Choosing a Cheese: The Neal’s Yard Dairy Dilemma

When I left Neal’s Yard Dairy, I had a vague idea of learning how to make a traditional dales type of cheese like Cheshire (the house cheese where I grew up) or Lancashire (the fabled house cheese of my dad’s childhood).  I also had a pipe dream of my own orchard and market garden and a yoghurt making facility where I made yoghurts and fruit coulis to be sold together using  rare and interesting varieties of cherries, pears, apricots, strawberries, rhubarb or whatever other fruit took my fancy.  A visit to Caroline Atkinson at Hill FarmDairy to make Stawley, reminded me how much I enjoy the pace of a lactic cheese make.  Nine months at Holker Farm Dairy getting my head around drainage of a washed rind cheese made me wonder if I really did want to put that all to one side and make something entirely different in future.  Equally, memories of the sticky, greasy, gloopy and slimey business that is rind washing cheeses did put me off the idea of making a washed rind of my own.

When I first got in touch with Rose, they had made a Chaource on a very much ‘in the kitchen’ basis which tasted really pretty darn good.   I was very keen to make a lactic cows milk cheese and to be honest this did encourage me to keep the email correspondence going in those early stages.  The fact that she also was interested in making yoghurt (albeit for a frozen yoghurt range primarily) was an added bonus.  Should it ever be even a remote possibility, Oxfordshire is a considerably better place climate-wise to try and plant the odd fruit tree than Cumbria.
I did my market research too – by which I mean I got in touch with Jason Hinds and Bronwen Percival at Neal’s Yard and asked them what they suggested would be a good choice for a dairy that was just setting out.
‘Bloomy rind soft cheese and continental style blue’ came the reply.
‘Does a lactic cheese qualify as bloomy rind?’
‘Yup’
Emboldened, Rose and I set about our sales projections and planning with a soft lactic cheese in mind and to then bring on a gorgonzola style blue a year or so later into production.
‘What about doing a washed rind though?’ she asked.
‘Well I have made one before,’ I said, reluctant to abandon all that I’d learnt in Cumbria for projects new, ‘I could probably be up for doing one again if we could have a bit of help on the rind washing.’
We tentatively pencilled it in for year 5.
‘I’d quite like to do a hard cheese too’ Rose ventured.
‘I think we’d need to think about that further down the line when we’ve got more money.  It will probably need more equipment than our soft cheeses…. but we could definitely have a go.’
So we were decided.  Year 1 would be a delicate little lactic cheese, year 2 would see the launch of our blue and we would then let those establish themselves for a few years before embarking on anything new but a washed rind and a hard cheese were a possibility.  The Cheshire / Lancashire or Cotherstone type of cheese was still in with a chance.
Why so many cheeses?  Wouldn’t it be better to just do one cheese and do it right?
It’s a very valid and good point, but I think if we don’t take the possibility of maintaining the quality of all of our cheeses lightly and are always trying to improve, then we can manage it.  It also appeals to my nature to have a variety of work to do and have the challenge of doing it all well.  It’s not the easy path.  There are risks that we’ll take our eyes off one of the cheeses and mess it up.  There are plenty of examples of cheesemakers who make a large variety of cheeses and make a range of decent but not amazing cheeses.  There are also compelling examples of people who sensibly limit their product range to only one cheese and just make it good: Kirkham’s Lancashire, Stichelton to name but two.  However being nothing if not fussy about what I make and obstinate to boot, I believe I have the tenacity, doggedness and pig-headedness to make it work.  Although not commonly seen as such, I think, in this instance, these will be positive character attributes.
So, all set, we begin finding our site, getting our plans together and preparing for our planning application and build.  We call in Ivan Larcher and he designs us a beautiful layout in which we can make a lactic cheese and a blue cheese with a little yoghurt room off the side for playing around with yoghurt making and lactofermentations.  It’s all good.
But time moves on and while we are battling the planning process and pursuing the all important question of where our dairy should be (it’s going to be a permanent structure so we’d better get this vital point right), the industry waits for no man or woman. Julie Cheyney is making a lovely lactic cows cheese, St JudeDavid Jowett is alternating his mountain cheese makes with Alscot, his lactic cheese.  Jason also knows of a couple in Suffolk experimenting with a Brie.
So, one day, after heading in to meet Bronwen and ask if they might be prepared to mature on some of our lactic cheese trials that we hope to make later this year before the dairy is built, I get home to discover 2 missed calls from one Mr Jason Hinds.  I call back.
‘Anne,’ he says without preamble, ‘ I’m about to throw you a curveball, but you know me and curveballs, so I’ll carry on…’
‘Go on, I’m listening.’
‘What we really need right now isn’t a white rinded cheese.  We could really do with a washed rind.’
Gulp.
He carried on, explaining what they felt they needed on their counter and I mentally reversed our white rind lactic cheese to year 5 and brought forward the washed rind to year 1 to see how I felt about that.  Although I’d been entirely decided about the lactic cheese, I found that I actually didn’t feel particularly upset about switching things around and we ended the conversation by agreeing that I’d talk to Rose and we’d both consider the matter further.
Meanwhile I had a Blue Cheese course to go on at the School of Artisan Food where I’d have chance to talk to Ivan Larcher about the idea so I emailed him to ask how it might affect our dairy plan and to warn him I’d be asking him about it when I saw him.
‘What do you want to do?’ Ivan asked, getting to the point with clear sighted accuracy and without beating about the bush, ‘Make a cheese you want to make or sell to Neal’s Yard?’
A good question.
I examined my motives and in doing so, I realised that, having spent 16 years at Neal’s Yard, I did want them to sell my cheese.  In part, I wanted the friends I have there to be excited about what I’m making, but also I know from working at Holker with Martin that if anyone can be relied upon to push you, always ask for the cheese to be better and make sure you aren’t resting on your laurels, it’s Neal’s Yard Dairy.  I want someone to be a pain in the arse and insist that I make them better cheese.
That said, I want to make what I want to make.  So in answer to Ivan’s question, I want to do both.  I want to make what I want to make and I want to sell to them.
In terms of a washed rind cheese, I want to look to Italy for inspiration, just as I did with our blue cheese.  Italy is my second home.  I’ve spent about a tenth of my life there over the years and in many ways I’ve grown up there.  It doesn’t matter which city I arrive in or whether I’ve been there before or not, I am at home.  While France boasts wonderful washed rind cheeses (and I’ve been helping out with Mons at Borough Market recently so I’ve been getting to know some of them in much more detail), I don’t have the connection with France that I do with Italy.  So if we’re talking washed rind, then I want to make something based on Taleggio with its sweet, milky, honeyed, savoury flavour profile and its silky texture.
In terms of lactic cheese, well we’ll see, in Year 5, if they are interested.  They can plan and look for gaps in their range as any efficient shop or affineur would but that’s not the only thing that makes your product choice for you.  Sometimes you just respond to a cheese that’s damn good.  In other words, if I make it delicious enough, they will buy it.  I do like a challenge.
Advertisements

