Yesterday, on a gloriously sunny day, my parents and I went to visit Nettlebed. They were curious about where I was going to be living, having never seen it. I needed to look around the house I’ll probably be living in with a view to things like furniture and curtains. I also, of course, wanted to have a look at the building site.
Frankly, yesterday, the place could not have looked prettier and we had a productive time measuring windows in the house etc. Then, we moved on to look at the site.
Progress has been made, my friends. Progress has been made.
Drainage channels have been dug (that’s why there are piles of earth everywhere at floor level in the photo). Timbers to provide a framework for wall cladding are up. The brickwork of the walls at the bottom will be being done next week according to the two charmingly polite lads on the site.
In about a week’s time it’s going to look properly like a building which is very exciting indeed.
And the house? Very nice indeed. I’m already making plans for the garden which, I think, is a good sign.
Despite a generously discounted ticket offered by Bronwen Percival, I was too broke to afford to go. At the time, I wasn’t making cheese either so instead of experiencing it in the flesh, I pored over the video files that they uploaded later to listen to presentations, particularly by Marie-Christine Montel on microflora in raw milk.
The dates for this year’s conference have actually been in my diary since last September but there was still a present worry that with all the money we’re spending on building a dairy, going to the conference would stretch the cashflow too far and I’d have to miss it yet again. This year, as we’re hopefully starting to make cheese in July, all the topics which prioritise milk production for raw milk cheese, are even more relevant. Without expecting to get anywhere but thinking we may as well have a go, we applied for a bursary and got one! With the condition that we buy one ticket, we can get another ticket paid by the bursary.
Really looking forward to it. It’s going to be GREAT.
Last week, the Soil Association announced three winners of its Dougal Campbell Cheese Bursary. We applied, for Nettlebed Creamery, in early February and to be honest didn’t really expect to get anywhere. But we did. In fact we are one of the winners!
Dougal Campbell was a very influential figure in the Specialist Cheese industry who I’m afraid I never met. I do know people who speak feelingly of how inspirational and generous he was with his knowledge and time. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have either Lincolnshire Poacher or Hafod on our cheeseboards to name but two.
I do remember his cheese though. In the mid 90s when I was fresh out of university and learning the ropes at this quirky shop in Covent Garden called Neal’s Yard Dairy, we received a delivery of some of the last Tyn Grug cheeses he had made before he died. Possibly because it coincided with me learning to set up a display and learning to sell and taste out cheese to customers, I can still l distinctly remember the big, heavy natural-rinded wheels that could be built into a pleasingly eye-catching tower. I remember the cheese’s golden colour and a fruity flavour that flirted with wildness. I also remember the sadness at his death that was felt at Neal’s Yard amongst the more experienced mongers behind the counter who had met him and knew the cheese and its maker considerably better than I did. It feels very apt to have the influence of this cheesemaker again as I’m embarking on another new learning curve.
In order to apply for the bursary, we had give details of how our farm is managed along organic guidelines and our intentions for the cheese. I found it pretty interesting, not least learning about what Phil the farm manager does. With a bit of luck you will too.
Nettlebed Creamery is a new business and we are in the process of building a dairy with the aim of making a washed rind cheese and a blue cheese using the organic milk produced on the Nettlebed Estate at Merrimoles Farm.
Merrimoles Farm has been in the Fleming family since 1901. The farm is a mixture of arable, sheep and dairy. The Dairy has been sited at Bix since 1969; it became organic in 2004.
There are over 130 cattle in the dairy herd. They are cross-bred Holstein Fresians with Swedish Reds and Montbelliards.
Some specific farming practices with a view to sustainability
The herd are fed using as much home grown feed as possible including in addition to grazing: clover silage, whole crop barley, grain and beans (approx. 15% is purchased – parlour cake). The growth of pasture and feeds are managed using a rotation including clover crops to fix nitrogen and provide fodder.
The cross breeding of the dairy cows (Holstein-Friesian, Swedish Red & Montbeliards) has been undertaken to maintain hybrid vigour and provide long lasting, healthy, fertile animals.
The farm is in the Organic Entry Level Scheme (OELS) and has established grass margins, maintains hedgerows and trees and has areas of low input grassland to maintain and increase biodiversity. They alternate grazing with sheep where possible to limit the effect of internal parasites, reduce the need to worm and therefore avoid wormer resistance worms. They use 500t of Green Waste Compost annually to maintain soil reserves and avoid using finite mined fertilisers. In addition they have invested in energy saving electric motors and a heat recovery unit at the dairy (milking) to reduce our energy use.
