Cheese Grading

Chris George, like me, also ex of Neal's Yard Dairy, sampling cheese on a tour of their maturing facility, back in 2009
Chris George, like me, also ex of Neal’s Yard Dairy, sampling cheese on a tour of their maturing facility, back in 2008 (thanks to NYD for the photo – oh yeah and Chris)

‘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!’

Our fellow learners were Julie herself, Paul Thomas of Thimble Cheesemakers, Ned Palmer (my ex colleague from NYD days and now a freelancer himself), David Jowett, Francis & his wife from Taste of the Vine who are thinking of taking up cheesemaking, Robbyn Linden from The Cheeseboard in Greenwich, Patricia Michelson and Sofia from La Fromagerie, Jonny Crickmore of Fen Farm Dairy, a couple from Lyburn Cheesemakers whose names I never got (sorry) and a Neal’s Yard Dairy triumvirate of Adam Verlander, Terry Warner and David Holton.  I hope that was everyone!  It was certainly all quite cosy in Julie’s sitting room.

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.

Uht_Milk

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.

ricemilk

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’.

goat-milk

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.

Soya Milk

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.

hypo

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.

Maybe, at heart, we’re all salesmen.

We live, We learn … About Lactics

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The herd supplying Neal’s Yard Creamery (also a herd with some Montbeliard influence) lining up to be milked.

As prospective cheesemakers working with a milk supplier usually do, Rose and I have been sending off milk samples for microbiological testing for some months now.  While we’ve had generally good results regarding absence of pathogens, I was taken aback to discover that we also seemed to have an absence of lactic acid bacteria…or certainly we had a lot less then we wanted.

‘Most milk in the UK now is not good for cheese,’ pronounced Ivan Larcher at one of my SAF courses, ‘It is dead milk.’

‘A little damning, surely,’ I thought.

Lactic, if my dictionary is to be believed, means ‘relating to or obtained from milk’. It derives from the latin ‘lactis’ genitive form of the word ‘lac’ or milk.

Doesn’t milk just HAVE lactic acid bacteria in it?

Well, apparently not always and if it does, 1 day in a bulk tank and they are not very happy bugs.

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One side of the milking parlour at Merrimoles Farm showing the stalls in which the cows stand, the pipework and the clusters below.
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For any of my non cheese industry friends reading this post. First off, well done for making it this far into a pretty cheese-geek technical post and good luck with the rest of it. This, should you be wondering, is a cluster and it goes on the cows udders.

Our milking system is like most in the UK Dairy industry.  It has a series of clusters along parallel milk pipes.  Vacuum pumps pulsate to remove the milk from the cows udders and it is piped out of the parlour, through a filter, then a plate cooler and finally into the bulk tank where it’s held at 4C until the lorry comes from Dairycrest to collect it.   They come every 2 days and collect 4 milkings.

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The Bulk Tank.

When we test, we take our samples from the outflow pipe of the bulk tank.  We also send off the milk filter from the last milking which the lab immerse in water and then test the rinsate.  We don’t know anyone else testing the milk filter so when we got our first set of results back and discovered literally millions of bacteria on it, we didn’t know whether this was normal, really bad or even really good.  We certainly knew that millions of the little critters looked pretty alarming on paper.

Our bulk tank milk samples seemed to show a happy grown of Pseudomonas (we don’t want happy Pseudomonas) and a rather less happy growth of Lactic acid bacteria.  The milk filter results seconded this.  In the autumn, we called Ivan back for advice and subsequently did a big clean through using peracetic acid.  Following that we have used a weaker peracetic acid solution for the final rinse of our pipework.

To start off 2014 in the way we intended to continue, with some more testing.  This time, we were hopeful for better results and to be a bit flirty we were going to get Andrew the kindly milker to hand milk a couple of cows for us to see how they compared for lactic acid bacteria.  These cows were a black and white cow that looks more Friesian Holstein in appearance who goes by the name of 266 and a brown and white one that looks more Montbeliard in appearance with the name 258.  266 was docile and calm when milked.  258 was disconcerted not to be in her usual clusters and stamped about a bit. We could identify the test results later because Andrew got less milk from her before asking if he could give up.  The cows that were hand milked were only given a dry wipe to their teats before milking.  Normally when they are milked into the parlour, their teats are given a wash before the pumping starts.  It has reduced the total bacterial counts of the milk right down but rather unfortunately we think it may be washing off our lactic acid bacteria.

The bulk tank contained 3 milkings at this stage.  The fourth was about to take place as we tested and Dairycrest were due that night to collect.   The milk filter was from that morning’s milking.

The samples were posted, results duly came back and we emailed Paul Thomas for advice and guidance in their interpretation.

