Oh My God – We’ve actually got a floor!

Anyone who’s spoken to me recently will know that the floor of our Dairy has proved a major problem and a huge source of frustration all round.
Today, finally, we have the beginnings of our resin floor.
Hallelujah!

The green really ties the rooms together.
The green really ties the rooms together.

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A Change of Scene

I have swapped the Peak District for the Chilterns.  View from Nettlebed Creamery.
I have swapped the Peak District for the Chilterns. View from Nettlebed Creamery.

At the beginning of August, I finally moved to Nettlebed. At the time, it seemed that we’d have 6 weeks of build left and at the beginning of October we’d be making cheese. Then it moved to mid October and now it looks a bit longer than that too. Building projects huh?

It’s not that things haven’t been happening though. In fact lots of things have been happening.

The paneling for our internal walls arriving in Nettlebed on a massive lorry.
The paneling for our internal walls arriving in Nettlebed on a massive lorry.

We have internal walls now which is very satisfying to see the building really take shape. From what will be our make room, I can look down the building through what will become the salting and hastening room, warm aging room, cold aging room and ginormous cold room. I can walk through our entrance way and hygiene barrier system and be satisfied that it works. There are scribblings all over the walls showing where the power points are going to be and where our wash down points and hand wash stations are going to be.

Our milk reception room.  This is where we'll back the truck in to hook up the milk tank to its pump and deliver the milk in to the vat.
Our milk reception room. This is where we’ll back the truck in to hook up the milk tank to its pump and deliver the milk in to the vat.
View from the make room
Looking from the make room down through the salting / hastening room, then warm aging, cold aging and, right at the back, the cold room.
The cheese lab.
The cheese lab. This is where I’ll be making starter cultures, ricotta, doing lactofermentations and all kinds of milk related experiments.

We have drains in place and like the big geek I am, I am so happy with them. We have lovely stainless steel trench drains which are going to be so blissfully easy to clean. There are 2 different types of concrete on the floor: regular concrete and a different mix with a higher sand content that Lee, the man who laid the floor at Trethowans’ Dairy had to specify and order in especially. It was laid down beautifully with the right rises and falls etc and then John Lord who will lay the final resin layer of flooring came to do their work. Unfortunately at this point, things slowed. John Lord were concerned the concrete hadn’t set hard enough and queried if the correct mix had been delivered.  Since then many opinions have been given from other flooring firms and concrete suppliers, hammer tests have been done several times and unfortunately our worst fears were confirmed.  It wasn’t good enough and needed to be done again.

Meanwhile, Alan Hayes has been shifting the schedule around in order to do as much as possible while we wait for the floor and so the delay can be as minimal as possible. We have electrics going in next week, a phone line and broadband as well. Given that we can’t finish the downstairs until we have a floor, we’ve put more attention on the mezzanine floor, designing an open plan office space but also working out how our changing room plus shower block will work and where our hygiene barrier fits in. We also have a nice big space at the back of the building where we’ll have storage space for filing but also a space for cheese tastings with our customers but also possibly if there’s interest locally, at some point in the future, tastings for the general public.

And I have been practising cheesemaking in the kitchen as my Facebook friends can attest. I’ve also found the enforced wait to be quite useful getting to understand the pace of our starter cultures. We’ve bought cultures from Standa in Normandy on the advice of Ivan Larcher and after much deliberation, we’ve bought 2 different yoghurt cultures and a mesophilic culture which are supplied as freeze dried powder but that we need to bulk as a levain culture before use. One of the yoghurt cultures acidifies a lot quicker than the other, making it quite nice and easy to use but actually the slower culture tastes nicer. Today I have been making cheese in the kitchen again and having made up starter cultures a couple of days ago, I have left the yoghurt cultures straining in cheese cloth. I intend to have them for breakfast tomorrow. I’ll report back. There’s more to be said on the subject of kitchen cheesemaking than one paragraph in a general update post. That’s a topic for next time.

Draining cheeses that were made in the kitchen and are left to drain in the bathroom.
Draining cheeses that were made in the kitchen and are left to drain in the bathroom.

It’s getting real!

 

We have windows and doors in!
We have windows and doors in!

Lots of bits and pieces have been happening recently.  Building work has slowed down a bit since the heady days when the walls went up.  The thing holding us up is that the concrete laid as foundations for our floor has cracks and although it’s quite likely that these are just cracks caused by the concrete drying, we need to be sure they aren’t a sign of something more serious like subsidence.  So we wait for someone with structural engineering knowledge to assess them and sign them off.

Once that is done we can put in the framework for the first floor and with that in place, we can start to put in the panelling that forms the interior walls.  In other words, we’ll have rooms.