The Creamery, we are building, is designed taking energy efficiency into account. We will be using water from our neighbour’s woodchip boiler for all our hot water and for our heating as well. We have plans to use solar panels from the roof of the barn next door (our landlord is finalising these plans currently). After our first year of cheese making we will be creating a wetland system to take all the grey water, sewage and the whey from the facility: a system of swales and ditches to filter the waste into clean water. We then intend to plant fruit trees and willows, rushes and wild orchids to assist with the water filtration and at the same time encourage biodiversity.
The cheeses we intend to make will be made using raw milk and using traditional, liquid yoghurt starter cultures. Eventually we intend to culture our own starters and ripening agents solely from the raw milk produced by the estate and vegetable matter grown on the estate (a valuable potential source of lactic acid bacteria), eliminating the need for bought in cultures.
The cheeses will be entirely made by hand which suits the production of soft and blue cheeses best. We will use open vats and the cheese will be made without the use of mechanical stirrers as our soft and blue cheeses require a more gentle handling. A comprehensive set of maturing rooms has been designed to then ensure the cheeses are kept at the appropriate humidity and temperature at all stages of their ripening.
By building a dairy we intend to provide the farm with a future for its Dairy herd which is no longer subject to the fluctuating prices of the milk market. The need for an alternative customer to the current purchaser on the farm was highlighted at a point when the milk price and amount of organic premium was cut without very much warning.
Our dairy will negotiate a fair milk price for the farm that allows them to be profitable and importantly that is guaranteed. In return for milk being produced to specific standards regarding bacterial levels and fat and protein content our milk price can be increased. In addition to cheese, we have plans to investigate the possibilty of using more of the farm’s milk to produce a range of yoghurts and frozen yoghurt. This in turn will allow the farm to maintain and improve on its current sustainable practices and will mean it does not have to dramatically increase herd size in order to turnover more money.
Re-reading this, although these are the aims we’ve talked about since the beginning it does make me feel a little nervous as our aim of fair milk price and providing a sustainable future for the herd will only work if the cheese is as good as I can make it and therefore we sell plenty of it.
As Audrey Hepburn apparently said, ‘Paris is always a good idea’. Even better if it happens to be hosting an agricultural show which according to Patricia Michelson of La Fromagerie and various other cheesemakers, is a must see.
With hopes of learning more about farming and cheesemaking equipment, Rose and I booked the Eurostar and set off. It took a relatively short metro ride to get to Paris Expo and we were able to buy our entry tickets to the Salon d’Agriculture pretty easily. We acquired lunch and looked at some cows, picking up leaflets on Montbeliards as we went and perused the map trying to find the Salon de Fromage.
Apparently it’s all been a bit easier to find and get into in other years but this year it took full on detective work to find the cheese bit of the show. This is partly because it’s for professionals only and perhaps the guards last year just got fed up of turning away members of the public but all the same it was due to a good degree of exploration of the site and some fine ad lib blagging on Rose’s part and translation on my part that we got in.
We had business cards for Rose’s old business and luckily because we’d planned on talking about it on the train we had a plan showing the design of our dairy. We first profered the business cards. No good. We called people we knew who were in there. They weren’t answering their phones. Rose got out the plans of the dairy and began talking the security guard through the process in franglais. At this juncture, he realised we were
c) possibly slightly deranged
and sent us chasing after a nice lady in a green jacket who officially lead us past the security and to the desk in the hall where you presented your business cards and were allowed to register as a visitor. Not entirely sure why it had been so cloak and dagger to get to that point but never mind, we were in.
Inside, we wandered around lots of stands of cheese in its many and varied forms. We stopped by An Bord Bia’s stand and looked at their cheeses, unfortunately just missing a chance to say hi to the Furnos from Cashel Blue. We found Guffanti’s stand and tried their Taleggio and different types of Gorgonzola. They were really good. We, of course, said hello at the Neal’s Yard Dairy stand and in the course of conversation that networker par exellence that is Jason HInds managed to direct us to a good paper supplier and to a nice cheese affineur called Mark who loved the idea of people going into making cheese and has offered to take us to visit some Reblochon producers in May or June. We also ran into Jonny Crickmore who had come over on a very early train with Julie Cheney and who were both just leaving but we just had time to chat and compare notes on milk testing and things to look at in the cheese show.
After that as we partook of a nice glass of wine (well when in Paris…) at the show’s wine bar / restaurant we took stock, talked about website, packaging, labelling and other things that had absolutely nothing to do with vats and stainless steel but were very productive nonetheless. And as we rounded the corner on a final tour of the show we managed to finally track down my sister and the inimitable Jon Thrupp who were chatting away to their Beaufort affineur. They were mid meeting so there was only really a chance to say a quick hello but it’s always nice to run into friends and family even if it is only brief.