RESULTS:

Milk:

The bulk tank results were better than we’ve had at other points in the past in terms of Pseudomonas.  Before now we have had counts of 21,000 per ml of milk.  This time we had a count of 170 per ml.  However it did show us some staph aureus too which is less than ideal.  According to our lab (Microtech Wessex) we would hope to see around 80% of the total bacterial count being lactic acid bacteria and unfortunately still on this sample it is considerably less than that.  With a total count of 53,000 total bacteria per ml of milk, this would mean we’d like to see 42,400 of these to be lactic acid bacteria.  According to the test result there are 1,200.

The hand milked samples were very different one from the other.  No 266, the black & white cow’s sample was extremely low in everything.  Almost nothing grew on the lab plates according to the lab.  Its counts are 0 in everything except yeasts.  So it has no coliforms, pseudomonas or staph aureus but unfortunately no lactic acid bacteria either.  I imagine Dairycrest would love it.  For making cheese it isn’t ideal.

No 258, the brown and white cow’s counts however were about spot on what we want.  It had a total count of 8,800 total bacteria which isn’t huge.  However, according to our ideal 80% we would be hoping to see around 7,100 lactic acid bacteria and we have 7,040.  There are 10 yeasts which is good, no Pseudomonas, no Staph aureus.

The two cows results, while interesting and raising a few interesting ideas, thoughts and questions only really give us a snapshot of the milk of 2 animals.  Importantly, though, it does show us that we have got the right balance of lactic to everything else in some of the animals in our herd.  Interestingly, Paul suggested that according to some of the papers he has read, the animals that line up to be milked first, being in general the livelier and healthier animals of the herd, often have lower somatic cell counts (an indicator of health) and as a result often have higher amounts of lactic acid bacteria.  If, as we are planning to do, we take our milk from the animals that are milked first, not only will we be using the pipelines at their cleanest but we will also be getting milk that is better suited to our cheese.  In addition, we will be taking the milk away without it being cooled.  This makes sense from an energy standpoint – why cool it to heat it back up to 38C – but also allows the lactic acid bacteria to compete with the Pseudomonas.  Cooling the milk to 4C and then storing it at that temperature for 36 hours has stopped the small numbers of lactic acid bacteria growing and reproducing but at those temperatures, the Pseudomonas can still grow.  According to survival models Paul referenced we could probably knock that 1200 per ml down to 120 just due to the storage time at cold temperatures.

Milk Filter:

The Milk filter results have always looked rather alarming to us in terms of Pseudomonas.  But corresponding with Paul Thomas meant he helped us by analysing the results so that we can compare them more easily against our milk results.

The relevant results are (per filter):

  • 1,500,000 Pseudomonas
  • 10,000,000 Enterobacteriaciae

So – big numbers.  But, as Paul said, we have to interpret them based on the amount of milk that has gone through that filter.  The most recent milk report I have from the farm dates back to December but if levels are similar to those in December’s monthly report, we are looking at 120,530 litres of milk for the month.  This means a daily total of 3,888 litres.  Each milking there’s a new milk filter so while I expect there’s a difference in quantity between morning and evening, for the sake of mathematical ease, let’s say half of that quantity is applicable to our filter tests: 1944 litres.  1944 litres works out at 1,944,000 ml which has gone through the filter.

Assuming the filter removed 50% of our bacteria, this then suggests that before filtering the total quantity of milk (all 1,944,000ml of it), it contained:

  • 3,000,000 Pseudomonas.
  • 20,000,000 Enterobacteriaciae

So per ml of milk we have

  • 1.5 Pseudomonas and
  • 10 Enterobacteriaciae.

Which makes it all look rather a lot better.

Even if we assume the filter only removed 10% of our bacteria, this still suggests that the levels in the milk weren’t huge.  If that were the case, we’d be assuming pre filtration numbers of:

  • 15,000,000 Pseudomonas
  • 100,000,000 Enterobacteriaciae

So per ml of milk we have

  • 7.7 Pseudomonas
  • 51.2 Enterobacteriaciae

However this doesn’t take into account the fact that the filter had been in the parlour during the day and we didn’t have fully frozen ice packs in our insulated box.  The sample was 10C when it was tested and apparently we can knock at least a couple of zeros off our total counts on the filter based on the time it had rested at that temperature since milking and whilst being posted to the lab. All of a sudden, this makes our Pseudomonas and Enteros presence not alarming at all.

THOUGHTS, CONCLUSIONS:

Pseudomonas:

The reason the bulk milk samples have been high in Pseudomonas in the past is that they are able to grown at 4C whereas lactic acid bacteria aren’t.  If there aren’t that many lactic acid bacteria in the milk in the first place and even on our brown and white cow friend 258, there weren’t huge numbers then the bulk tank is the worst conditions for them to grow and the best conditions for something that is happier at cold temperatures to get a head start.  Lactic acid bacteria like a range of temperature around body temperature basically but can grow from 20C – 50C.  So the bulk tank is giving an advantage to the wrong bacteria for cheesemaking.  In other words it is entirely worth it to arrange for the pipework we are planning and have our cheesemaking milk taken off before it goes through the plate cooler, and not just because of the energy use considerations.

