East Lothian couple scoop cheese ‘Oscar’

Neil Johnson with the selection of cheeses which have caught the eye of taste experts. JON SAVAGE
Neil Johnson with the selection of cheeses which have caught the eye of taste experts. JON SAVAGE
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A couple who launched a food business after getting cheesed off with the recession have won a food world “Oscar”.

Neil and Lisa Johnson are celebrating after their Mediterranean-style Labneh cheese was singled out for praise by the BBC Good Food Show and Great Taste Awards.

After learning their spicy fromage had been declared a success, former chartered surveyor Neil said: “We were absolutely delighted, it’s like winning an Oscar.”

The 45-year-old has good reason to sport a cheesy grin, as he only decided to set up his artisan food company after finding himself increasingly squeezed by the downturn. With work drying up, the couple, of Belhaven, East Lothian, plunged everything they had into Humble Pie Catering. That was five years ago, and the business has gone from strength to strength.

It now includes a cookery school, and Duke Street Superbly Splendid Provisions, the offshoot responsible for the award-winning cheese.

Each of the four styles – goaty, natural, spicy and Mezze – has been given the Great Taste Awards stamp of approval, and the firm is one of only six to be awarded a BBC Good Food Show Bursary.

The product has now caught the eye of big retailers and talks are under way to stock it in upmarket food halls up and down the country.

Neil said: “The work we used to do just started to dry up. It was the same for my wife, who had been working freelance for the BBC. I didn’t really have much experience working with food but Lisa used to own a restaurant in Northern Ireland so we decided to set up our catering business, Humble Pie. I didn’t see my lack of background as a disadvantage – it made me more willing to experiment.”

The business, based in a converted school building in North Berwick, has chefs from all over the world sharing ideas.

Neil said: “One chef who had been to Lebanon told us about a soft yoghurt-based cheese called Labneh. It has a very unusual, soft texture, and it doesn’t really taste like any other cheese you’ve ever had, but it works beautifully with all the same foods, especially pasta. We thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we rolled it into little balls and covered it in different spices?”

The produce is currently sold at Cranachan and Crowdie on the Royal Mile, and Hopetoun Farm Shop.

Neil said: Getting the BBC bursary is a great boost, too – the prize is a stall at the BBC Good Food Show in London next month. We have to get 1000 jars ready to take with us so we’re a bit flat out right now!”

For more information on the cheese of choice, visit www.duke-street.co.uk