When Penny Nagle and Marcus Fergusson moved from London to a 22-acre smallholding in Somerset with their young children, they were searching for a different way of life.
Three years on and the multi-award-winning artisan cheesemaking business they built from scratch is about to undergo a major expansion.
The couple raise pigs, sheep, chickens and quail, as well as running a holiday let, at Feltham’s Farm, near Wincanton, on the edge of the Blackmore Vale. Making their rind-washed soft blue cheese, Renegade Monk, however, is their main focus. The cheese was recently given organic status and has picked up several awards including winning Gold at the World Cheese Awards and achieving two stars in the Great Taste Awards.
“Somerset is the Silicon Valley of cheese. We are surrounded by some of the best cheddar makers in the world,” says Marcus. “When I decided to make cheese, I really wanted to make something different that wasn’t available in Britain.
“Cheesemaking is this extraordinary mixture of art and science,” Marcus explains. “The scientific part is measuring pH and humidity and understanding what the different cultures do, as well as knowing how the milk changes through the seasons. Miniscule differences in terms of temperature at certain stages will have a profound effect on the ultimate product.
“You also need to have intuition, to look at the colour of the milk and feel the texture, and make an alteration based on your gut instinct. Ultimately, taste is the only way of knowing, so the whole team regularly tastes the cheese to monitor what we’re producing.”
The farm has strong environmental values at its core, with solar panels driving the factory and powering the electric delivery van and a ground source heat pump, which heats the milk in the vat as well as providing heating and hot water.
“We’ve always lived lightly on the land,” says Penny. “We feel very strongly that we need to pass on what we have to children and grandchildren in the best condition possible. That means no chemicals and no antibiotics for the animals. The pigs drink the whey from the cheese. It’s a symbiotic relationship, which reduces waste.
“As part of that organic, sustainable approach, we also want to reduce food miles. All the ingredients for the cheese come from within an hour of where we live. That’s really important to us, because it means that we have a really personal connection with the producers.”
Marcus is now developing new products, all based on European cheeses but incorporating local ingredients. Current experiments include a Trappist cheese and a Spanish recipe in which animal rennet is replaced with artichoke flowers. Penny, meanwhile, has plans to run ‘cheese experience’ days, which will allow visitors to come on to the farm, see how the cheese is made and take part in tasting sessions.
South West insurer Cornish Mutual has insured Feltham’s Farm since 2018. Local insurance advisor David Osborne says: “When I first met Penny and Marcus, the business was quite embryonic. They’ve grown it quickly and I think that’s largely because of their enthusiasm. They are full of ideas and different ways of moving the business forward. Their different backgrounds, skills and experiences are also very complementary and have helped them to turn a hobby into a successful business.
“The new facility moves everything up to a different scale and it will be very exciting to see how Feltham’s Farm grows and develops.
“At Cornish Mutual, we see more and more small artisan food businesses developing across the South West. This is where our approach of taking the time to listen and talk things through with our Members to truly understand their ambitions, really comes into its own.”
"As a small business, we don’t have a lot of time to spend checking through policies, we just need something that works and people we can trust,”, says Penny Nagle. “Our local Cornish Mutual insurance advisor, David, really is excellent and explains everything to us in a very clear and practical way. It helps to have someone local we can talk to.
“Cornish Mutual seem to really understand farmers and rural businesses.”
A lifelong cheese lover, Marcus recalls choosing a cheese fondue for his sixth birthday party and the excitement of tasting different cheeses on family holidays in France. Working in a corporate communications role in London, he founded the London Cheese Club and eventually took part in a cheesemaking course at River Cottage.
He says: “When I started making cheese, it felt as if, for the first time in my life, I was making something genuine. When I get to sell to individual customers it’s fantastic to see their reaction, especially when they love it and come back for more.
“We taste every single batch that goes out of the door. No two cheese makes are the same, and I think that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
“We’re a mid-life crisis that’s going pretty well so far,” adds Penny. “When we bought this slightly unloved bit of marshland in Somerset, we just knew we wanted to grow our own food and have our own animals. Through this journey, we have made the transition from having a normal day job to running our own food business.”