Having successfully found paper, Reblochon hosts and had a chance to chat cheese with Julie and Jonny, we set off for the Gare du Nord so Rose could catch a train home. I stayed on in Paris for a very quiet night in (it had been a very early start) hence the photo of the Moulin Rouge from my taxi and returned to Blighty the following morning slightly regretting not having more time to do a good visit to the recommended Fromageries and buy up all the washed rind cheese I could.
‘There seems to be rather less of it than there was before,’ my mum said as I proudly showed her the photos that proved work was continuing on our building site, ‘Is that right?’
It is right although it’s understandable that it doesn’t immediately seem like a step forward. Before the new roof goes on and the external wood cladding, they have to remove the old roof that needs to be replaced and check the metal structure for repairs. Next step will be repairs to the frame and to the concrete foundations that each steel stanchion sits in. After that, comes the excitement of new roof and the walls going up.
Until then, in this instance, less is actually more.
‘A Cheese Grating Course?’ asked more than one of my non cheese friends when I told them I was going to learn more about cheese grading.
‘No, GRADING,’ I replied, realising again that I have indeed entered the realms of cheese nerdery that doesn’t quite translate to the outside world. ‘That’s the process by which cheeses are evaluated either during maturation in order to determine which market they should be sold into (retailers, wholesalers, exporters) or also during judging at a cheese show. You assess the cheese for texture, body and flavour and note down your observations for review later.’
‘You eat cheese all day? Wow, my kind of course.’
Not exactly, but I must say it was a very pleasant way to spend the day and yes, cheese was consumed…in the interests of education you understand.
About a fortnight ago at the beginning of February, Julie Cheney hosted a day’s course in her house on the subject of Cheese Grading. The course was being taught by Jayne Hickinbotham of Dee Dairy Services who is one of the UK cheese industry’s unsung heros. After years in manufacturing with big creameries like Dairycrest, she went freelance and now operates as a consultant who can pretty much do anything from calibrate your thermometers to write your HACCP to train your staff in Dairy Hygiene to help you write up risk analysis justifying the more traditional of cheese techniques like use of raw milk and use of wood in maturation rooms. She is also a trained RPA auditor and Cheese and Butter grader and until she stood down from it, was the Chief Steward responsible for the Cheese and Dairy Show at the Great Yorkshire Show. As if that wasn’t enough, she co-wrote the Specialist Cheesemakers Section of the SALSA + SCA standard and is one of their Dairy mentors and auditors as well as sitting on the SCA’s Technical Committee. She knows her stuff.
The course, which, to give it it’s proper name was ‘Sensory Analysis (Grading and Selecting) and Managing Variation of Hard, Soft & Blue Cheese’ was attended by a very interesting bunch of people. Again, we left a cheese function with Rose remarking, ‘Cheese people are all so lovely!’
Jayne began by explaining the purpose of grading and how it was different from tasting as a sales tool. This is a topic that I know she feels strongly about from her experiences as judge. If you are tasting as a sales tool, it’s ok to think ‘I don’t like that,’ or ‘I really like that’. If you are grading, subjective descriptions like that only lead to arguments and get you nowhere. Grading needs objective and descriptive records.
For instance, a grader might record: ‘metallic, acidic, sour flavour, weak body’.
A sales taster would be more likely to communicate: ‘Don’t like that much, metallic, acidic and sour.’
You can’t really argue with the objective description. It is what it is. You can however argue with the subjective one and by being subjective it’s more likely to put the manufacturer on the defensive into the bargain.
‘What do you mean you don’t like it? I don’t think it tastes at all metallic.’ And so on.
An interesting point too was that Jayne even refined it down to the choice of vocabulary. ‘Astringent’ for instance we discovered was something that some of us identified as bitter and others as tannic. That means it’s not clear or objective enough for grading.
Remaining with vocabulary, we discussed the difference between ‘body’ and ‘texture’; body being mass, solidity, density and something you can touch while texture is formation of structure and is visible. We talked about use of certain words and their associations during grading. You don’t use the word ‘sweetness’ as a positive descriptor with cheese. It describes a fault relating to whey retention or adding potassium sorbate as a mould inhibitor (in industrial block cheeses).
We covered analysis procedures and hygiene – including personal hygiene. You can’t accurately judge flavours in the presence of strong perfumes and you particularly can’t if you’ve just used very perfumed handsoap. This latter is especially relevant to hard cheeses where you don’t just taste the cheese but also hold the sample between your fingers and knead it to assess the texture. Then you taste it.
‘Mmmm – tastes like…um…freesias???’