There is still the cluster wash and some of the pipework which remains a concern as it will reduce lactic acid bacteria and potentially if there is doubt about the cleanliness of the water, will add in pseudomonas and possibly listeria.  In order to investigate this, we need to do a further milk test or water test.  I don’t know if it’s at all possible for the cluster wash to be switched off ever?  I am imagining not but it’s worth asking.  For the cheesemaking, it’s all about balancing the lactic acid bacteria against the pathogens and spoilage bacteria and the better we preserve the lactic acid ones the less we worry about the others.

Staph aureus:

The test results on this occasion aren’t hugely helpful but they basically indicate that they are present in the bulk tank and passing through the milk filter.  Evidently they aren’t present on every cow as there were none on either hand milked cow.

Paul Thomas’s theory based on some studies he has read (but I’d have to ask him if you wanted to know which ones) is that the animals that line up to be milked first tend to be the more vigorous, healthier ones which will be less likely to have Staph. aureus infections even at a subclinical level.  The less healthy ones will lag behind.

This suggests that our idea of taking the first bit of milk that goes through the milkline is probably a good one from the point of view of getting milk that is better suited to our cheesemaking.  Interestingly the animals with lower somatic cell counts (according to Paul), also tend to be the ones with higher counts of lactic acid bacteria as well.  Again, I’d have to push him for which papers supported that theory but it seems to indicate again that we will get more suitable milk for the cheese if we take the first lot of milk rather than from later in the milking.  Which means I will be getting up bright and early to collect.

A possible thing we could investigate as well is to look into the mastitis records to see if there are any patterns.  Paul (again) has had previous experience where with his milk supplier’s animals each cow that developed mastitis got it on the same quarter for a whole 2 week period.  It turned out that there was a contaminated rubber on one of the clusters.

Lactic Acid Bacteria:

The hand milk results do show that on individual animals we have pretty much perfect milk provided we can then manage the process so that we can get hold of that.

There’s no scientific basis for this that I know of but it’s a commonly held opinion that Friesian Holsteins are not as good producers of lactic acid bacteria and other breeds like Montbeliard are better.  Interestingly our results showed the perfect milk from a brown and white cow that Andrew felt would have more influence of Montbeliard in her genetics.  I don’t know how true that is however and it’s something to try and find out more about.

By taking milk from the livelier, healthier first milkers and keeping that milk warm we’ll give the growth advantage to the lactic acid bacteria as well as the other organisms.  Conventional wisdom sounds a loud klaxon at this point and shouts

‘What about growth of pathogens??? Re-frigerate!! Re-frigerate!’

And were it in isolation with no lactic acid bacteria, they’d be right to be cautious.  But by keeping the milk warm we are giving our lactic acid bacteria an even chance to consume that lactose and reproduce.  Then, when we add our starter cultures into the mix as well it should mean that lactic acid bacteria as a proportion of the total bacteria as we start to make cheese, out competes any pathogens or spoilage organisms.

The hand milking results also reassure us that the milk when it hasn’t gone through the cluster wash system does have enough lactic acid bacteria in it to try the experiments of making our own starter cultures from the milk.  This has always been an aim of ours which we thought we would have to postpone for a year or so at best but now seems much more possible.  It is, however, a discussion for another day and will involve a lot of hand milking and some careful selecting of suitable cows.

So, at the end of a rather head-hurting few days of analysing, emailing and thinking very hard, it’s good news.  We can try out making starter – hooray!! Obviously we won’t be using it unless it passes micro testing but for a while it didn’t look like we’d be able to even try.

It’s also a new list of questions to research.  Do the brown and while more Montbeliard looking cows like 258 give us better milk for our cheese?  Do the black and white cows have less lactic acid bacteria?  Does it all relate to their Somatic cell count levels?  Does the cluster wash still remove too many lactic acid bacteria and can there be an alternative?  If we can hand milk cows to make our own starter, does that matter?  And so on and so on.  Then there’s an off the wall ideas that Paul suggested too.  There are some studies in humans indicating that before giving birth, the nipple duct microflora is influenced by apparently deliberate movement of bacteria from the gut to the mammary gland by dendritic cells.  Perhaps this happens in all mammals and may account for the transfer of lactic acid bacteria into the baby’s and calf’s stomach with colostrum?

Who knew milk could be this complicated and this fascinating?  Just as well I never wanted a quiet life.

Building Begins!!!!!!

The builders begin by removing sections of the roof which needs to be repaired.  Tuesday 11th February 2014.
The builders begin by removing sections of the roof which needs to be repaired. Tuesday 11th February 2014.

Digging and Delays

Manor Farm old photo
Manor Farm as it used to be. This land is now the house and garden of our neighbours.

It takes the working world a while to get going again after its Christmas break.  Having felt like we were making progress on the build just before Christmas, January proved to be a very slow month of chasing up people who had said they would do something to see if they had done what they said they would.