Meanwhile I have been working on paperwork still – the end is in sight finally.  Actually, I hope it is, every time I say that to myself, I remember some other record sheet or schedule that I’ll need and it goes on the job list.  We’ve ordered and paid for our industrial dishwasher, the final payment on the equipment from Avedemil has been made and 4 pallets including vat, racks, wash tubs, multimoulds and stainless steel tables should soon be on their way to us.  The pipework to divert our milk out of the main milkline before it can be cooled or can get into the bulk tank is on order and we’re pushing for it to be in by 11th August.

Why 11th August did you ask?  Well because officially I have a date to move south.  7th August.  And come what may, I will be on the payroll as of the 11th as with Rose on holiday in Greece, I’ll be managing the build and using our warm milk, I’ll be making trial cheeses in the kitchen of my house and then maturing them in a wine fridge.  It will be good to get my hands on some curds again – just have to remember to order a few key bits of gear: starters, a tub to make cheese in, an electric blanket and indeed the wine fridge.

The trial cheesemaking came about on a visit from Jason Hinds, David Lockwood and Bronwen Percival from Neal’s Yard Dairy.  They came for an informal morning chat to look at progress, talk about the quality of cheese they are looking for and its implications for milk quality, sales and advice on our financials.  All three of them felt that as soon as the milk was in place, making some kitchen trials would be well worth the exercise in understanding where the milk quality is at this year (it’s bound to be rather different to February when we last did any testing and again to last summer when I was making trial cheeses at SAF) as well as hopefully having something to taste and start to comment on. We’re going to go down to London for a big cheese tasting with Bronwen at the end of August which will be a useful calibration exercise.  In theory I know what their cheeses are like but it’s a few years now since I’ve been tasting them regularly and I’ll need a refresher to check out our washed rind competition.  For Rose, seeing how Bronwen tastes, assesses flavour and quality and understanding what she is looking for will be invaluable.  It’s her job to look after sales when we’re up and running so a bit of calibration with one of our customers (we hope) can only be a good thing.

So it’s a mixed bag as I’m sure will be familiar to anyone who’s been involved in building work: some progress, some delays and on not too many occasions the odd step backwards.  Overall though we’re getting there and with a confirmed date in the diary for me to start work, it’s getting real.

Walls and Windows

Well, it’s not so long since I was getting excited about concrete being down on the floor and drainage channels being dug.  However today, I have received most exciting photos.  The outside walls are nearly up.  Most of the cladding is up and you can really get a sense of what the building itself will look like finally.  It’s looking pretty good, I must say.

Meanwhile, I am still working on HACCP and Quality Systems paperwork.  It’s a long haul and will be the subject of another post in due course.  Just need to get the stuff finished first!

Nettlebed Creamery as seen from the Western corner.
Nettlebed Creamery as seen from the Western corner.

 

The 2 Cheesemaking Rooms (1 for St Bartholomew and 1 for the blue cheese).
The 2 Cheesemaking Rooms (1 for St Bartholomew and 1 for the blue cheese).

 

Nettlebed Creamery, first floor.  This is where our offices and staffroom will go.
Nettlebed Creamery, first floor. This is where our offices and staffroom will go.

 

Nettlebed Creamery, the Western side.  Look.  Doors.
Nettlebed Creamery, the Western side. Look. Doors.

New things are a-happening!

So it has been over a month since I last wrote but buildings are being built, logos are being designed, websites created and as you know from my visit to Avedemil, equipment is being bought.

So, as we left it, we had steels and the best part of a roof.  After that, the builders had to dig drainage channels which meant that progress wasn’t hugely visible but was made.  Finally however we have concrete on the floors and bits of walls up  – brick at the bottom and wooden frames which are going to support traditional dark wood cladding.

The floor is down.  Concrete baby.
The floor is down. Concrete baby.

 

The view that I will be gazing on from my make room as I make St Bartholomew
The view that I will be gazing on from my make room as I make St Bartholomew

 

As you know I already blogged about visiting Avedemil which was an experience for definite but in a good way. While we wait for our equipment to be delivered, we have also been putting our bursary money to good use by commissioning a website.  It’s just a holding page at the moment but with Harry Darby (NYD’s design guru) on our side, we’re hoping for some great things in the future.  So far we’ve just decided on our house fonts and incorporated them into the holding site and business cards.  Photos are to follow!

In the meantime, I’ve been doing a lot of HACCP.  Which, if you’ve done it before, will explain why it’s been a bit quiet on the blog.  My head hurts.

Avedemil

Anyone who has hired Ivan Larcher as a consultant will at some time or other, buy equipment from Avedemil.  It’s a mystical destination in the Poitou Charentes region of France that is regarded as a cheese Aladdin’s Cave.

