Anne makes Baron Bigod

 

Mid October, a staffing crisis hit the Baron Bigod team and since I was around, knowledgeable and looking for extra work, their head cheesemaker Mark Mitchell suggested I joined the team to help with Christmas production. I was happy to be a part of it.

Partly the Baron Bigod make is quicker, more physical, has more manual intervention and so is quite different to the St Jude make and that quite appeals to me. Partly, however, it plays with a line between acid drainage and rennet drainage that also quite appealed to me to learn about.

‘You won’t know what’ s hit you,’ said Mark, as I started my first emergency shift. He had promised 2 shifts of at least 10 hours a day but we were already short staffed due to illness & bereavement. 2 shifts ended up being more like four or five on top of my St Jude making duties too. It was a test of endurance in some ways but, to be fair, not the first time I’ve done a workload like that. Cheese retail has trained me to pull out the stops when the Christmas rush is on. When you’re cheesemaking, your Christmas rush is in October and November (for soft cheeses) whereas your retail Christmas rush is, of course, at the end of December. As it happens I did one of those too this year. Mons Cheesemongers. But that’s another story.

On the first make day of the week the Baron Bigod routine starts at 6am in the dairy, sterilising the moulds, trays and setting up the draining tables and sterilising the vats ready for the milk. Before this, the milking team will have added starter to the milk that is collected in their tank and which will then feed by gravity through the pipe into the vats at 7am. Starter is usually added as milking starts at about 4:30 to 5am so it can ripen in the tank for a couple of hours at least before it’s piped across to the dairy.

Starter can be added in powder form although depending on the time of year either DVI starters bulked up in skimmed, sterilised milk overnight or a specific starter culture designed to be bulked up may be used. At the moment, they are experimenting with their usual DVI starters but incubating them overnight. In September when there’s a higher proportion of new lactation milk, which has higher antibodies and tends to play havoc with their usual starter cultures, a specific culture designed to be bulked up will be used. Currently they are experimenting with what quantity of milk to incubate into as it affects the speed of the make. Before Christmas we were using the DVI cultures directly put into the milk tank.

The milk is then piped across to the dairy at 7 or 7:30am depending on the acidity. On particularly cold days, Jonny might choose to keep the milk in the tank a little while longer as, once it gets to the dairy, it will be transferred into 8 tanks of 200l which will lose their temperature quicker than the insulated tank where it maintains a temperature of 34C. As with all cheeses there is a target range of pH to add the rennet at and if it will help to keep the milk incubating in the tank and send it across just as it’s ready to rennet then why not? Slowing the make down by losing temperature won’t help anyone.

It takes about 20 minutes to fill all the vats and usually the aim is that they will be ready to rennet once the last vat is filled. While filling the vats, a 2 litre jug is taken out and a rennet test is done, which basically replicates the vat in miniature. By testing the flocculation time of the rennet test, you can assess what quantity of rennet to add to the vats.   The aim is to flocculate in around 9 minutes and then the final set will be the flocculation multiplied by a factor of 5. In other words by just under an hour it will be at the right consistency to cut.

The first thing I noticed after a few makes was that while the rennet test and flocculation test were religiously carried out, no one was testing the quality of the set before cutting. I’d been taught to check for a clean break in the curd and as time progressed with making their cheese I started to aim for the curd to have also come away from the sides of the vat (this tended to coincide with the clean break). To begin with, obviously, I observed and learned but after a week, I suggested testing the break in order to help the drainage later. This seemed to help. In October, we were moving from the early lactation milk with its high antibodies to mid-lactation milk, which would have settled down. September (before I got involved) had resulted in some quite quick maturing, wet cheeses that grew pink yeasts on the rind and tasted pretty great but had a very short shelf life: not a problem for some customers but difficult to handle for a lot of them. We were aiming for a more stable, longer maturing cheese now and trying to manage the last of the unruly milk to deliver that so drainage was key. The curd was cut smaller than usual with a couple of ‘harps’ (strung with wires to a specific size) rather than cutting with one harp and then with the knives as they had been doing before.

The curd was cut when a clean break and a certain amount of breaking away from the sides of the vat were achieved. It’s then left to settle and acidify for a bit. The aim is that the curd will have given off 2 to 3 inches of whey at the top of the vat but also that the curd will be at pH 6.2. Obviously the 2 things do not always coincide but that is the ideal. At this point it’s time to ladle.

All this time, from 7am when the milk comes across the room is heated to at least 30C so the atmosphere is not causing the milk to lose temperature and the cultures to slow down. While Baron Bigod and indeed Brie de Meaux on which it is based require a certain speed of acidification, this is usually achieved in a matter of hours and the cheese is ladled by about 12 noon. The lactic set St Jude on the other hand is not ladled at the same acidity because the rennet used is significantly less. Where Baron Bigod (and indeed Brie de Meaux) are ladled at pH6.2 using a combination of the acidification shrinking the curd and the rennet shrinking the curd to cause the drainage, St Jude (and St Marcellin, its closest French equivalent) is ladled at the much more acidic pH 4.6 by which time the acidity is the primary shrinking and draining factor and the rennet just serves to allow the set to have consistency and help it on its way.