Our first delay was waiting for straw to be moved from inside our barn which we thought needed to happen before any assessment of the existing structure could take place.  As it was slow going, Rose tried to organise a site meeting and a digger to look at the foundations of the steel framework holding up the roof around the straw and did manage to find out a few basics.  The aim, having agreed on an interior layout was to check how stable the existing barn structure was and what would need repairing.  A cherry picker ensured that she was able to assess the existing roof and that it would need repairing extensively – in other words a new roof.   The digger revealed that the concrete bases to our steel stanchions were a bit hit and miss.  Some of them were in place and working fine but others had eroded away and as a result water had accumulated at the base of the steel, weakening the structure.  More repairs would be necessary.

Rose also held talks with our neighbours with whom we share a party wall and who are also installing a wood chip boiler that we are going to be able to use for our hot water and heating requirements.  Negotiations over the wall and any ramifications from our building were carried out amicably and they were able to show Rose a picture of how Manor Farm had looked in the early 1900s when it had been a working dairy farm (above – the photo shows what is now their house and garden and our dairy will run to the south of that).  Building a cheesemaking dairy on the site of a dairy farm feels very appropriate somehow.

When the straw was finally removed and the site boundaries marked with metal gates, further information could be gleaned.  The concrete floor was revealed showing sections with a herringbone pattern which we believe is the floor of the milking parlour of the original dairy at Manor Farm.  Drains have been discovered.  Although the existing drain onion that they would have fed into isn’t usable any more, it is still handy to know there are channels there for us to start from.  A long deceased and dessicated stoat has also been discovered – not a feature we intend to preserve.

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Our barn, ready for construction to begin.
Our concrete floor.  The herringbone bits are apparently from the original dairy at Manor Farm.
Our concrete floor. The herringbone bits are apparently from the original dairy at Manor Farm.

A local structural engineer undertook to take on our structural drawings so that the builder who will be carrying out our external cladding and roof repairs could get going.  He seemed to move rather slowly getting a quote out for the work.  Unfortunately after a further fortnight of chasing and reminding, he admitted to being swamped with other work and had to give up.  Alan Tucket to the rescue (the builder) as he has a structural team who have taken that over.  As a result, work should start very soon.

In short, a funny period of meetings and activity for Rose and not so much for me.  A lot of chasing, hassling, reminding and getting bits and pieces ready so that the build can start.  Progress is being made.  We are getting closer to the day that building begins but as yet the earth hasn’t moved (quite literally).  It’s a bit like that stage before you go on holiday where you’re doing the packing and trying to remember everything you might need; a little nerve wracking and tense as you hope you’ve planned everything as well as possible and still too early to have set off and be able to say to yourself

‘Sod it, if I haven’t thought of it by now, I’ll just have to deal with it when it happens.’

Looking west from our barn - note the metal barriers that indicate the site boundaries.  This is our land!
Looking west from our barn – note the metal barriers that indicate the site boundaries. This is our land!

The Naming of the Cheese

Trial cheeses - the prototype (sort of)
Trial cheeses – the prototype (sort of)

It may be Christmas and I may be having a well earned break after a frantic couple of weeks of the Mons mongering but time and cheese wait for no woman.

When Rose and I made our decision to change our plans from making a lactic cheese to a washed rind, we knew we needed to name our cheese.  The lactic cheese had had a name but it was one that suited a little cheese.  We needed something with more heft.

However that was probably the least important bit of the process for then.  Building the dairy seemed to be a rather more pressing matter.  We put the matter of the name onto a back burner, every so often looking up local names on the map and considering them and then dismissing them.  Should the name be something that carried echoes of Rose’s grandfather, Jo Grimond, who apparently returned from fighting in second world war France, carrying a huge Brie de Meaux?  Should it be something local to our dairy, as the name for our lactic cheese would have been?  We felt that time would probably answer these questions for us.

And so it has proved.  In response to my ‘Happy Christmas’ text to Rose, I received this interesting message in return:

‘Hope you’ve had a wonderful day.  All good here.  Eaten a lot of Hafod over the last few days.  Was in church this morning and thought as I looked upon the donation envelope that the name of the church, next door to our facility, would work quite well for a cheese.  What do you think?  St Bartholomew’s.’

St Bartholomew’s.  St Bartholomew’s.  I tried it out in my mind and out loud a couple of times and I like the way it sounds.

It’s extremely local, the church is going to be our next door neighbour, and on quickly googling St Bartholomew himself, I discover that he is the patron saint of Florentine cheese.  Wikipedia and the internet at large differs in opinion as to whether he is the patron saint of Florentine cheesemakers or cheese merchants but quite possibly the merchants were in fact also the makers.  In any case the details are less important than the fact he’s (one of) the patron saint(s) of cheese!

It seems like a most auspicious omen.  Bring on 2014!

