UK’s 10,000 plus dairy farms could be forced to close in 2016 because of falling milk prices.
In desperate need of a break from the daily grind, Jeff and Chris booked a few days holiday in a little cottage on an idyllic beach in Wester Ros, Scotland. The beauty of the Scottish landscape hypnotised them and they left convinced that Scotland was the answer to their prayers for a better life. “It was the first time since we had been married that we went to Scotland and it was just amazing. We thought we have to move now or we never will, it was like latching on to something that might be wonderful,” Chris recalls.
How the Reade family ended up on Mull is a remarkable story of luck and chance. They were on holiday on the island, camping and exploring, when they came across a ramshackle farm called Sgriob-ruadh, which overlooked the wild Atlantic Ocean and was a stone’s throw from the coloured cottages of Tobermory. “It was sunny and idyllic, we thought it was the most wonderful place in the world,” Chris recalls. A few days later Jeff was reading the local newspaper over breakfast when he spotted an advertisement that Sgriob-ruadh was for sale along with 40 acres of land at a price he and Chris could afford. They could not contain their excitement, it seemed like fate. In Scotland there is a closed bid system, which means you write down your offer and put it in an envelope without knowing how much your rivals have bid. Jeff and Chris had their hearts set on Sgriob-ruadh so bid the highest amount they could afford. “We really, really wanted it, so we put in the top price we could manage,” Chris says.
A few weeks later the whole Reade clan were huddled in a stuffy waiting room at a solicitors in Oban, tired and anxious, having driven all the way from Somerset for the envelope opening. As the clock chimed midday, the solicitor sheepishly ambled into the room clutching a bottle of whisky and broke the devastating news that property developers had outbid them. He swiftly poured Chris a tumbler as she burst in to tears. The family was crestfallen; they had spent many a sleepless night picturing their new life on the idyllic Scottish isle. However they decided to continue with their journey to Mull nonetheless and camp for a few days.
Chris was gazing longingly across the valley at Sgriob-ruadh one morning, feeling quite miserable, when she heard a van trundle up the drive. The island postman stumbled out of the door and came dashing up to the campsite. “I have been searching high and low for you for days,” he exclaimed. It turned out that the woman who was selling Sgriob-ruadh was dismayed at the outcome of the bidding and had decided that she would prefer to sell the property to the Reade family rather than the property developers. Jeff and Chris met her in the local pub that evening and wrote their offer on a piece of paper, which marginally trumped the winning bid. The owner wrote “I accept”, which is legally binding in Scotland, and that was that, the Reade family successfully purchased Sgriob-ruadh in the local pub. It was an amazing turn of events, which “made it feel like it was meant to be,” Chris says.
Matthew and Garth were the first members of the family to settle permanently on the island and pioneered the way, installing electricity and building a shelter for the cows, as Jeff and Chris arranged the sale of the farm in Somerset. It was a hard life for the boys; they would sleep in a flimsy caravan they had purchased from the local doctor, which was often battered by ferocious storms that rolled in from the Atlantic and rampaged across the island. They earnt a crust selling milk to the islanders and soon felt at home, as the local women repaired their clothes and introduced them to their daughters. The boys both ended up falling in love and marrying local lasses. After Jeff and Chris tied up all the loose ends in Somerset they joined Matthew and Garth on the island along with Brendan and Joe. Chris feels sure that one of the main reasons the boys have stayed on the island is because they “were so involved in building the farm from scratch.”
It did not take long for the family to establish the milk business; after all, they were the only dairy farmers on the island. The locals and tourists soon came to rely on the family for milk so running out was not an option. In the winter, when the flow of tourists to the island started to dry up and the demand from local businesses for milk was less, the family used the surplus to start making cheese. It made sense; not only did it save them from chucking milk away, at the turn of the millennium, competition had started to arrive on the island in the form of fridge vans, which would bring milk from the main land, so the business needed another string to its bow. It soon became apparent that for the Reades’ to maintain their monopoly on the island’s milk supply they needed to invest money in the milk business; alternatively they could focus solely on making cheese. After toing and froing about which direction to go, they settled on the bold decision to concentrate all their efforts on making Isle of Mull cheese. They built a new dairy and have never looked back with the cheese business going from strength to strength and winning a host of awards over the years.
Essentially Isle of Mull cheese is a traditional Somerset cheese, so what makes it so special? Chris explains that the French concept terroir applies to cheese as well as wine. In winemaking the taste of the grape depends on the vineyard it is grown. Cheese is also a product of the land. Its taste, texture and colour depend on the land the cows graze on. The Reade family’s cows feed on the draff that comes from the distillery in Tobermory and the soil and water on the basalt rock island of Mull is completely different to the soil and water found in the limestone county of Somerset.
While the cheese is not organic, Chris assures me that the process is as natural as possible. The cheese is unpasteurised, which means all the natural bacteria is retained and this gives it a depth of flavour not found in pasteurised cheese. Furthermore, they do not use artificial fertiliser and everything the cows eat is produced naturally on the island. The Reades’ are passionate about sustainability and have spent years devising an intricate network of renewable energy, which runs through the heart of the farm. The dairy is powered by a hydroelectric plant, a small wind turbine and log burners, which are fed by wood from the surrounding forests. The family go to great lengths to save energy; for instance the swimming pool and holiday cottages are heated using the reclaimed heat from cooling milk down in the evening and the pigs are fed on the waste product from the cheese making.
Chris has always been an adventurous soul and is enjoying exploring the world in retirement. Her latest trip was to Nepal where she donated money to six families from a village that had been destroyed in the earthquake. A highlight of her trip was showing them how to make cheese using milk from the yaks. “It was so earthy in Nepal and I loved the people, they were just wonderful,” she says. Chris leaves the day to day running of the farm to her boys now, and spends her days managing the farm café, which serves, simple, natural food, with many of the ingredients produced on the farm. She also enjoys passing the time making pots, baskets and mugs and tending the garden. Chris feels lucky to be surrounded by her boys who she sees almost every day. They all have families of their own now and many of Chris’s grandchildren will live and work on the island. Indeed we can expect the Reade name to be synonymous with the Isle of Mull for a good while longer.