After ladling, the cheeses are left to drain and when the curd level has dropped to the correct percentage, the trays are turned. Each tray weighs 8kg more or less and it takes 2 trays when you’re turning: one that the cheese has been on and another that the cheeses are turned onto. The cheeses on that tray will probably weigh about 12kg at the first turn although this drains down to less on subsequent turns. The job is shared between 2 people but you lift with one hand and lower with another and you will do this around 80 times. You shift a lot of weight in this process and chances are you’ll do it 3 times before the afternoon is out.

The cheeses drain for the afternoon and are turned 3 times. The aim again is to reach a pH of 5 at the final turn and that overnight it will be drained so well that it doesn’t drop below 4.8 or at the very least 4.7. Having tried to make a Reblochon recipe / Taleggio recipe at Nettlebed and with my own experience of over acidifying that particular recipe, I know that when we made cheese that hit pH of 4.8 or 4.7 (we were aiming to level at pH 5), it had a more Brie like consistency than the one we were aiming for. Hence I can believe that a Brie de Meaux aims for that sort of pH to stabilise at.

Obviously it’s hard to hit the perfect pH but cutting small and aiming for the right set helps. But nothing is an exact science. Having tasted some Baron Bigod from the counter at Neal’s Yard Dairy and compared to some Donge Brie de Meaux on the Mons counter on my first Mons December shift, it was interesting to observe that the Baron Bigod was a lot more runny and liquid with obviously less calcium retained in the curd which hints at post acidification (ie after the make day is finished) where the Donge Brie has a more stable texture and buttery flavour.

The flavour will be different from producer to producer and especially from one in the Isle de France compared to one on the Suffolk flood plains. However the retention of calcium can be compared and certainly for the retailer, while there is an excitement factor to a super runny cheese it is easier to handle and mature a more stable cheese, which retains more calcium. It can be matured for a longer time and this allows more nuance and more complexity of flavour in the paste. Certainly my comparison of Baron Bigod to Donge’s Brie showed that out. To be honest the Baron Bigod compared very, very well. It is, without doubt, the only Brie style cheese being made in the UK that can hold a candle to the French cheeses. However when it came to a comparison with an award winning French Brie from a small, family producer, it had a lot of flavour in the rind that wasn’t born out in the paste. The paste was super-runny and a little flavourless by comparison as if it had matured just a bit too quickly. The Donge was more subtle overall but the balance between paste and rind was more equal and indeed better. To be honest since after my initial tasting, I then spent my entire time selling French cheese, I can’t give you a rational analysis of what proportion of Donge Brie to Baron Bigod might get sold. However I do stand by my initial assessment and will be interested to see how the comparison develops.

Splitting Curds and Curd Drainage

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The mystery of the splits in the curd continues. After a period in late August and September with minimal or no splits at ladling, it came back again in October and November. As it happens this also coincided with a period in which I joined the Baron Bigod team who were in the middle of making Christmas cheese, battling staff illness and had a couple of people off on compassionate leave. Earlier in the year when we mentioned the splits to Jonny he had sounded surprised having not heard from his team about any issue but it soon became clear that although the Baron Bigod curd splits were smaller than those in the St Jude curd, they still existed.

One theory, especially because the splits tend to appear and be exacerbated at the end of the set was that the milk protein might have been made up of the wrong sorts. Julie sent a sample of milk to a lab in Cornwall for them to analyse its composition and they returned a result that suggested the milk while high in protein overall was perhaps a little low in casein which is responsible for the set and that therefore the total protein was made up of too many other types of protein like albumins which are whey proteins. Having had that result returned, she sent further samples off that had been frozen earlier in the year at a time when the set was particularly bad – not only split but also quite fragile. Unfortunately the results this time were not conclusive. So while there may be mileage in this avenue of research we can’t be sure yet.

Another theory had been that the starters were not active enough and to be honest here we’re a little hazy on the details. Thierry had wondered if the cheeses were prone to phage but Julie didn’t feel the make was getting that much longer. A week ago we also had a visit from Martial Reynard, a technologist from Coquard who explained to us that the titratable acidity readings we were recording would show us the lactic acid development and by comparison to the pH we can gather information, not only on how active the starters are but it can perhaps help us put together a picture of how the chemical composition of the milk might be inhibiting our starters. Julie measures the TA of the fresh milk, at renneting and at ladling and hopes to find a reading of around 60 Dornic indicating that lactic acid is developing nicely. 60 degrees Dornic would indicate 6g lactic acid per litre. Recently we are getting readings closer to 40 and in fact the other week on the day of Martial’s visit our reading was 37. However, I began measuring TA on the Baron Bigod make this week and using the faster of their starters, there seems to be no starter inhibition on that make. Lactic acid developed to 90 – 109 Dornic by the end of the make, meaning they had between 9 & just under 11 grammes of lactic acid per litre. 6 to 7 grammes per litre would indicate that the milk has reached the acidity at which it would naturally coagulate or its isometric point. So it appears that in the St Jude curd for some reason we aren’t reaching the isometric point at ladling and the Baron Bigod whose set is more rennet based anyway is exceeding it by the end of the day and the final turn. Both cheeses do use the acid development to aid drainage. Brie style cheeses drain as a mixture of acid development shrinking the curd and squeezing out moisture as well as the rennet also carrying out that action. Lactic cheeses of course rely on the acid development more than that of the rennet as the rennet is basically there to support the acid rather than act as an equal draining agent.