Vacherin, Sancey Richard

V500.1

(Vacherin production at Sancey Richard)

If you’re selling British cheese, then Christmas is all about Stilton.  Even with the advent of Stichelton, Colston Bassett is still a major player on the Neal’s Yard Dairy counter and at Mons, we get several customers per day asking for Stilton and needing to be directed to the Neal’s Yard Borough Shop, which we happily do.  Many people ask if Neal’s Yard Dairy is competition, but to be honest that’s not the attitude.  Neal’s Yard Dairy will happily direct French cheese lovers in our direction so we will happily return the favour.  It goes beyond that too, we all want to promote small cheesemakers who are making artisanal, traditional cheeses.  We’re a team.  Nationality isn’t all that important.

However, I digress from my main point, which is, that if you’re selling French cheese at Christmas, it’s all about the Vacherin.  Most cheeses adhere to the usual seasonal pattern of when the cows / goats / sheep go out to grass and production happens over the summer.  This is particularly evident in the mountain cheeses where the summer season is so short and the difference between grazing the amazingly varied pasture of the alpine meadows versus the hay of the winter housing is so pronounced.  Vacherin is very different in that case because its season begins as the animals go indoors.  To an English person this smacks of winter.  Cows here went in to their indoor housing fairly recently because the weather has been quite mild so far this winter.  I was at Nettlebed at the end of October and the cows were still outdoors on pasture, although it was recognised that this was due to the mild weather.  Meanwhile in the Alps, it has been snowing at pasture level since September.  This summer, I spent some time in Vigo di Fassa in the Dolomites and while there, I set the app on my phone to monitor the weather.  It’s a ski resort so it’s available.  While there, I realised it’s at the right altitude to be interesting from a cheese point of view as well and indeed I saw plenty of very happy looking cows there grazing away while I was on my walking holiday.  I kept the app monitoring Vigo di Fassa’s weather, long after the end of my walking holiday,  just for interest and I noticed that fairly early on in September it started snowing and temperatures plummeted into the minus degrees.  The cows they have there, whose milk contributes to Cuor di Fassa and Puzzone di Moena (amongst others), were most definitely indoors at this point.  I can’t really imagine that over the border in the mountain areas of France things were hugely different.

Some people romanticise the milk that goes into Vacherin production, claiming that it’s the richest milk that is produced when the cows go in to their winter housing and as such is reserved for Vacherin.  I have to be honest and say I think that is not a reflection of their housing but just a lucky coincidence.  In mountain areas, it still makes sense to have seasonal grazing and seasonal calving, meaning that the cows are calving in the late winter and getting to the end of lactation towards August through to October.  The end of lactation milk is always richer in fats and proteins.  It’s probably nature’s way of getting the last bits of nutrition into the calves.  If only we weren’t nicking it to make cheese!  A higher fat milk, however, isn’t great for making Comte which is the summer cheese in Vacherin areas.  To make a long maturing cheese, you don’t really want too much fat as it hinders drainage in the cheese and that ultimately means a moister cheese which can go a bit leftfield when maturing over many months.  It is, however, great for a quick maturing soft cheese.  So the enterprising mountain cheesemakers who, due to the early onset of winter in the mountains, have to house their cows indoors when they still have rich end of lactation milk to give, developed a recipe to showcase this milk and turn it into what we now call a marketing opportunity.

Vacherin is a high moisture cheese.  It is set very quickly and firmly which allows the rennet to trap in the maximum moisture.  The spruce cambium binding actually serves a practical purpose, to stop the cheese from overflowing its rind and spilling out as it matures.  The bonus is that it also adds to the flavour.

Sancey Richard, personified by Patrick Richard the head cheesemaker, make their Vacherin particularly well.  Interestingly they make their cheese using a vegetarian rennet.  I’m sure there are other Vacherin producers using animal rennet which would basically be the more traditional way but vegetarian rennet is often more proteolytic than animal rennet (more prone to protein breakdown) and this causes a more liquid and runny texture.  If you think of the Spanish and Portuguese sheeps milk cheeses that use a thistle rennet and need to be spooned out of their rind, you get the idea.  The choice of rennet has been due to technical reasons, however it does mean that for the vegetarian cheese buyer coming to a French cheese stand, they can buy a Christmas Vacherin!  Commercial bonus.

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(Vacherin on the Mons stand with Max in the background)

Patrick is also apparently a great character.  There is no shortage of these in the cheese world and particularly when you venture into the cheese world of France which while it may have strong traditional standards in its AOC certification also has its fair share of iconoclasts.  However nearly everyone I spoke to on the Mons stand when asking about the Vacherin, remembered fondly the time Patrick was convinced to do a promotion at Selfridges Food Hall.  A couple of hours in and he was autographing the cheeses for his customers and proudly pronouncing

‘Je suis le producteur!’

Vive le Vacherin de Sancey Richard.

