The Nettlebed Adventure is Over (For Me At Least)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Home made Starter

A couple of years ago, Martin tried out making St James cheese using acidified Swallet whey as a starter and also souring his own milk.  It gave interesting but inconsistent results and his EHO got worried so he stopped and returned to his old DVIs.  He didn’t forget the idea however and with the use of pint starters this year, it’s something that we’ve talked more and more about.The argument for using your own starters is to achieve as complex a starter as you can.  The most basic starters are the DVIs which are designed to acidify efficiently and exist in a freeze dried powder that’s easy to look after and simple to apply.  However in terms of containing complex cocktails of bacteria, that’s not what they do.  Pint starters like the MT36 that we use at the moment are a more complex bunch of bacteria with more of an emphasis on flavour production than ease of use.  Souring your own milk will have a greater cocktail of bacteria because it is everything that’s naturally present in the milk itself.  The advantage of diversity of bacteria is that each bacterium will break down proteins using slightly different enzymes which affects the way the proteins are broken down and the combinations of single amino acids they are broken down into.  This in turn of course affects the flavours that are produced.The flavours we want in cheesemaking are primarily a result of the breakdown of proteins rather than fats.  Initially the protein will be broken down to peptides and at this stage the flavours are very basic – salt, sweet, bitter etc.  The enzymes continue breaking the protein down smaller and smaller.   From peptides, they get penta peptides and finally amino acids themselves.  At each stage the flavours develop in complexity and become more aromatic and savoury.  So a complex bunch of bacteria and by extension a complex bunch of enzymes should mean richer, more savoury and complex flavoured cheese.

So we took 100ml of milk, warmed it up in water heated to about 30C and then left it at the room temperature of the dairy which is about 26C for 2 days.  By this time it had thickened into a smooth yoghurt-like consistency.  From this 100ml, we added 10ml to a litre of milk we had pasteurised in a bain marie, stirred and poured it into 8 sterilised pots leaving some left over in a jug.  After 20 minutes for the bacteria to grow accustomed to their new medium but without giving them enough time to start reproducing, the pots were frozen.  The left over mixture in the jug was covered and left overnight to acidify which it duly did – and it tasted great too.  I ate some of it for lunch.  We then sent 1 of the frozen pots off for testing for pathogens and total viable count.  From this we can tell if there are any nasty bacteria present and if so if they are present in quantities that will mean they get the competitive advantage when added to our fresh milk at the start of cheesemaking.  The test results were, we thought, satisfactory and emboldened by that, we gave it a go and used it for just 1 batch of cheese on Saturday 16th July.

Having called in a bit of advice from the clever clogs that are Hodgson and Cordle, we were prepared for the cheese to acidify at a different rate and indeed it did just that.  A much slower acidification happened despite the starter itself having quite a high acidity at the time we used it.  This has meant quite a different cheese which probably at the moment isn’t reaching the potential you might’ve hoped for.  However we have tested it too just to double check the test results on the starter and again they are satisfactory.  We’re doing another test with a different lab just to make sure before selling it, but signs are actually pretty good to do a few more experiments using larger quantities of starter to get the acidity developing at the same rate as our MT36 starter does.

Most importantly, how do they taste?  Well they seem to have a firmer centre than our other cheeses with the normal acidity profile and I’m not entirely sure they’ll break down completely but the flavours so far are good.  There’s a creamy breakdown under the rind and certainly the flavours of the curdy centre aren’t too acidic and are quite mellow and rich.  It’s too soon to say for definite that this will be the way forward but equally it’s encouraging enough to try it out again and see what happens.