Jayne even warned us about the planning a professional grader puts into their packed lunch. She once suffered by having packed an orange to eat and realised only afterwards that the smell of orange oil on her hands which persisted after handwashing was distracting her from the product she was grading. Several further washes of the hands in neutral soap were required.
It wasn’t all theory though, we also had the milk drinking challenge. Six different milks were poured out and handed out in a blind tasting.
First was the control: standard full fat milk from the supermarket. It was, white and uniform in appearance with a buttery and slightly animal aroma, tasted slightly metallic but with a caramel note and was relatively weak in body. Jayne pointed out that it left a slightly drying sensation in the mouth. This, she explained, is very common in all milk sold in our supermarkets nowadays. The milk itself will have been collected from the farms and then moved to the processing plant. It will have been pumped at milking, then pumped again to fill the milk tanker, then pumped a further time to empty it into the silos at the processing plant. The time frame for this can be 3 days before it is pumped through a pasteuriser and then homogenised. During this time and especially with all the pumping going on, the fat particles in the milk are damaged, oxygenised and this drying mouthfeel is the very beginnings of what would become rancidity if it were butter. It won’t get that far as milk because there’s relatively little fat and in any case it won’t be kept that long. This is one of the reasons that organic unhomogenised milk tastes better.
Our second sample was slightly pinky off-white and smelled distinctly caramelised. It had flavours of coconut, malt and caramel but was also more strongly metallic. The mouthfeel was most definitely drying, more so than our control sample. It was more viscous in the mouth as well. This, we discovered was UHT. The caramel flavours coming about because the milk is heated to 135C in which process the milk sugars, not surprisingly, cook.
Our third sample again was off white and smelled slightly of caramel. It tasted rather odd, distinctly of vanilla and sugar and at the same time, watery. The feeling in the mouth was powdery and drying and the body was most definitely weak. Turns out it was rice milk – vanilla is added as a flavouring to make it palatable.
Sample number four was pure white and glossy, almost reflective. It smelled yeasty and had a very distinctive taste: slightly salty, caramel, coconut and most definitely GOAT. The mouthfeel was not drying – it was quite neutral – however the caramel was an indication it might be being pasteurised at too high a temperature. This often happens with all animal milks we consume ‘just to be on the safe side’.
Sample five was cream in colour and smelled buttery. It tasted very sugary, mineral and nutty. It produced a definite drying sensation but was quite creamy. This was soya milk which I normally find very difficult to actually swallow so it was a pleasant surprise – well as pleasant as soya milk can be which, frankly, isn’t very.
Finally we came to sample six. It had a creamy white colour, barely any odour at all and tasted mineral, salty and slightly sour. The sensation in the mouth afterwards was most definitely drying. Jayne ‘fessed up. This was milk with dilute hypochlorite solution in it. That is, milk with bleach. You may be wondering at this moment if it’s safe to drink milk with hypochlorite in it. In fact it is. Hypochlorite and bleach work by blasting open the cell walls of the organic matter they come into contact with. In that process the solution however breaks down into its individual components which are salt, water and chlorine gas. The gas escapes of course so all that is left is water and salt. The milk therefore was completely safe and largely unaffected in flavour. I described it as being a little more salty than our control sample but not everyone did.
Just as we were about to ask Jayne, ‘If that’s the case with hypochlorite, how come you can end up with food that tastes a bit like bleach?’ she went on to say:
‘So hypochlorite in itself doesn’t taint, but you know sometimes when you make tea with chlorinated water, you get a bleach taste? That is a reaction with the phenols in the tea.’
We’ve all, in our years of cheese tasting, encountered cheeses that tasted a bit chloriney. This would likely be the same issue. As the milk is broken down by its starters it releases phenols and flavour compounds. Some of these can react with hypochlorite.
With our milk tasting over and a lot of information imparted, we had a go at ironing cheese and then stood up to help ourselves to lunch – a particularly tasty macaroni cheese Julie had hand crafted which was made all the more flirty by the addition of crispy bits of bacon and artichoke hearts. Returning after lunch, we settled down to the serious work of grading sample of cheese brought by our fellow course attendees. I didn’t get round all of them, but I happily made objective and descriptive notes on: St Jude (of course), Paul’s Little Anne & Dorothy, Jonny’s Baron Bigod (incredibly edible – in large amounts), David’s St Oswald (which I could also eat a lot of with alarming ease), Old Winchester, a lovely Gouda-esque cheese from Lyburn, David Holton’s experimental John Littlejohn and Innes Log. Perhaps inevitably, however, given the quality of cheese on offer, assessments became less objective and more subjective. We may have been writing descriptively but it was hard to stop the exclamations of ‘Wow that’s amazing!’ that seemed to crop up with every new cheese tasted.