Pierre Leger and Drew Watson are good friends who share an appreciation of Rugby and a fondness for cheese.
Pierre is French and grew up in the suburbs of Paris, with his summers spent in the Loire with his grandparents.
He said, “That's where I learned about good food, as my grandfather had rabbits and chickens, and a big kitchen garden with strawberries and a quince tree. There was a dairy farm nearby where we would get our milk in the morning"
After school he decided to go to catering college; “I wanted to be a baker, then a pastry chef but I ended up front of house.” When he was 16 he came to work in the UK. At the time there was a big recruitment drive to get French people to work in the British hospitality sector.
During his time in the UK, Pierre met Stephen Leckie (now Chairman and Chief Executive of Crieff Hydro) and he decided to move to Scotland and work at Crieff Hydro as their restaurant manager.
He then worked at various hotels in Edinburgh, but the relentlessly long hours led him to switch to become a sales rep for fishmonger George Campbell & Sons, followed by a sales directorship at Clarks Speciality Foods in Penicuik which saw him travelling around Scotland selling cheese and other goods to chefs.
He learned there was great demand for Scottish rind washed cheese, but no one in Scotland was making one, which got him thinking.
However with nothing to do at weekends he joined Crieff & Strathearn Rugby Club where he met Drew. Pierre didn’t play rugby until he moved to Scotland, but now it’s a big part of family life.
He said, “I love rugby, my daughter played rugby for Scotland under 18s and my son is playing rugby now, but one child isn’t interested.”
Drew tells us that Pierre is the better player; “if you ever meet him, he’s a big lad, I was second row and he is a prop.”
Drew comes from Crieff and joined the merchant navy when he left school; “I've been everywhere apart from Australia and New Zealand.”
A varied career followed, with jobs working on semi-submersible drilling rigs, before he joined a fire extinguisher maintenance company, “so I've been about a bit,” he added.
Both men were fed up working hard for someone else, Drew said, “We had had enough of that. I had worked for 25 years in my job and I was ready for a change.”
He explains, “Pierre was talking to me one night in the rugby club, and said he was thinking of starting up a business to make this particular type of cheese. That was the spark that set things in motion.”
Pierre’s cheese making dreams began in earnest when his wife gave him a kit for Christmas; “I made some at home and when I tasted the cheese, I said to my wife I don’t want to be big-headed but it was pretty good.
That is really how it started.” The pair then decided to swapped long hours and commutes to become cheese makers near their homes in Crieff.
Drew said, “I was confident in Pierre and his background in the cheese industry and his ex-employer was happy to buy our cheese. Hands up, Pierre is the cheese brains, he knows more about cheese than I will ever know.
He came up with the recipe for the cheese and did all the research.” Pierre adds, “I knew Drew quite well and I knew he was in the same place I was.”
The first day they began making cheese was January 3 in 2016. Drew recalls, “At the back of your mind you are wondering, are you doing the right thing?”
The first cheese they made is called Strathearn, a strong flavoured rind cheese made with pasteurised cow’s milk, that is washed in local Glenturret whisky.
This fromage was awarded a Gold Medal at the World Cheese Awards in November 2016. Pierre explains, “We wanted to make people from the area proud to have a decent cheese.”
Lady Mary is a soft cheese flavoured with wild garlic and it is named after a nearby river walk. Drew said, “You get a lot of wild garlic on the walk, although we don’t actually pick the garlic down there as there are a lot of dog walkers.”
They also make a variation of Lady Mary with truffle through it, he adds; “We used to just make it at Christmas time, but this year it won the Best Scottish Speciality Cheese at Virtual Highland Show, so we are making it all year round.”
Then finally there’s Wee Comrie, which complements the others as it is a mild semi soft cheese which has a bit of rind to it. Drew said, “It is now our best seller.”
Pierre believes there has been a renaissance of food producers in Perthshire; “Geographic provenance is a great thing, everyone wants to know where their food is coming from.” That is why they decided to give their cheeses local names.
As cheese making is classified as a high risk in the business of food producing, they decided to lessen the dangers and only use pasteurised milk supplied by Graham’s the family dairy in nearby Bridge of Allan.
When they first started the business Pierre enrolled on a cheese-making course. Drew said, “These courses cost and we couldn’t afford to send both of us but he is the cheese guru after all.”
Unfortunately the first few batches didn’t work out until they had perfected the process, but luckily things worked out well, and quickly with that early win at the World Cheese Awards in their first year.
Pierre said, “We were really chuffed you could watch the World Cheese Awards online. We saw them judging our cheese and they seemed quite impressed. Then we got the notification to say we had won a gold medal and we couldn’t believe it. To win nine months after we had started was incredible.”
But unlike the town of Dunblane when Andy Murray won Olympic Gold, Drew jokes, “They didn’t paint any post boxes gold for us in Crieff.”
The process in a nutshell: heat the milk to a specific temperature, which is different for each variety and then stir when you add the culture, (they only use vegetarian rennet).
When it reaches a certain temperature, let it rest, to allow the curds and whey to separate. Then you cut the curds and remove the excess whey, which then goes to a couple of local pig farms; Drew said, “The pigs love it, so nothing really is wasted.”
The curds are placed in small moulds and become cheese, which is then left to mature: Strathearn for four weeks, Wee Comrie for three, and Lady Mary for two.
Drews jokes, “I thought this would be a nice easy little job when I started but it is quite physical and there is a lot of lifting involved.”
The pair admit it took time for wholesale orders to come in for their products, so in the meantime they sold their cheese at local farmers markets; Pierre said, “They are a great way to introduce the public to our cheese.”
They currently sell at Perth, Bowhouse in Fife, Pitlochry, Kinross and Aberfeldy in th e summer as well as supplying restaurants direct, including; The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, Barley Bree, Fred Berkmiller, The Newport Restaurant, Cairn Lodge Hotel, Dunkeld House Hotel and The Grandtully Hotel in Ballintaggart.
Drew adds another, “Dundee Brasserie Ecosse have been pretty loyal to us from day one.” Lockdown was very tough for them as all the hotels and restaurants closed."
Pierre said, “There were some delis which remained open and they have kept us going, Hansen’s Kitchen, The Crieff Food Co, Gloagburn Farm Shop in Perth, all these people more or less kept us producing through that time.”
They are also grateful to the members of the public who supported them, and despite the tricky times experienced over the last 18 months both are still glad they took a chance and wouldn’t swap back to their old lives.
Although there are challenges that come with running their own business, Drew said, “At the end of the day, it is a nice feeling, we have a bit of a laugh and we try not to take it too seriously.”
Pierre is pleased they took the gamble, “I love going to work every day. I would have been very unhappy if we didn’t do it, at least we have tried.”
They took out a ten year lease initially at their Nissan hut kitchen in Cultybraggan camp (an old WWII prisoner of war camp) near Comrie, but they are quickly outgrowing the space.
They have plans for expansion, Drew said, “Blue cheese is something we would love to do.” And to make that they need a separate maturing area. They have also considered making a smoked cheese.
Pierre said, “We won Best Scottish Cheese twice before we were five years old, and then we won the Best Scottish Cheese at the World Cheese Awards so it has just been phenomenal. It was never a question of is this going to work? It had to work and we have put a lot of effort into it.”