Mario Olianas is no stranger to early mornings. He rises at 3am to start the process of making his award-winning Yorkshire Pecorino cheese. It is a real labour of love for this father of two who moved to Yorkshire more than 20 years ago for just six months to learn English.
Mario was born in Vienna, but grew up in Sardinia. His father was a fisherman but the young Mario never wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Severely dyslexic, Mario decided to go into catering and was working in five-star hotels by the age of 19.
He wanted to go into hotel management but knew he needed to improve his English and so when he was offered the chance to visit and stay with friends in Leeds he jumped at the opportunity.
“I meant to come for six months but then I met Sonia through a friend and finding that I loved God’s Own Country I never went home,” he says.
After working as a delivery driver, and doing various catering jobs in restaurants around Leeds, he saw an opportunity to start his open business, selling home-made Italian produce at farmers’ markets.
“Initially I made traditional Italian meals like lasagne, but then I started making doughnuts,” recalls Mario. “It was about 12 years ago and nobody was making fresh doughnuts then, although a lot of people are now making them.”
Mario soon had a loyal customer base for his authentic Italian dishes and treats, but he felt he had more to offer and just needed the right product.
“I went back to Sardinia and my brother was making traditional Italian Pecorino from ewe’s milk with my dad,” he says.
“There is a always a lot of friendly competition with my brother and I bet him that I could make a better cheese than him – and that’s where it all started.”
Pecorino is a traditional Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk and when Mario returned to the UK he needed to find a supplier close to home.
“I started looking round Yorkshire for sheep’s milk and could only find one supplier who is based in Harrogate and I have been with him ever since,” says Mario, who started making his Pecorino from his home in the Leeds suburb of Adel, producing just 30 litres from a converted utility room.
It is all a far cry from the new specially designed dairy in Otley where Yorkshire Pecorino moved during the pandemic and where Mario now makes around 1,500 litres a week.
He sells a lot of his cheese through the renowned award-winning Courtyard Dairy, near Settle, whose owner, Andy Swinscoe, supplies many of the country’s top Michelin-starred restaurants.
“We were very small when we started out,” adds Mario. “I was selling mainly at the farmers’ markets where I had been selling my dishes and doughnuts.” It was entering a BBC competition that started to spread the word about Mario’s cheeses, and in particular his Leeds Blue, which was originally called Adel Blue.
And it was just the start of the accolades, with Leeds Blue winning best international cheese at the Yorkshire Show in 2016, followed a year later by finishing in the top 60 in the World Cheese Awards.
“We beat pecorinos from Italy,” Mario says with clear pride. In fact, Yorkshire Pecorino has won more than 100 awards in nearly 10 years for its cheeses which include Leeds Blue, Fiore, Fresco, Yorkshire ricotta and its own take on halloumi, the popular grilled cheese.
Probably the proudest moment for this dedicated Italian was getting the approval of his family. “I haven’t been able to go home since the pandemic, which has been hard on us all as we always go every summer. But when we do go, my brother and my father now ask me to take some cheese with me – that’s a great compliment.”
Like many small producers the pandemic hit hard. “We were ready to move to our new bigger premises in Otley but then overnight everything stopped,” recalls Sonia.
But Mario was determined to keep making his cheese. “If we didn’t make the cheese and use the ewe’s milk, then there was a chance their milk would have dried up and then when we were ready to start production again there just wouldn’t be any milk to use.”
With restaurants all closed and farmers’ markets abandoned, Mario took to knocking on doors selling his cheese and other Italian specialities.
“It was right at the beginning of the pandemic and at the time no one was doing home deliveries,” he says. “I delivered ready meals around north Leeds and Otley. Andy at Courtyard Dairy then started doing cheese boxes and we were included in that which was great and meant that we didn’t have to stop producing cheese.”
Mario and Sonia even set up a pop-up shop outside their Adel home. “We had people queuing round the block for up to two-and-a-half hours” says Sonia. “We had to find different ways of working – standing still just wasn’t an option for us.”
They eventually got into their new premises in Otley in May which allowed them to increase capacity once restaurants reopened. Mario now employs two staff and is on the look out to recruit another employee. The couple also hope to create their own shop in an empty unit next to the dairy.
“I have always wanted a cafe or a deli and it would be great to have somewhere that we can sell the cheese directly to the public,” says Mario.
“We have a lot of customers in Otley and so when the unit came up, it just made sense for us to move Yorkshire Pecorino here.”
His passion for what he does is hard to miss. “I have always been a strong believer that if you put your heart and soul into the food you produce, it really does show in the end product. I am really proud of the various cheeses we produce and truly believe that they are some of the very best you can get.
“I am really passionate about what I do, which is why I don’t see this as a job or work. I am as enthusiastic today as I was when I first started making my cheeses.”
And Mario has big ambitions, although he stresses that he would never compromise the quality of his product, despite a supermarket being interested in stocking his cheese.
“I am still a relatively small artisan producer,” he says. “But my aim is for my cheese to be in every single home.”
Mario says his cheese are “Italian with a bit of Yorkshire mixed in”. He and Sonia have two sons Raphael, 16, and 15-year-old Loris who help out on the farmers markets’ which Mario still loves doing. But his main challenge at the moment is getting enough sheep’s milk to keep up with demand for his award-winning cheeses.