Avedemil Warehouse
Avedemil Warehouse

Of course, when it came to buying our equipment too, we planned it into the budget to buy from Avedemil as well.  It needed a leap of faith but it was a leap worth taking

Their website is very basic and actually about 2 days before I left, just as I was trying to work out their address, it went offline.  I know from previous experience at Neal’s Yard that when it comes to communications, in France the phone is still king.  Email is used but particularly in retail or in agricultural sections of business, nothing replaces just talking to someone.  This is actually a pretty healthy way of going about things.  I am increasingly aware that as stiff-assed Brits, we rely too much on firing off an email, status update or tweet about something, because it’s easier than having to engage with someone in real time.  Talking is still the best way to get a repsonse, sale or communicate information.

However if it’s talking in a language you last studied over 20 years ago when you were at school, then thank God for the full arsenal of communication technology.  Emailing and running a sections of text through Google Translate before you insert them into the text of your email, allowed me to first contact Mr Yannick Le Blanc of Avedemil and to his credit, although not always all that speedily, he replied to the extent that before even visiting I had been able to buy a vat and send him a list of other things I was looking for.  For the latter, I found going through Coquard‘s online catalogue and making a list of technical equipment-based french vocabulary was also pretty damn useful.  The trusty Collins French English Dictionary that saw me through A levels would have sadly let me down there, I fear.

So with little idea of where I was going, recommendations from everyone I knew but only a belief that surely they would have the things we needed, I committed Nettlebed Creamery’s money to buying me a flight, hotel rooms, car hire and set off, fervently hoping I wouldn’t find out later I could have ordered it all cheaper in the UK.  On that point, I was at least relatively sure as long as they had the things we needed that they’d have them at a better price.  I’d been trawling around looking for vats before we arranged the trip and for the sort of thing I wanted, I only found two options: 1,000 litre cheese vat on the goat nutrition website which is too big for what we want and cost a hefty £25,000 or buy something new from Jongia which would also be into the tens of thousands.  Avedemil’s website had a blue cheese, tilting vat and on enquiring about the price we heard the very welcome news that they wanted 3,500 Euros + VAT.  That price difference alone justified my trip.

Having now been there in person, I can report back that yes, you just have to make the leap of faith and go there.  I flew out of Stansted into Poitiers which is a charmingly tiny airport.  We then drove an hour south in more or less a perfect straight line to Chaunay about a quarter of an hour out of Ruffec the town in which Avedemil is based.  The following morning at 10.30am we met Mr Le Blanc and having already heard something about us from Ivan who unfortunately couldn’t join us as a listeria emergency called him away to another client, he began to formulate the list of equipment that we needed.

Chaunay and its only hotel, bar and restaurant
Chaunay and its only hotel, bar and restaurant

Mr Le Blanc has been doing this job for a long time and he knows a lot about what you need for each type of cheese.  With a basic working knowledge of Taleggio and taking into account that we didn’t want to use square moulds because it would make the cheese look very like St James, he set about showing us the various combinations of bits of kit we might need: plateaux (draining trays), block moulds, racks, a clever pallet truck thingy to move the racks about so they don’t have to be on wheeled bases and then roll all over the floor you’ve specially had laid to slope for ease of drainage.  We looked at the vat, discussed the neccessity of a raised platform to stand on because of my lack of height.  We looked at soaking tubs that will fit our racks for ease of washing and the wheeled bases they can go on.  And so much more.  It was like going round a supermarket sweep.  Whereas in the UK we’d have had to get inventive or make do with things that didn’t quite fit what we needed them to do, here was a warehouse filled to the roof, in the style of the hangar at the end of Indiana Jones where they put the Ark of the Covenant, with things that just worked.

Racks and chariots
Racks and chariots

 

We spent a couple of hours there, made up a list which would form the basis for a quote he’d send us later and left.  Job done nicely.  The quote came in a few days later when I’d returned to the UK.  14,000 Euros for the lot.  I am still unsure about the block moulds.  I want to use individual ones and cloth lined at that.  I am also not sure that the ones he showed me would allow the cheeses to drain adequately as they didn’t seem to me to have quite enough holes and we may need to get a bit Heath Robinson where that’s concerned.

The only point, however is, you need to do your homework.  I had my list of technical vocab and I brought with me a pretty fluent French speaker in the form of my Dad for when my own stores of French ran out.  I think my old teachers would be relatively pleased with what I did manage to remember and I could just about have managed on my own but Mr Le Blanc and the rest of his staff don’t speak any English so be warned.

A visit to Nettlebed

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.

Bits of walls.  Piles of rubble.  All good progress.
Bits of walls. Piles of rubble. All good progress.

 

And the house?  Very nice indeed.  I’m already making plans for the garden which, I think, is a good sign.

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