Strangely although the curd is splitting, and the isometric point may not be being reached when we want it, the cheeses seem to be draining quite well by the first turn. This evening, when Julie measured the TA of the whey coming off the draining table at the first turn of the cheeses (a short wait after the end of ladling) it showed that the lactic acid was developing still, having finally made it to 60 Dornic or 6g lactic acid per litre and therefore the isometric point. So as this is achieved in the end, it should explain why the cheeses are draining despite the splits. However we also noticed this evening that the more split vats tended to have the lower TA at ladling despite having hit the right pH. This is something to monitor as so far this year just when we think we’ve identified a pattern eg different rennet amount or different temperature, the curd bucks the trend and confuses us all over again.

However the splits but also drainage theme seems to be echoed in the Baron Bigod makes this week too. The Bigods have had split curd before cutting but drained nicely. Last week however there were splits and the cheese had a softer consistency and stuck to the drainage mats (it makes the morning clean down much longer and more difficult). Last week’s St Jude also held in more moisture and Julie sent an instruction to Jacob at Neal’s Yard Dairy to dry a couple of the batches on arrival to help the rind set.

To be honest, we still have not got to the bottom of this yet but we have learned a lot about drainage and milk composition in the process so far. We’re now awaiting a technical paper from Martial to help us understand what information the TA might unlock.

St Jude & St Cera

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Back in January, just as one job was finishing, luckily, I received a message from Julie Cheyney who was looking for someone to help her with her cheesemaking. Would I be interested?

Um yes. I would be honoured.

I know how much Julie’s cheese is a labour of love and to be asked to help was a big deal.

St Jude and St Cera are lovely cheeses. Julie has been making cheese at Fen Farm Dairy for a couple of years now and although the St Marcellin-style lactic cheese was always good before, since moving to Suffolk the cheese has had an extra edge.

Part of the equation is the milk. Jonny Crickmore, whose herd provides the milk for St Jude and St Cera, is also a cheesemaker as I’m sure you all know. He makes the renowned Baron Bigod – in my opinion, the only Brie style cheese being made in the UK that comes close to a French one in terms of depth of flavour. True it is still on the learning curve as the cheesemakers are developing a working knowledge of their cheese comparable to that which has been passed down by French Brie makers from generation to generation but each year the cheese gets better and better and finally this year it was sold into shops in Paris.

However St Jude is not just down to the milk. Julie is an exacting cheesemaker. If the curd hit its ladling pH of 4.6 at midnight or one o’clock in the morning, then that’s when she would ladle it. If the cheeses needed to drain by moving from one room to another repeatedly over several days after moulding in order for a good geotrichum rind to grow, she would be in the dairy several times a day to put a heater on, put a fan on, look at the cheeses and see what they needed. To replicate that was always going to be a tall order. Especially as trial makes in February proved conclusively that midnight ladling followed by a 4 am start in for the milk for the next day’s make does not suit my metabolism one little bit. I got ill and then made Julie ill. Not good.

However in the form of Thierry the Normandy cheese consultant a shorter recipe was devised. Initially, from the beginning of this year, Julie experienced draining problems in the curd which were giving her mucor on the rind instead of geotrichum and blue, yellow, grey spots plus bitter flavours on the bad batches. Thierry suggested an extra step before ladling to help the cheese drain in the vat – cutting a cross a couple of hours after renneting. To begin with this seemed to help but come July we were getting odd split curd in the vat even with the cross cutting and began to wonder if in fact this was weakening the curd. Experiments with not cutting the cross however didn’t bear this out. On the other hand, Thierry came back for another visit and decided that we needed more active starters. It had been taking a couple of hours to cool the milk from cow temperature to 27C using a flag (which looks a bit like a radiator & you can run either hot or cold water through it). Our cold water wasn’t the coldest and hence it took a long time to cool the milk. The starters therefore weren’t able to get going quickly and the natural flora of the milk which may or may not have been what we wanted, were flourishing instead. Thierry looked at Julie’s starters and her method of preparation and suggested adding them directly without incubating overnight. True enough they did work much faster that way. Turns out that a DVI starter has bacteria but also cryogenic particles to preserve the freezing process and if you incubate it overnight those particles inhibit the bacteria. I never knew that! It would appear the only starters that benefit from culturing overnight are bulk starters or levain grains for a bulk starter. Well you learn something new every day.