Finn, the Great White Cheese (at Neal’s Yard Creamery)

Lactic cows milk cheese is a subject dear to the heart at the moment as one of the dairies I’m working with, is interested in making a Chaource style cheese.  When I heard about this, it pretty much clinched me wanting to work with them as, independently, I had been thinking of making Chaource myself when I set up on my own, inspired in part by Jasper Hill Farms’ Constant Bliss made over in Vermont and also by a couple of very happy days in the dairy at Hill Farm Dairy making Stawley with Caroline Atkinson.  It therefore follows on that while at Neal’s Yard Creamery I was particularly keen to spend some time observing how they make Finn.
On the Tuesday morning, bright and early, Charlie set off with their little trailer and tank (and yours truly in the passenger seat), heading for the farm to collect milk.  While the goats milk comes from about an hour away in Gloucestershire, the cows milk is a mere half hour away near Glasbury on Wye at the farm of Andrew & Rachel Giles.  Their cows are New Zealand Friesian, a very similar breed to the old British Friesian and as such have higher levels of fats and proteins than the industry standard the Holstein or Holstein Friesian cross.  There are a few Jerseys as well whose influence is probably pretty diluted across the herd as a whole but will give a little extra richness.  They are also farmed on a New Zealand system being out on grass for as long of the year as possible and requiring less concentrates and a more natural feeding regime as a result.  As we arrived at the farm, the milking was in progress and all seemed calm and under control.  We greeted the milkers and unloaded milk from the bulk tank into our little tank on the trailer.  As we filled the tank, I could see in the distance, the cows that had been milked happily making their way back to the fields.  They know their way back without a guide.
Back at Neal’s Yard Creamery, the milk was ready to process.  Starter had been made up and was added.  Double Cream was added too and the buckets left with the milk ripening.  It follows the same lactic process as the goats milk, rennet late afternoon and ladling the following morning but the composition and cream content are less co-operative than with the goats milk.  Cows milk will separate out into milk and cream more readily than sheep or goats milk and especially when kept at warm temperatures such as the 22C or thereabouts that lactic cheeses like to set at.  The danger therefore when making a lactic cheese, is that your cream separates out on top and forms a set cream cheese rather separate from the other curd.  To counteract this, Haydn goes back after the rennet has been added but before it is actually set and stirs the cream back in again.  This is something I have tried too since then when making a couple of batches of Jersey milk cheese and getting the timing right is by no means easy, believe you me.  However if done correctly, the curd the following morning has a lovely clear whey pool above it and the cream is integrated into the mix.  And this is what we found the following morning when checking the pH.
For the Finn, Charlie bought a set of rigid interlinked moulds and draining trays to fit them so they can be stacked as high as the ladler can reach on the draining table.  In my case, that’s not actually all that high but for the considerably taller Charlie and Haydn that’s a great space saving advantage.  They are also beautifully simple to use.  No moulds tipping over of slipping about, you just ladle and ladle until they are full up, then pop a tray and another set of moulds on top and off you go again.  As for washing?  Well they would be a bit tricky to clean by hand, but if you have a dishwasher there’s no problem, and frankly, if you are making over 400 Ragstones a week, never mind Dorstones, Perroche, Perroche logs for catering, Goats Curd, Finn & Cows Curd, a dishwasher is something you will definitely need.
Another thing I was keen to find out about the Finn, is how to control bitter flavours that are an inevitable part of fat breakdown.  Partly Neal’s Yard Creamery have this under control by pumping the milk more gently so that it is handled carefully as it comes in from the tank.   Another aspect in developing the flavour has been dropping the temperature at which rennet is added but rather than protect the fats, this has the effect of allowing greater complexity of flavour to develop from the starter bacteria.  It all contributes, however, to having a rich, buttery lactic flavour that showcases the best of the cream and none of the down sides.