Springtime at Holker, Lambs, Sheeps Milk & St James

My return to Cumbria after a nice lengthy Christmas break has only been in a part time capacity.  While I was in Italy in October and then helping at Neal’s Yard Dairy over Christmas, full time cheesemaking duties were taken over by Peter Mathew who is a local foodie and used to work in the Holker Hall food shop.  He continues 5 days a week to make cheese and for a month I took on 3 days a week, covering Peter’s days off and a cross over day to calibrate and check we were all on the same page cheesemaking-wise.
Calibration was quite a useful day because there’s nothing like working together to realise you both do things very differently.  For instance, the Brother David recipe calls for stirring but whether you stir by hand or with the steel paddle affects the texture of the curd at the end – is it cubes or more of a scrambled egg consistency and how does that affect the cheese?  Well the argument for cubes is that you lose less fats into the whey but that can mean that you have those fats impeding drainage.  On the flip side though, those fats can lend an extra unctuosity to the paste as it matures.   However if you do stir with the paddle, it can break down any large cubes better so that there’s less variation between size of cubes and thus it should drain better.  Really however at the end of the day, as it’s only a 500g cheese and due to the relative fat content of the sheeps milk versus the cows milk (9-10% in sheeps vs 3.9-4% in cows), drainage is much less of an issue than with St James and while there have been issues to resolve with bitterness on the rinds, there have however not been issues with the cheese breaking down correctly.   The extent of our drainage calibration has been a measure to remove more whey from the vat.  After cutting the St James curd, it’s quite easy to ladle whey off the top because there is no horizontal cut.  The ladling that happens after removing the whey is the horizontal cut in fact.  Brother David curd however is cut horizontally as well as vertically before the stir so when you try and ladle off some whey, the curd cubes just float up too and get caught up.  The trick had been to lay a couple of drainage cloths over the cut curd to act as a sieve of sorts and then the whey can be ladled off.  This was something Martin and I both did after our visit from Jemima Cordle.  However it got lost in translation from him to Peter – different interpretations of ‘Are you pre-draining with cloths?’  That’s the beauty of calibration.
Meanwhile outside the dairy, the lambs were being born.  Starting before I even went back to Holker in mid January, the first of the new mum sheep were lambing.   While the numbers were small, only one or two per day these were the difficult first timers with almost as many stillborn as live lambs; a difficult start to the season for Nicola.  However this time passed and the experienced mothers started to be ready to lamb.  This time the challenges were that more of them lambed together and it became full on hard work of a different kind.  Nature isn’t convenient and as Nicola sighed one day, the sheep always seemed to lamb at midnight (when she did her final check on them) meaning she’d be there until 2 or at 5am as she was trying to start milking.  Sleep is for wimps or at the very least it’s not for dairy farmers.
As far as the sheeps milk goes however this year was different to last year.  In the autumn of 2010 the sheep were dried off by mid October as the milk levels had by that point reached so low a point that it wasn’t worth carrying on making cheese.  In the winter and spring when the lambs were born, there was the choice to leave them to suckle with their mothers or take them off early and put them onto a lamb milk replacer.
Last year in order to get to the point where there was enough milk altogether, the lambs were left on their mothers (they either need to be taken off after the colostrum or left on for 30 days) so the first cheeses were made in early March.  This year however, due to having kept the milking parlour running through the winter because the cows were still producing milk, the choice was different.  If the parlour is running anyway and you don’t have to clean down, heat and get it going, then the number of milking sheep makes a difference.  Just as last autumn it was worthwhile continuing to milk the last valiant few as long as they kept going, it’s now worth starting at a smaller quantity of milk once the experienced mother sheep are ready and so the first few batches of St James were made early February with the milk quantities rocketing up even within my last week in the dairy!
St James curd in moulds from last season with some lactic Jersey experiments to the right (more on that later)
It was good to welcome St James back into the fold.  I’d missed using the sheeps milk and the challenge of playing with rennet quantities to achieve a similar firmness of set while using very different mediums made my 3 cheesemaking days extra interesting and fun.  It was hectic though.  Working two vats in place of one means that those gaps in the make (setting time, time between cloth pulls) which had previously been used for cleaning or rind washing, just disappeared as washing up, ladling and cloth pulling all began to take twice as long.  As I left, we were making 10 St James a day, which can only increase.  I hope to be back in Cumbria again soon (of that more later) and when or if I am, I hope I can spare a bit of time to help out with all that extra rind washing as well as my new cheesemaking work.
In the meantime, I have a souvenir of Holker Farm with me, Percy of Holker, Golden Labrador puppy from Nicola Robinson, Labrador breeder to the Specialist Cheese Industry.  His aunt belongs to Neal’s Yard’s David Lockwood and another relative is now residing in France at the home of the famous Ivan Larcher.
Gratuituous cute puppy picture – from Nicola Robinson, Labradors by appointment to the Specialist Cheese Industry.
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