Northern Cheese Warrior
Exclusive interview with Sean Wilson by Karen Shaw
He was familiar to millions as Martin Platt on Coronation Street for 20 years, but Sean Wilson left the North’s favourite street to go in a new direction… and he hasn’t looked back.
This is a lad who after a successful acting career decided to pursue his life-long passion and in the last seven years he has established an award-winning cheese company and built a reputation as an accomplished chef. As if that wasn’t enough he’s just finished filming his latest offering ‘The Great Northern Cook Book’ due to be screened on Channel 5 in December, and he’s also managed to find the time to launch his first book of the same name to coincide with his new programme.
I caught up with Sean to discover his recipe for success. “Sean,” I begin, “I have a confession to make…I loved your book so much I actually took it to bed with me last night. Well it’s like gastro porn isn’t it? This recipe book will be used to an inch of its life, smothered in gravy and plastered in pastry in no time at all.” “Well, I think it is and you’re not the first one to say that either,” he replies. “Anyone that knows me isn’t surprised because I’ve always had this undying curiosity with food, so when I told all my friends that this was what I was considering they were all saying it was only a matter of time.
“We have been working on this now from the original idea that I had with my colleague Rev over a few bottles of wine. We felt that there was an opening in TV for bringing the North to people because there are too many London chefs on TV.
“I know that the Hairy Bikers touch upon the North but they do it in a different way. What we wanted to do is go a little bit more in-depth and infiltrate Northern villages and create a real interest in different stunts that we were doing. It was great because the villages became part of each stunt we were doing. In the North we are known for being able to muck in; that’s when we’re at our best. “We went to Cumbria to a lovely village called Broughton-In-Furness and we brought the community together to create something rather large, known very well from that area. We needed the services of the Guinness Book of Records that will be in the second episode.”
After 21 years pounding the cobbles of Corrie as hapless Martin Platt, has Sean now closed the door on his acting career?
“No, not at all! In making the series, it completely moulds together what I know about calmness in front of a camera with what I know about food. It’s the perfect job. I spent years not looking into a camera, whereas with my new profession presenting ‘Great Northern Cook Book’ it was more about developing a relationship with the camera and the viewer.
“When I left Coronation Street in 2005 I received a lot of negative criticism, some people saying, ‘You’ve had your time in the acting world’ blah, blah, blah. I’m not a negative kind of guy and it was a perfect opportunity to re-invent myself, so that’s exactly what I did. A lot of people were saying ‘So you’ve come down to this, have you?’ which wasn’t very nice but they just didn’t understand that when you have a passion and the positive opportunity to follow your passion, that’s what you must do!
Is there a chance we might see your cheeses in Dev’s shop?
His answer is short, sharp and direct. “No, I wouldn’t like that. I’ll make my own way.”
Sean gained experience working with Nigel Haworth at Northcote Manor, in the Ribble Valley, and it was while he was there he was introduced to Bob Kitching at Leagram Dairies. At the time, Bob was the only one producing home-made cheese in the whole of Lancashire.
Sean says: “We had a couple of beers together and I said ‘It’s a sorry situation that the trade is dying out; Lancashire hand-made cheese needs a future.’ Then that’s how we struck up a relationship. I explained my interest in the science of food, and he said, ‘Well if you’re into the science of food, cheese making is all about science.’ I’ve tried to teach people before but they just don’t get it, but I’ll try and show you,’ which he did.
“I was forever taking notes and then he kicked me up the arse and I had to get out of his dairy before I stole all of his ideas. I returned home and began an 18-month period of testing to achieve my own cheese product. I was constantly mithering him on the phone but it worked and culminated in winning a gold in the World Cheese Awards.
“He’s a lovely guy and without Bob’s help I wouldn’t be where I am now. “I’m here to put Lancashire cheese on the national map. Since the birth of his Saddleworth Cheese Company, Sean has created a selection of cheeses – How’s Yer Father, Muldoon’s Picnic, Smelly Apeth and Mouth Almighty. Bob always said to me the one thing in his 44 years of cheese making that he wasn’t able to achieve was taking Lancashire cheese across the boundaries and I made a very silly promise to Bob that I was going to be the person that was going to do it.
Sean triumphed again in 2011 when he achieved another gold for his Saddleworth Blue Cheese ‘Smelly Apeth.’ Saint Agur was third and second was Gorgonzola. I wanted to throw my clothes off. It was a great achievement!”
Sean is what I would brand a true Northerner. There’s no airs or graces, there’s no sense of food snobbery, there’s just a man called Sean who believes in what he does and what he does he does well. He passionately champions his cheesy beliefs; he is in my humble opinion our very own Northern cheese warrior!