Winter Blues

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‘I see you have Bleu de Termignon,’ he said looking up and down the counter, ‘That’s very rare!  There’s only one producer.’

‘We’ve been selling cheese from two producers,’ I corrected, ‘We still have some of both on the display.  Most of the cheese is made by Catherine Richard and she tends to make a firmer, drier cheese but this piece here is all we have left of Bernard Richard’s cheeses and they tend to be softer and more broken down.’

He, was a french exporter who wanted also to import Cheddar and Stilton and to that end had just been in a meeting with Jay Butcher of Neal’s Yard Dairy.  Unfortunately for him, as Mons Cheesemongers, buys its french cheese exclusively from Mons in France, he wasn’t going to get a sale here.  However he took the news very well, was most impressed by the name of Herve Mons (‘He is very well known in France’ I was told) and proceeded to peruse the cheeses we had out to sell and try a few.

Bleu de Termignon is not an easy sell.  It looks scary.  It has entirely natural blueing – no mould powder is put into the milk and the cheeses aren’t even pierced.  It blues inwards from cracks in the rind and it looks in some way prehistoric.  It tastes extremely subtle though.  At its best, the blueing has fennel, liquorice notes and because the blueing only follows tiny cracks in the curd, it is very gentle and herbacious rather than having bigger pockets of blue which you get in most continental blue cheeses.  It’s made up in the Savoie in a ridiculously beautiful mountain valley and I can’t help feeling that it is a glimpse into a bygone age of cheesemaking.  Catherine Richard uses wooden moulds to drain her curd which must help those natural cultures of Penicillium roqueforti going in the environment and drains her curd overnight in great big bags before it is moulded.  In fact, there are many aspects of the recipe that are very close to Stilton.  It’s just interesting to note that Stilton has developed into a creamy textured cheese over the years (but in that not so far removed from Bernard Richard’s Termignans) where Bleu de Termignan even in its softer cheeses has more structure.  Again, this is purely supposition as I don’t know the cheeses, but Piedmont’s Castelmagno and Blu del Moncenisio (in its farmhouse versions), I feel must surely follow similar techniques as well or perhaps if they don’t any more, they must have developed the same way.  Blu del Moncenisio in particular is made on the Italian side of the mountain of Mont Cenis.  The Richards are just over the border on the French side.

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Termignan isn’t the only blue cheese on the Mons Cheesemongers counter however, we are also selling the much more crowd pleasing Persille de Beaujolais which is effectively a Fourme d’Ambert recipe but they use hemispherical Gorgonzola vats and buy their mould cultures from Italian Gorgonzola making friends.  This may or may not be Penicillium expansum / glaucum as discussed in a previous post but it certainly has a gentler and more mushroomy flavour than most savoury, herby roqueforti blueing.  Another example of how the AOC system isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to quality because this cheese is gentle and delicious and yet can not command the prestige of Fourme.

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(Persille de Beaujolais being made in semi hemispherical Gorgonzola vats)

And as if there were a theme to these last two cheeses we come on to Persille de Malzieu.  This is Herve Mons’s Stichelton in effect.  It is Roquefort but more traditional than Roquefort.   Most Roquefort production is done on an industrial scale these days.  There are smaller producers and there are some extremely quality driven producers, but there are no longer farmhouse Roquefort producers.  Herve has persuaded a farmer just outside the AOC area for Roquefort cheese production but who had been selling their Lacaune sheeps milk for Roquefort production to make cheese with it.  They basically make a farmhouse Roquefort and rather than following the strict letter of the law for recipe as laid down by the AOC, they mature it at warmer temperatures and without it going into the famous caves.  They also seem to pierce it less.  In essence they are going back to some of the techniques that would have been employed in farmhouse Roquefort production without the access to big refrigerated cold rooms or the desire to deliver that big, salty strong blue hit that Roquefort has become known for.  In my opinion, it is delicious.  It has the caramel notes of sheeps milk with the herby notes of blueing.  That and the Bleu de Termignan are my favourite blue cheeses to sell.  Oh and it’s about two thirds the price of Roquefort too.  Without the AOC, it can’t command the same price.  Better cheese, less money.  I’m in!

The AOC dilemma

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I first met Bronwen Percival, now better known as the buyer at Neal’s Yard Dairy and the founder of the London Gastronomy Seminars when she was a student, writing a paper on the shortcomings of the PDO and AOC system.  At the time, my experience of this system was purely UK based and to be honest in the UK, PDO certification isn’t hugely meaningful.