 

So we set off adding our DVI starters to the milk without cooling and then cooled it at renneting. Initially we had some issues that suggested possible phage so we used some rocket fuel starters, which we have ultimately given up on. For a lactic cheese an 8 hour make is way too short and indeed the cheeses dried to pebbles during maturation because they had very much overacidified. However with a new batch of starters along the lines of her old ones and from the same supplier, we have returned to a better timing of the make and flavours much more like the old St Jude.

The interesting thing has been that longer makes still disintegrate more and drain less well as a result despite not having the overacidification problem. This lead Julie to question further and see if in fact phage was not the overriding issue. Luckily for her the Science of Artisan Cheese Conference was coming up and therefore if she got all her photos and data in a row she would be able to consult Ivan Larcher who after several years setting up his own dairy on a family farm was making some tentative forays back into the consulting arena. Ivan asked questions about titratable acidity of milk and whey, milk tests for fat and protein and suggested we investigate the casein content in the milk. More on that when the results come in.

Fellstone from Whin Yeats Dairy

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Clare Noblet at work in the dairy stirring curd for a Traditional style Wensleydale

Clare and Tom Noblet contacted Andy at The Courtyard Dairy just before Christmas to see if he might be interested in buying some of their cheese.  They farm a beautiful area overlooking Farleton Fells and have a herd of about 80 Friesian Holstein cows, around 200 Rough Fell sheep and a few pigs and hens.

They share the farm with Max and Jenny Burrow, the farm owners who were looking to gradually retire.  Tom and Clare are incrementally buying animals, replacing infrastructure and buying into the farm which they both acknowledge has been a lifeline as, with a young family and very little capital behind them, they couldn’t buy a farm for themselves and yet, as Clare told us on our recent visit, all Tom has ever wanted to do is milk cows.

In common with most dairy farmers, though, Tom finds himself incredibly frustrated with the price he receives for his milk.  He cares passionately that the cows should be healthy, happy and well looked after.  It’s the essential cornerstone of production for him.  And yet, the buyers in their area for drinking milk can only offer him a price at which he’s losing money.  It’s infuriating, saps motivation and is frankly unfair.

With the idea of adding value to their milk, Tom built a dairy, just to the side of their milking parlour for Clare to begin making cheese.  They took themselves on a course locally and acquired a recipe for a homestead style cheese which isn’t unlike a young cheddar.  At Andy’s suggestion, they also looked into a Dales style cheese like a traditional, pre-war Wensleydale.  While a mere half an hour from Settle, near Carnforth, they fall into Cumbria rather than Yorkshire but it’s a style of cheese that is well suited to the remoter, hillside areas.  Besides, while in London, the most popular cheeses on the counter are cheddars, once you get up north, we love our crumbly cheeses.  Andy’s current best seller by a country mile is Graham Kirkham’s Lancashire.  Yes, you did read that right.  The best seller in a Yorkshire cheese shop is Lancashire.  Richard the Third Wensleydale, Anster (made by Jane Stewart in Fife), Gorwydd Caerphilly and Appleby’s Cheshire also make up the selection of crumbly cheeses on offer on the tiny counter of the Courtyard Dairy and sales are brisk.

When we visited Whin Yeats farm in November, they had a few very early batches of cheese that were about 4 weeks old. They wanted feedback but also, hopefully, a sale.  One thing I’ve learned though, is that your first couple of batches of cheese aren’t usually suitable for sale and not surprisingly the same was true of theirs.  We felt they needed to add more salt before the flavours were balanced.  However it was encouraging that, even in the absence of salt, we couldn’t identify problem flavours.  We could have noticed gassing or fermented flavours indicating spoilage bacteria in the milk which, without inhibition from the salt, had the potential to go crazy.  It was a promising sign for the quality of their milk that these were absent.

While Andy didn’t buy cheese on that visit, he did scan and email as much technical information about farmhouse Wensleydale as he could find for them along with a couple telephone number and email addresses of people they might ask for help.  They had already had a very useful conversation with Graham Kirkham as the cheeses are similar in style.  Over December and Christmas they were able to get their cheese to a few markets and when we came back for a return visit in mid January to make cheese with Clare, their confidence was much higher, having not only made some sales but having received some complimentary feedback too.

The milk is fed down from the milking parlour to Clare’s vat where a steam jacket heats it to the appropriate temperature for adding starter.  There is a ripening period and rennet is then added.  Once set, the curd is cut and then stirred, at first by hand and eventually. when it is all cut down to the appropriate size. using a paddle.  Whey is drained off and the curd is moved by hand, in blocks, from one side of the vat to the other until it has drained and compressed itself enough to be moulded.  Clare then salts the curd in the vat and breaks it by hand into the moulds.  Filling the moulds, as it is done by hand, takes some time and as we filled moulds, a zen like quiet having descended on the three of us, Clare ventured that she would quite like a curd mill.  If they can get their hands on something manual, it will definitely speed this stage along and will help with even salt distribution as well.

