How grazing platters changed my life

Laura Billington in her Cheshire kitchen with a cheese platter

Laura Billington launchyed Graze Cheshire during lockdown, and has created for herself a job she loves - Credit: Kirsty Thompson/Archant

If you’re a fan of the ‘gram, you won’t have failed to spot the glorious posts from Graze Cheshire, a business launched in lockdown by Laura Billington 

Many, many people took the chance to re-examine their lives during the lockdown of 2020, for once able to step off the hamster wheel and take a close look at their job, their life and their levels of contentment. Some realised that their work-life balance was all wrong, more accepted that happiness in their work was more important than ambition, and others decided that something wholly new, that tapped into their creative spirit, was needed.  

Laura falls into the latter camp, her repressed creativity finally demanding an outlet. 

Burrata, various tomatoes, pesto, candied pecans, red pepper, pesto, apricots, rocket

The Portofino Board, inspired by a family holiday - Credit: Shortall Shots

‘I was a Law Costs Draftsman, which meant I would calculate the costs of cases in legal actions, working on behalf of law firms. I was running my own business, which I had set up 16 years ago. During lockdown I realised that while I loved the challenges of running my own business, I didn’t love the work itself. 

‘When Covid struck I still had my business, my clients and could have kept going, but as for so many, it gave me the chance to re-assess. It was quite a solitary job and never delivered the most exciting of conversations. I knew I wanted to find something more creative, more people-oriented. I had seen grazing platters when on holiday in America and been really excited by them, and saw that it was still a nascent trend in the UK. I started doing grazing boxes for home delivery, to test the waters, to see the level of interest and if I could make a living from it, and while it quickly became obvious that I could, I still wasn’t getting that creative satisfaction I wanted. 

Cheeses, cold meats, fruit, nuts, crackers, to serve 10 to 12

The Chester Board is the largest of Laura's Cheshire collection - Credit: Shortall Shots

‘In October 2020 I did my first platters. I was dead proud of those first ones, at the time, but now I look back and think they weren’t great at all! By Christmas 2020 I was making tons – and was exhausted, but really happy.’ 

Laura’s business has grown and grown, and is now taking her in a direction she could not have anticipated in those first days. 

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‘It seems I have become an ‘influencer’,’ she laughs, ‘and am attracting the attention of national brands. I have more than 11,500 followers on Instagram, and get more than 750,000 views a month on Pinterest, which is huge. My Instagram followers are largely local, in Cheshire and the larger North West, which is really important to me, as it means my followers are connected to me and my local environment, so if I recommend a local business people can access them easily and trust in my recommendations. I have been offered a lot of ‘freebies’ by brands who want me to promote their product to my followers, but I turn most down – how can people believe I am authentic if I compromise my style and creativity in that way? I will only work with brands I know, love and trust.’ 

A tray with various cheeses, fruits, dried fruits, olives, crackers and breadsticks, all beautifully arranged

The Winter Celebration Board, from Laura's best-selling cookbook, Inspired Grazing - Credit: Shortall Shots

Laura recently undertook a campaign with Bon Maman jams and preserves, creating beautiful videos on her social media showing how to create pancake-based grazing platters. She has also been appointed Cheese Board Awards Ambassador for The International Cheese and Dairy Awards (quite possibly her dream role) on 30 June and will be taking to the stage in the Ambassadors tent at Love Cheese Live food and drink festival, the following day, giving a demonstration on how to build the perfect cheeseboard. Both events take place at Staffordshire County Showground and Laura is almost giddy with the joy of it. 

‘It’s an absolute honour,’ she says. ‘The ICDA is in its 125th year now, so it’s such a special time to join. I’m just very happy that they like what I am doing and want me to be a part of this huge event. The Cheeseboard Awards is a new aspect of the show, and is designed to show cheeselovers just what a wide variety of accompaniments can join your favourite cheeses on your cheeseboard, something I love to do.’ 

In 2021, Laura’s talent with a cheeseboard led to her writing her own cookbook (though there’s no actual cooking required for the majority of her platters), Inspired Grazing. 

A selection of cheese, cold meats, fruit, and nuts

The Alderley Board, from Laura's Cheshire collection - Credit: Shortall Shots

‘I always say there are three types of cookbook: the ones where you like to look at the pictures, but will never cook the dishes; the ones you use for display only; and the ones you actually cook out of. When developing my book I wanted it to be the third type.’ 

Laura, encouraged by her husband, Neil, took her idea of a book to inspire people to create their own grazing platters to publishers Meze. 

‘I made a phone call, talked them to death about my idea, they told me how much it would cost to publish it, and that it would have to be self-funded, and I walked away,’ she says. ‘But I really wanted to do it. A few days later I emailed them and offered a joint project idea. It worked, for the first time ever they agreed to a 50:50 deal. It sold out in four months and has now been printed again – and this time they funded it all. It’s been their best-selling cookbook, ever.’ 

Inspired Grazing cookbook on a wicker basket

Laura's cookbook, Inspired Grazing, is now on its second printing - Credit: Shortall Shots

Laura had a very clear vision for the content, look and feel of her book. 

‘I divided the book into four seasons, then devised 10 recipes for each season, and then 20 pantry recipes for the extra bits that elevate your grazing boards, the chutney for example. You can of course buy chutney and I have found many I love, or you can make it yourself with my recipe. 

‘For each board I explain where I found my inspiration. The Italian board, for example, was inspired by the colours, tastes and textures of a family holiday in Portofino. I had way too many ideas; the struggle was which ones should make the book.’ 

Port wine Derby cheese, Petit grey soft cheese, Wensleydale with Cranberries, red grapes, Kalamata olives, pistachios,

The Girls' Night In Board - Credit: Shortall Shots

So, has Laura found her creative happy place? 

‘What I really, really want to do is inspire people to get creative themselves, to make their own grazing platters and feel the happiness of what they’ve achieved. Even the smallest cheese plate can be beautiful. All that matters is that you love what’s on it and you have used your creativity to arrange it and garnish it. The joy it brings you is unbeatable; it’s a work of art, a bouquet of food – a fabulous gift, something that will trigger oohs of delight from guests, a creative outlet, an escape...  

‘So many people seem to have disconnected from the pleasure of creating food for others, they see it as a faff, or too difficult, but this is just a joy to do – I put the music on and find my flow. It’s my aim to bring joy that to other people, too.’ 

Well, with her feast-for-the-eyes Instagram feed and her cookbook packed with idea, it would seem her dream is well on its way to being accomplished. 

grazecheshire.co.uk, lovecheeselive.co.uk