Stilton, our most famous PDO (Product of Designated Origin) cheese has enshrined in its certified production methods, the use of pasteurised milk.  The PDO was organised and established when most of the Stilton producers in the UK were using pasteurised milk as this was the trend at the time in UK dairying.  I think this was sometime in the 1960s.  The second best known PDO in the UK is that for West Country Cheddar and in this, production standards were so loosely worded that it encompassed block and traditional clothbound wheels of cheddar.  Where the Silton PDO did at least ensure that its cheeses adhered to basic production standards, for instance a natural rinded cylinder form and that this was not bound in wax of plastic to lock more moisture in, the West Country Cheddar PDO only really established the geographical origin as a quality measure.  Jamie Montgomery, one of the best known and respected cheddar makers in the UK decided to leave the PDO because it was more damaging to his brand than enhancing it.  Hafod, one of the most traditional recipe cheddars currently made in the UK can not fit into the PDO although in essence its recipe is one that was followed on farms all over Somerset before the 1920s.

However, I was of the impression that the AOC system in France worked better; that it actually protected the important factors of traditional production as it was set up at a time when there was considerably more farmhouse cheese production knowledge and thus it was more meaningful.  Since working at Mons Cheesemongers it has become apparent that wherever it becomes a marketing tool and has financial importance as a result, it loses its ability to protect tradition.  And this, if I remember correctly, in a nutshell is what Bronwen Percival proposed around 9 years ago.  She’s a clever one.

Mons have recently encountered their own issues with the AOC systems and these cover the immensely petty to the more fundamental.  A key area that causes concern is that the AOC system in some places encourages the use of specific AOC approved starter cultures and this in turn means that individual producers cheeses personalities are not able to be fully expressed.  In fact, with different intentions of course, it achieves the same end as globalisation and industrialisation of cheese.  Many farmhouse cheeses in the UK who don’t have the same variety and choice of starter cultures or the knowledge to ferment their own, end up using around 2 or 3 freeze dried cultures bought from Christian Hansen.  These cultures are also used by the block, factory cheeses.  It isn’t the best way to reveal the full individuality of the milk.  This is a big topic and indeed it’s one for another post but the essence is that by buying commercial cultures, the individuality of each producer diminishes.  We will not ever live in an age of identikit cheeses: recipe, cheesemakers’ skill and farming methods resulting in differing compositions of the milk will answer for that, however it does mean that we don’t have the full effect of the terroir, farming system, breed of the animal and cheesemaking skill reflected in the final cheeses.  An example here of the bureacracy of the AOC system here is Mons’s Beaufort Alpage and Ete (see picture).  These are made by a cheesemaker who makes his own starter in the latte inesto style I described after the milk workshops I attended in Bra.  He makes his own rennet too from dried stomachs of his male calves.  However he has 2 farms.  This means he can not be considered artisanal because his production is too big and yet his recipe and key production techniques are the quintessence of tradition.

Meanwhile, Mons is having to rebrand a few of their Provencal goats cheeses as a result of wanting to improve them.  The AOC states that in order to be considered to bear their name, they have to have a minimum aging time in the area.  In principle, I can understand the argument for this, however in practice it has problems.  Mons in France (the parent company of Mons Cheesemongers) have been encountering problems with the goats cheeses as they needed better drying facilities before the age at which they arrived in Lyons for affinage.  It’s quite a big ask that each farmer should be able to invest in state of the art drying facilities.  Herve Mons decided that he could accomplish that for them better at his own caves.  However this means that they are no longer AOC cheeses.  And thus renaming has happened.  Jane, explained this recently to Mons Cheesemongers Wholesale customers.  I have copied her words so this is straight from the horse’s mouth as it were:

‘it’s time to focus in on our Loire goats cheeses… & in this region, change is afoot. Being such a well known area for goats milk, many of the Loirien cheeses are protected by AOCs. & within the rules of these AOCs, it’s stated that cheeses can only share the prestigious protected names if the remain in their region until at least 10 days old.

Well, Mr Mons has plans for improving his maturing of these recipes & part of his scheme entails bringing the cheeses into our caves so he can manage the drying process himself. And that means getting hold of the cheeses at the earliest stage possible.

In order to take this step towards improving the evolution of these cheeses, he’s had to rename a number of them so’s not to contradict the AOC rules. & so ladies & gentleman, we give you……

Selles sur Couffy for Selles sur Cher (the Couffy is a tributary of the Cher river which runs by the producer’s farm),

Pouligny for Pouligny St Pierre,

Ste Maure de la Dragonniere for Ste Maure de Touraine &

Auzanne Cendree for Valencay’

It may be time for the AOC system as well as that of our own UK PDOs to consider adaptation and evolution.

We wish you a Monsy Christmas!

The Mons Cheese Display

It’s December and this means it’s time for cheese retailing again.  This year, I will be working at the Borough Market Mons Cheesemongers stand.  I did a few shifts back in the spring this year when the stand was newly opened so in some ways it’s just a question of jogging the memory and hopefully it will all come flooding back.  So far I have helped close up the main stand so that we could set up our temporary stand at the Borough Market’s Evening of Cheese which seemed to go ok although perhaps not at my speedy best and helped set up the stand this morning – again not quite up to speed but not too disorganised.  Tomorrow is the first full shift and it being a Friday will hopefully be reasonably busy.