When we tasted their later batches of cheese, the salt levels had definitely improved but we still felt they could take a bit more salt to balance things out.  I remember the first time I made cheese being slightly surprised at just how much salt was used and wondering if it was really neccessary but since then I’m convinced.  Salt plays a vital role in stabilising and balancing the flavours, largely by controlling the bacterial and mould activity and acting as one of the preserving factors in cheese.  Finally the moulds are put into their cheese press and the pressure applied gently.  Clare will adjust this throughout the afternoon but as with Graham Kirkham’s Lancashires, she doesn’t want too much pressure too early on.

As a mum of four with animals to look after as well, the Wensleydale recipe suits the rhythm of her day and the potential for an unpasteurised, crumbly Wensleydale style being sold in both Lancashire and Yorkshire is great once they get over the early stages and get into their rhythm.  Given the quality of their milk, it seems likely that they are 95% of the way there with just a few tweaks here and there to help Clare iron out a few inconsistencies from batch to batch.  Their cheese is already available from the farm and hopefully it won’t be long before they are reaching a wider audience.  Keep your eyes peeled for Fellstone cheese.

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Clare beginning to move and drain the curds

Goats Milk Adventures at The Courtyard Dairy

Following on from Nettlebed Creamery, I was very pleased to be offered work at Andy Swinscoe’s The Courtyard Dairy, a tiny cheese shop, overflowing with artisan cheeses from small producers.  It is a postage stamp sized shop that punches above its weight.  Not unlike Neal’s Yard Dairy in the early days.

The job on offer was retail (of course) with some cheesemaker work thrown in.  Andy had contacts with several local producers making cheese on an extremely small scale.  They were interested in moving from cheesemaking as a hobby to something that might bring in an income and had got in touch with him for help.  With a view to this, even before I had begun work in the Courtyard Dairy’s shop, we began to visit and make cheese at these farms to get an idea of what we might be able to do to help.

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Gillian and one of her goats on winning an award at the World Cheese Awards for her Tenacres, fresh goats cheese.  Photo from the Halifax Courier

Gillian & Tim Clough, Lactic set goats cheese

Gillian’s interest in cheesemaking was a secondary string to her bow arising out of her breeding Anglo Nubian goats.  She loves the breed and luckily they are known for their exceptionally rich milk which is highly prized by the goats milk cheesemaker.

As her herd increased in size, Gillian had milk than she could drink and began to think about cheese.  She currently makes a lactic-set, fresh goats cheese which she began to sell at farmers markets and to a local organic deli in Hebden Bridge near her home.  Having been a little bit ambivalent about cheese while growing up as she was only really exposed to anonymous supermarket cheeses, she saw the cheesemaking as something that allowed her to continue to breed goats rather than a pleasure itself.  It came as a very pleasant surprise to discover that a hand made cheese, using milk from exceptionally well looked after goats was like night and day compared to the cheeses of her childhood and opened a world of characterful hand-made cheeses to her.

Last year, Gillian was milking only 4 goats which is set to jump to 8 this year.  She was saving milk from a couple of days milking in order to have enough to make a batch.  However she could see that as the milking herd increased in size she would need another customer.  Luckily for her, Andy is always on the look out for unpasteurised, hand made Yorkshire cheeses.  Together they are working on a lactic cheese that can be aged a little, for about 7 days, and sold with a very slight geotrichum, wrinkly rind.

I visited Gillian with Andy, over the summer to see her current cheese-making facilities and see the space she could expand into for maturing the cheese.  She had been playing with maturing some cheeses in a wine fridge but knew that she needed to make these facilities a little bit more sophisticated.  She didn’t want to set up something huge and complicated though.  She doesn’t currently intend to let the herd get beyond 20 milking goats as she feels that she would have to choose between time spent on the cheese and time spent with the animals if her production increased beyond this size.

They live on the slopes of a steep hill, just out of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire with an amazing view down the valley.  The goats are pretty much in goat heaven; as cared for as pets, glowing with health, tame as anything, inquisitive and friendly.  I had a 24 hour ‘the Good Life’ pang as we visited, wondering if in fact I should buy 4 goats and start milking.  It’s that attractive from the outside.

Their house is set out over 3 floors and around a circular staircase.  The cheesemaking facilities are on the lowest floor which is partially dug into the hillside and that helps its temperature regulation.  She has a small cheeseroom with one tiny window.  Not enough to see an expansive view but enough to let air in to keep the temperature stable in summer and not so much that it cools too much in spring and autumn.  The curd is set in a small vat and temperature in the room is regulated with bar heaters that you can use in a greenhouse.  It is a masterclass in simple but effective ways you can start making cheese without spending a fortune.