“Well that works? he laughs. “That’s what I feel like and I want to do it but it’s not just cheese, there’s a lot of Northern heritage to celebrate which we encompass in the book.”
How does Northern grub compare to the Southern dishes that they serve up?
“Well, you can’t call it Southern food because it’s just cooked by people from the South. There are some great cooks out there but at the same time, I’m sick of the word ‘jus’ and I’m sick of seeing in Southern recipes, two words ‘veal stock.’ No one makes a veal stock! I’ve been cooking for 30 years and only made it twice. Nobody makes a veal stock or a jus; we need to get in the real world. So in the cookbook you will see I don’t have a veal stock, I make a chicken alternative, that anyone could make. It’s not a bridge too far.
I was curious to discover who Sean would like to cook a meal for him. “Keith Floyd” he answers. “Without a doubt, he was a lovely guy.”
Unfortunately Keith is no longer an option so next in line would be his pal Jean- Christophe Novelli, who Sean often joins on cooking demonstrations up and down the country. “The thing about Jean-Christophe is that he loves the ingredients and he knows them all so well, he’s amazing.” He says.
Sean’s passion for his kitchen antics were borne at an early stage, his grandma Mona was a great influence on him. “She used to make a potato hash which was gorgeous. She got things right especially her brown crinkle- cut chips. I want to start the campaign for brown chips.”
Me too, Sean, me too. I remember the good old days when chips were cooked in lard, my Grandma always had a frying pan full of lard and she lived to a ripe old age.
“Chips should always be double fried and ensure you get Maris Piper potatoes grown in sand as the sand absorbs the excess water in the spud.”
Don’t forget you heard it here first folks!
Despite regularly frequenting Grandma Mona’s kitchen, his mum had a different approach to visitors in her kitchen.
My mother was the same. I was always desperate to get stuck in and was always told to set the table instead!
“Well, no Northern kids were allowed anywhere near the kitchen. I’d constantly be asking ‘Can I do this? Let me do that…’ My mum’s answer would always be the same ‘Get out of my kitchen!”’he laughs.
“In the book we’ve encompassed the Asian community with the appna style food which is an Indian word for ‘our way’ which is just very simple, thrown together food. The book also has a wonderful recipe for chicken soup with very lovely, cloudy, light, dumplings, which is a ‘nod’ to the rich heritage of Jewish cuisine. “
If stranded on a desert island, what ingredients would he choose to cook with? “Let’s keep it Northern. Obviously cheese, potato, and chicken for its versatility, carrots, onions and garlic. I love garlic so much I have a tattoo of a bulb of garlic at the top of my arm.”
Despite being a born and bred Yorkshire lass, I have always struggled with my Yorkshire puddings. However, no more. Aunt Bessie is now a vague distant memory after Sean convinces me that his recipe for Yorkshire puddings never fails. I find it embarrassing to accept Yorkshire pudding tips from a Lancastrian, but hey, this lad knows his grub so on this account I will admit defeat.
“I can’t believe that people buy them. In the TV series you’ll see a great Yorkshire pudding episode where I take on two Yorkshire champion Yorkshire pudding makers and that unfolds rather well,” he says.
Who wins? It must surely be Yorkshire…
“That would be telling,” he grins “let’s just say the producers were rather surprised by the result.”
It’s so apparent that Sean loves his food and with his new book and TV series his aim is to entice people to enjoy their time in the kitchen. It shouldn’t be stressful.
“We all need to make time to spend a little bit of time in the kitchen and I believe it’s important. To be successful in the kitchen requires confidence, so if at first you don’t succeed, try again. It’s a great rat race out there but in your own little kitchen you can take a couple of hours, relax and be yourself and that’s pretty much what I’m doing.
“I’m always looking to develop cheese, the superior Lancashire cheese and smoked cheese. We call it Smokey Joe. We have toyed with the idea of creating Camembert with Lancashire cheese called ‘Soft Nick’.”
Lancashire Camembert! Whatever next? I decide to test his true Northerness. As a child every Friday my dad would return from work with pork dripping wrapped in white paper and we’d sit and have dripping butties.
Sean answers “Well, to be honest I haven’t tried dripping butties.”
Well that is a situation that needs to be remedied. I earnestly promise him that the next time I’m in Saddleworth I will pay him a visit with dripping butties in hand as long as he promises to let me try some ‘Smelly Apeth.’
His answer is clear and concise: “Never mind ‘Smelly Apeth’, why not try a bit of ‘How’s Yer Father?”