Borough Market is looking pleasingly Christmassy with mistletoe on the veg stands and christmas trees for sale on Stoney Street.  On the cheese stand we have mountains of Vacherin from Sancey Richard and it is blooming delicious.  I am about to spend at least half my wages on cheese again I can tell.  So far I’ve already had to head home with a Bicaillou and some Beaufort Alpage.  Incidentally if you’re near Borough Market, those are also my top tips – along with a Vacherin if you’re up for 500g of spoonably runny cheesey gorgeousness and really why wouldn’t you be?

Next week of course will be when it gets properly busy.  The Market is open daily now although most customers apart from the real local regulars won’t realise this and will still come along on the usual market days of Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  And as always, the biggest rush of sales and customers will come at the end of the month.  Every year, all retailers comment that the sales peak gets later and later.  You just have to hold your nerve and believe that it will happen.  Then on Christmas Eve, it’s all over for another year.

Elsey & Bent's Mistletoe and Holly

Christmas Trees on Stoney Street

Christmas Wreaths Borough style

News from Nettlebed

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Over the summer we received planning permission for our build based on some preliminary plans.  I received the news by text somewhere in the Labirinto in the Dolomites (see above).  It was a rather good setting in which to receive good news and felt appropriately celebratory.

Of course we hadn’t really expected to get the go ahead quite that early and I was in Italy for another 6 weeks so our progress wasn’t as quick as perhaps it could have been all things considered.  We did, by dint of long distance phone calls to Alan Hayes of Capital Refrigeration who had expressed interest in building the interiors, manage to agree a basic interior layout and after a trip to Cheese in Piedmont and a rather informal meeting with Ivan Larcher by the side of the NYD stand, got confirmation that it would be appropriate for the volumes we intend to make and the types of cheese we intend to make.

Image(Cutting edge Dairy design happened right next to this scene of cheese retail).

On my return to the UK and having managed to ascertain a date when Ivan would be in the UK, we arranged for him and Alan to meet and go through our final plans, sign off on them more or less and basically agree what we were planning to build in terms of its cost effectiveness and practicality.  We also met our future EHO who is all we could possibly wish for!  She freely admitted that she didn’t have experience of cheese but when Rose initially mentioned plans to make cheese and unpasteurised cheese at that, her employers put her on a course taught by Dr Paul Neaves so that she could learn more.  She was surprised to find that on this course, raw milk in and of itself wasn’t considered a problem and as long as we have good hygienic practices in work and hygiene is made practical and easy to achieve by the design of our building, she will be happy.  I was particularly impressed too that she had researched the Specialist Cheesemakers Association and was aware of current negotiations by the SCA’s Technical Committee to nominate a primary authority in Cornwall.  Primary authorities are a new(ish) idea, I believe, which are particularly useful for big companies with lots of different sites, like Arla or Dairycrest.  They nominate the authority at their head office or main manufacturing plant as their primary authority and this means that each site doesn’t have to deal with a different local authority as interpretations of the regulations is apparently extremely changeable from one borough to the next.  The SCA has used this as a template for themselves as an organisation so that all members of the SCA can deal direct with one authority.  The hope is that this will put an end to the issues individual members have had with one authority being unneccessarily obstructive with raw milk cheese producers due to half knowledge and perceived threats from its unpasteurised nature where one with more experience is a dream to work with and entirely co operative.  From the EHO’s point of view, as we learned when meeting ours, it’s a big relief too because it means that should there be a problem with a new business making a ‘dangerous’ raw milk cheese, the buck doesn’t stop with them.

From those meetings, things continue to move on.  Our barn is full of straw that the current tenant needs to move.  This hasn’t happened yet though I am assured that it will be doing so on either Wednesday or Thursday this week.  Once that happens a structural engineer will go in and assess what strengthening and repairs need to be done to the existing structure which has been up for a few years and may need a little bit of TLC to get it up to scratch for what we need it to do.  After that, accurate costs can be drawn up and following that, work can begin on the exteriors.  And when the walls go up outside, I will start to relax a bit.  Until then it’s weather dependent and we are of course entering winter.  Once the outside walls and roof are done, interior work can carry on regardless of the rain.  If everything runs to time (which we’ve been advised not to expect) we could start cheesemaking on April 8th.  However, as the advice from older and wiser heads is that it won’t run to time, we could hope to be up and running anywhere from May to September.  Another reason at this stage why I’ll relax a bit more when there are some walls there.  It will give a clearer idea of when I need to move house again and when I can get my hands in that curd!

Until then, however, I have Christmas Cheese Mongering to take my mind off things.  The next couple of weeks will see me, swaddled in so many layers of thermal clothing that I look like the Michelin man, behind the counter of the Mons Cheesemongers Borough Market Stall.

Can I switch my allegiance from Neal’s Yard Dairy British Cheese to the French stuff?  You bet I can. It’s in the family now!  Vacherin and Gruyere for Christmas anyone?