Next to the cheeseroom is a spare room containing a couple of wine fridges and over the course of this winter, before the goats begin milking again, her husband would be beginning work to turn it into a more sophisticated set of maturing conditions.  Andy and I, gave a few opinions on how the cheese might be tinkered with, suggestions of where to buy starter and starter quantities, suggestions of rennet and the most pressing issue – who to visit to see how to take her maturing facilities up a notch but without breaking the bank.  One name sprang to mind, Neal’s Yard Creamery.  We arranged a visit on a misty, rainy day in November.  Gillian and Tim weren’t milking anymore so they had enough time on their hands to take a day out.  We variously made our way from Yorkshire to Herefordshire; Andy and I in the car, Gillian and Tim by train.  Neal’s Yard Creamery has grown organically and they have a particular aptitude for finding a simple way to achieve the right conditions for their cheese.  Rather than put in an expensive and custom engineered drying room system, they use dehumidifiers, fans and heaters to achieve the same effect.  Rather than have the latest in refrigeration design, they have bought beer coolers which refrigerate while maintaining humidity and do the job of an expensive bit of kit yet are simple to operate, don’t cost the earth and can be fixed when things go wrong.  I encountered some of the disadvantages of the custom made approach while at Nettlebed Creamery so the simplicity of Neal’s Yard Creamery struck a chord.  The visit was a lot of travel time for a short amount of time in the dairy but it served its purpose with Gillian and Tim taking photo after photo of equipment and mentally filing ideas away for them to work on in early 2016.  Currently work is nearly finishing, with Gillian getting ready to start the kidding and milking process.  The cheese year will be starting out.  With a bit of luck you may see her cheese hitting the counter of the Courtyard Dairy quite soon.

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Charlie Westhead shows us around Neal’s Yard Creamery explaining how they have evolved their systems and maturing conditions.

 

Kirkham’s Lancashire

The legend that is Graham Kirkham, in the maturing rooms.
The legend that is Graham Kirkham, in the maturing rooms.

‘What do you know?’ asked Graham Kirkham, on meeting me in the dairy.

‘Um – not much?’ I ventured. But I was about to learn a lot.

The really exciting thing about the Kirkhams, from my then perspective as a retailer and temporarily disadvantaged cheesemaker is that they farm only with their cheese in mind. They have no Dairycrest contract to fulfil, no minimum litres to achieve and therefore everything about how they farm has the goal of making amazing cheese.

Amazing cheese needs amazing milk but, specifically, it needs cheese-orientated milk. This means that it needs to have zero pathogens but viable lactic acid bacteria and good solids (fats and proteins). Graham’s cows are largely Friesian which would normally produce milk with about 3% fat. His cows manage 5% fat. For comparison that is Jersey milk levels.

They achieve this by specifically gearing the feed and breeding so that it suits the rhythms of the cheese. They stagger the calving all year round so that the milk is consistent in quality. End of lactation milk has different fats and proteins and tends also to have a higher bacterial load. Early lactation milk has a tendency for the fats to separate out more easily as well as also having a higher bacterial load. The more you can balance out these inconsistencies, the easier it is to make good cheese. The cows are fed silage all year round in addition to the pasture that they graze. In fact, last year (it was September 2015 when I visited), although they had free access to the outdoor pastures, the cows had been happier indoors where they have an airy barn with a back scratching brush roller. It had been monumentally rainy in Lancashire that summer. This meant they had eaten more silage than usual and the milk was more consistent.

Silage that the cows eat. The neatness, order and cleanliness of how it is stacked impressed me.
Silage that the cows eat. The neatness, order and cleanliness of how it is stacked impressed me.

The grass, being open to the air, varies. Variety can come from moisture content one rainy day to the next drier day as well as having higher sugars at the beginning of the season and more fibre towards the end of the season. When cutting grass for the silage, the Kirkhams wait longer than the average dairy farm. If you’re farming for milk production, you want fresh young grass, high in sugars and plenty of moisture. It’s rocket fuel for volume production. But if you’re looking at the solid content of the milk rather than the number of litres you’re producing, you’ll cut your silage grass later in the season when it’s more fibrous. This helps the fat percentage in the milk and is probably one of the reasons that the Kirkhams are able to make a Friesian herd give Jersey quality milk.

A couple of the Kirkhams cows in their comfy shed, eating away.
A couple of the Kirkhams cows in their comfy shed, eating away.

The reason they go to all this trouble with the milk is evident when you look at the way they make cheese. In the interests of achieving the correct buttery crumbling texture and slow acid development, they use tiny amounts of starter. For a vat of 2,500 litres milk they use milliletres of starter where a quicker recipe would call for 25 litres of starter or 1% of the milk volume. As a result of their starter use, they have a slow acid development, which helps the curd develop a richer, more nuanced, complex and subtle flavour that will develop over time. They mix the curd from 2 days production together when it comes to moulding cheeses so this slow development is what allows them to do this without compromising the flavour of the final cheeses. It is the traditional way of making Lancashire, dating back to when cheese would have been made without starter or at least using the whey from the previous day’s make as starter if necessary. Those were days in which cows, being milked by largely by hand, had more lactic acid bacteria in their milk so the need for starter cultures was reduced.

