ULVERSTON-BORN Ian Robinson has owned fish and chip shops and run newsagents. But when his eldest daughter, Nicola, and her school sweetheart Martin Gott started making their own award-winning cheese, St James, on the Cartmel peninsula, it sparked a curiosity about cheese that turned into a passion.

He and Martin opened Cartmel Cheeses in Cartmel’s Unsworth Yard eight years ago. Now sole owner, Ian sells around 50 handmade, mainly raw-milk cheeses from the shop and at Keswick Market every Saturday.

“I just got the love for cheese,” says Ian, who’s always ready with his knife to offer a sliver of something new and pungent to regulars and newcomers. “Finding out what people like and encouraging them to try something different, that’s what I love doing.”

What do you mean by handmade cheeses?

They are literally made by hand; there’s no mass production. If you think of the big creameries, they pool milk from many different farms. But our cheeses come from a single herd or flock - many of our producers use milk from their own animals - so every batch will vary in flavour according to the time of year and what the animals have eaten.

Take Isle of Mull Cheddar. It is made in Tobermory, where they have very little grass, so at times they supplement the animals’ feed with the mash left over after they’ve distilled whisky. It can taste quite fruity and peaty. It’s a lovely raw-milk cheddar.

Does raw milk make a difference?

Pasteurisation makes everything taste uniform, but raw milk has not been heat treated, so it is full of character. Some handmade cheeses are made with thermised milk, which is heated less intensively than pasteurised milk. But raw milk is the only way to fully express the distinctive characteristics of each herd or flock. With raw milk you’re not killing bacteria, you’re working with them.

It’s better for you too, because all those good bacteria are so beneficial to your gut health.

So many different cheeses. One raw ingredient. How is it possible?

Well, there are different milks: cow’s, sheep’s, goat’s, even buffalo’s. But it’s the way you treat them and the way they behave that makes each cheese different. With fresh cheeses, the curds are packed lightly into moulds to allow the whey to drain quickly; they have a high moisture content and acidic, citrus flavour. With hard cheeses, different techniques are used to remove moisture from the curds while they mature, producing a drier texture and stronger flavour. With Lincolnshire Poacher, for example, the curds are reheated to dry them out; it’s the same technique used to make Parmesan. ‘Cheddaring’ is when the curds are formed into mats and stacked on top of one another to force the moisture out as they ferment.

Curds and whey: how did we get to that stage?

First, a starter culture - basically a glut of bacteria - is added to milk to raise its acidity level by turning lactose into lactic acid. Then rennet is added, which coagulates the milk without souring it. If you left milk by itself, it would curdle - i.e. separate into curds (fats and protein) and whey (mostly water) - but would also go sour. The curds are then cut - you have to be very delicate with them. Different methods of cutting create different surface areas, which affect the speed at which the whey can be removed.

What is rennet?

Enzymes from the stomach lining of an unweaned calf. There’s a theory that cheese was invented thousands of years ago when nomadic tribes used the stomachs of their dead animals for carrying liquids. They realised that when they carried milk, it curdled but didn’t sour. Rennet is a byproduct of the dairy and veal industries: you would never kill a calf for its stomach.

So how is vegetarian cheese made?

Most vegetarian rennets are made in the laboratory or genetically modified. Generally they are created from single enzymes, so they create singular flavours. There are some natural sources of vegetable rennet, though. The Somerset cheesemaker Mary Holbrook, who was a mentor for Martin and Nicola when they started out, makes a washed rind raw goats’ cheese called Cardo using the stamens of the cardoon thistle to set the curd.

How do you decide what to stock?

More than 700 different cheeses are made in the UK. In our shop we stock around 50 and every one stands on the counter for a reason. We’ll change them throughout the year because they all vary from batch to batch -that’s why we encourage people to try them. Before Christmas, for instance, Stichelton [a raw-milk Stilton-style cheese from Nottinghamshire] was back on form, whereas most of the year we felt Colston Bassett Stilton just had the edge.

Do you have a favourite?

One of my all time favourites is Beenleigh Blue, a sheep’s-milk cheese made at Ticklemore Dairy in Devon. They use a low-heat pasteurisation: normal pasteurisation is quite brutal to the structure of the milk, but with Beenleigh they allow it to cool over a longer period, so it’s more delicate. It has firm texture and a distinct flavour: there’s a sweetness to it, but then the blue kicks in.

Any Cumbrian cheeses?

Fellstone, made at Whin Yeats Farm near Kirkby Lonsdale, has been a great success. They use their own raw milk in a Wensleydale recipe, but the result is creamier than a traditional Wensleydale. When people come into the shop and compare it with a Yorkshire Wensleydale, they usually choose Fellstone. Then, of course, there’s St James, made by our Nicola and Martin at Holker Farm Dairy. People are always asking for it, but it’s available only between March and October.

St James: why such a big cheese?

It’s a washed-rind cheese made with unpasteurised milk from their own herd of French Lacaune sheep - it goes into the cheese vat while it’s still warm from the milking parlour. They can only make it when the sheep are lactating; each year they make more, and each year they sell out. Earlier this year they launched Juno, which is made to the same technique using bought-in milk.

Why do they wash the rind?

After the curds are cut, they’re put into moulds, with little weights on top to extract the whey. When they come out of the mould, they’re salted, left in the maturing room and turned occasionally. Now and then, they wipe them over with a brine that encourages microbes to form a salmony pink rind. The rind causes the cheese to break down, becoming soft and runny. St James is a strongly variable and characterful cheese that at different times can be firm or squidgy, nutty or yeasty, even meaty tasting.

How should you eat it?

At Rogan & Co in Cartmel, they’ve cut it into slices, rolled it in oatmeal, blowtorched it and served it with a honey dressing. A bit of honey goes very well with sheep’s milk cheese, especially hard ones, like Spenwood and Berkswell.

What else is on your cheeseboard?

Pear and walnut chutney really complements blue cheese, while goat’s cheese is good with beetroot and red onion chutneys. When it comes to crackers, though, I’m a purist. If I’m going to eat cheese I want to taste cheese, so I don’t like any biscuit with flavour in it. Peter’s Yard sourdough crispbread is my favourite, because it’s a nice crunchy cracker that doesn’t distract from the cheese.

Are you partial to cheese on toast?

Yes, if it’s made with Red Leicester, a lovely melting cheese that gives you a stringy, gooey texture. Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire is wonderful for Welsh rarebit because it bubbles so nicely. It also makes a great cheese and onion pie.

Should cheese live in the fridge?

A whole cheese is generally happiest in a cool, damp cellar or larder, but you need to check how it’s behaving. If you keep it too warm it will sweat and smell very strong and develop surface mould more quickly. Cut pieces of cheese should be kept in the fridge: the salad drawer is the best place, because cheese likes humidity. Wrap it in waxed paper and bring it out of the fridge a couple of hours before you want to eat it - cold kills flavour. If you do find a dried-out scrap of cheese at the back of your fridge, you can throw it into your cooking. Just cut off the mouldy bits first; the heat will kill any nasties. There’s no need to waste proper cheese.

Cartmel Cheeses, Unsworth's Yard, Ford Rd, Cartmel LA11 6PN, 015395 34307, cartmelcheeses.co.uk