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.