The cheeses are made over 2 days. On the first day, the milk is pumped into the vat and starter is added. They use a liquid starter, which looks like a runny yoghurt and tastes pretty delicious. The rennet is added about 20 minutes later, giving the starter time to acclimatise to its new medium but not develop appreciable acidity. The set is intended to take about an hour and, as they are practised hands at this, it does. The curd is then cut to the size of a hazelnut or roughly a 1cm cube. It is stirred briefly before it’s allowed to settle. Greater stirring would increase the acid production and create a bright and dry crumbly curd, which isn’t the mellow buttery, feathery texture Graham is going for. After about an hour, the free whey is pitched off and the settled curd is ladled into the centre of the vat, where the pressure of each new ladle of curd helps the curd-mass squeeze out whey.

Beginnings of the process of transfering scoops of curd from the side of the vat to the centre. Beginnings of the draining process.
Beginnings of the process of transfering scoops of curd from the side of the vat to the centre. Beginnings of the draining process.

When there are empty channels at every edge of the vat, the curd is allowed to bow out under its own pressure and then using a knife, blocks of curd are cut and stacked onto the curd mass continuing the whey expulsion. Finally a channel of curd blocks is cut into the centre of the vat and from then they begin to handle the blocks of squashed curd onto a cloth lined draining table. During this process, the curd has changed from a soft and jelly-like texture to something more akin to chicken breast. Once in the draining table the curd is broken by hand into pieces that roughly equal a handful of curd and then left to drain for an hour with the cloth wrapped around them and light weights placed on top to ensure the whey doesn’t stop draining.

Breaking the curd by hand in the draining table.
Breaking the curd by hand in the draining table.

The curd is broken again another 2 times during the afternoon with an hour’s wait in between each break. The time between curd breaks will then be used to combine a couple of days’ curd, mill it, salt it and pack it into moulds, which will form the final cheeses. It smells utterly delicious at this stage. In fact it’s one of the best jobs of the day, arm deep in curd that smells of lactic butter and, if you sneak a taste, tastes of salty, buttery gorgeousness.

Graham Kirkham prepares to mill curd from 2 days to pack into the moulds.
Graham Kirkham prepares to mill curd from 2 days to pack into the moulds.

A mixture of blocks of curd from yesterday and the day before are put through the curd mill to bring them down in size. Salt is then added and mixed by hand before the curd with salt is milled a further 2 times and then when it’s a fine texture, is packed into moulds and put into the presses overnight. The presses are tightened slowly with Graham doing the final turn at about 9pm – you don’t want to press the curd too soon or it might actually make the surface too firm while the interior retains its moisture. This would lead to funky fermented flavours as trapped moisture and naturally occurring yeasts go crazy together at a cosy temperature of about 20C. It’s especially likely to occur if you try and mix curd from 2 days as one lot of curd has sat for an extra day at ambient temperatures and without any salt to slow down yeast and bacterial activity.  This makes the yeasts sound undesirable and as long as they are controlled and in balance they certainly are not.  They are part of the natural flora of the milk after all.  The key is balance and control thus it’s important to keep an eye on the drainage and pressing of the curd.  Why bother with 2 day curd if it’s so much more difficult? The 2 day curd is important because it creates a mellow, buttery, savoury and complex flavour and this is something that sets the Kirkhams apart from other Lancashire makers who have opted for the faster and moister way of making cheese.  On the face of it, it makes sense commercially to have a shorter working day and a fast maturing cheese but then by following the slower and more traditional route, the Kirkhams have a unique and delicious cheese that is highly sought after.  Its popularity and the satisfaction in tasting the cheese alone justifies the considerably greater workload that it requires but because it is something special, Graham can also charge a price that means despite the slower maturation, greater workload and indeed resulting wage bill, he can make a profit.  This is the way of artisan cheese.  If you listen to conventional business theory, it makes no sense and yet if you stick to your guns and make something really good, it makes money.  Goes to show the limitations of what we normally see as business sense.

If Graham made a ‘more efficient’ cheese, the curd would be too wet to keep for an extra day.  If he tried to then it would taste eggy, sulphurous and so the quicker and moister recipe tends to lend itself to a simple one day curd cheese. This is fine but one dimensional and lactic , whereas the addictive quality of Kirkhams is that it has so much more than that.  A few days in his dairy and I learned about milk production, cheesemaking and had a beautiful illustration of the shortcomings of the standard business model.

The Nettlebed Adventure is Over (For Me At Least)

So. I’ve held back from writing this blog post for a while because I didn’t know how to phrase it but I figure the only thing to do is be honest.

It all went tits up. Well it did for me at least.

When I last left blogging we finally had a floor in at Nettlebed after several abhortive attempts and a lot of extra spend. It was angled beautifully and when we finally got in to clean it, it rewarded us by draining wonderfully. But it stained with hypochlorite and there were concrete or mud stains we couldn’t remove however hard we scrubbed. Even the final solution we had placed our hopes on was far from perfect. Is there a truly great flooring company out there? According to the Nettlebed experience, not unless you micro manage them. The floor set our timing way back. This meant we were finally ready to try an (un EHO approved) make on the 13th January. I left for a long-booked 6 week holiday to a very important wedding in New Zealand on the 15th January. The timing could not have been worse.

Between them, Rose and super-cheesemaker Tee kept production going until I got back at the end of February. They battled problems from low maturing room temperatures to over acidification in the make. They tried not to bother me on holiday and called in the cavalry: Paul Thomas and Bronwen Percival of the SCA Technical Team.

I got back to find a quicker recipe, more in line with Reblochon, than the one I’d worked on in the kitchen. It wasn’t exactly the direction I had been heading in, but on the other hand, the last 2 batches from February, made by Tee directly after the Paul Thomas and Browen visit and following their swifter recipe were perfect. Rich orange-red rinds and a yoghurty, buttery, creamy interior with an succulent crumble in the centre. It was the tantalising Taleggio of our dreams but being raw milk, had so much more to offer than any Taleggio we’d tasted so far.

We duly sold them to local restaurants and to Neal’s Yard Dairy, where they met with a great reception. We tasted them to NYD customers just before April 2015 and had amazing feedback. Unfortunately that was our last hurrah.

After I’d been back for 1 make, we increased to 500 litres; a full vat. On the first day, we noticed, with surprise, that rather than being harder work at the stirring stage, it seemed to gather its own momentum and work more efficiently than in the 200 litre makes we had done before and during my holidays. The acidities dropped. If we were aiming for a Reblochon, this was a good thing. It was getting further away from the recipe I had played with in my kitchen, but Rose and Tee wanted to follow this faster recipe and having had a 6 week holiday while they got the place off the ground, I felt I ought to oblige. Besides, it ought to still make good cheese.

Then the problems started. First our maturing rooms started to heat and cool on the wrong cycle. We had deliberately chosen to have pipework of hot and cold water rather than fans circulating air cooled to a specific temperature. With minimal air movement, we were less prone to the cheese drying out. In theory.

Unfortunately, if the heating and cooling cycles aren’t aligned well they create the perfect environment for drying the crap out of your cheese. This happened in March. The rinds looked like used and dried out elastoplast after a few weeks from beautiful plump pink reds earlier. Rose spotted this and we called in Capital Refrigeration to fix the problem, but unknown to us even as we fixed this problem, another was brewing: milk quality.

Merrimoles Farm are very confident in their milk production. Dairycrest consider them exemplary due to their exceptionally low bacterial counts. Trouble is, Dairycrest don’t make raw milk cheese and amongst those low counts was a tricksy blighter called chlostridium Tyrobutyricum which feeds on proteins in the cheese and gets going as the cheese starts to break down. It’s a pretty cruel confidence trick to the cheesemaker since you try and fix the problem in the make. Just as you hope to have evidence the problem is solved, the cheeses start to blow up like balloons and smell putrid.

Getting to the bottom of that problem took us about a month as we originally blamed our make. Tee and I worked very hard to speed up the make and eliminate any possibility of whey trapped between layers of curd and then fermenting. This could be a source of gas too. However when we finally called in professional help in the form of Paul Thomas again, it was confirmed that the problem came in with the milk. It was due to silage feeding. Chlostridium Tyrobutyricum survives anaerobically in silage but generally only in old or poorly made silage. Merrimoles Farm had won awards for its silage so it seemed likely it was due to end of season silage, which would have perhaps had more time to ferment.

This issue seemed to get better as the cows moved outside onto grass and we had, in our pockets, the idea of using egg white Lysosyme to inhibit bacteria in the silage milk which we hoped would work. However by this time, the financial crunch had come. What with delayed building, overspending on the floor and cheese problems we’d hit crunch time. Unfortunately for me, a full time cheesemaker’s salary was too expensive and production was scaling right back to one day a week. And so I was out of a job.

Any regrets? Well of course it would have been great if it had been a roaring success and I was a part of that, but hey that’s ego at the end of the day. I have learned so much about starting a business from this experience and in particular from starting a dairy. On a personal note, too, if I hadn’t moved here I would never have met my partner either and I wouldn’t take that back for the world.

But finally, I wish Nettlebed Creamery very success in the world. I’ve played my part in getting them to where they are and I hope that has been useful. Yes, I am sorry it won’t be my cheese that finally graces the cheese counters of delis across the country, but I would be more sorry if St Bartholomew sank before it swam. The recipe has changed since I left. It may be a firmer cheese, a more acidic cheese – who knows. That choice is down to Rose and Tee now. But I hope, and have good reason to believe, it will be a great cheese, eventually