Kirkham’s Lancashire

The legend that is Graham Kirkham, in the maturing rooms.
The legend that is Graham Kirkham, in the maturing rooms.

‘What do you know?’ asked Graham Kirkham, on meeting me in the dairy.

‘Um – not much?’ I ventured. But I was about to learn a lot.

The really exciting thing about the Kirkhams, from my then perspective as a retailer and temporarily disadvantaged cheesemaker is that they farm only with their cheese in mind. They have no Dairycrest contract to fulfil, no minimum litres to achieve and therefore everything about how they farm has the goal of making amazing cheese.

Amazing cheese needs amazing milk but, specifically, it needs cheese-orientated milk. This means that it needs to have zero pathogens but viable lactic acid bacteria and good solids (fats and proteins). Graham’s cows are largely Friesian which would normally produce milk with about 3% fat. His cows manage 5% fat. For comparison that is Jersey milk levels.

They achieve this by specifically gearing the feed and breeding so that it suits the rhythms of the cheese. They stagger the calving all year round so that the milk is consistent in quality. End of lactation milk has different fats and proteins and tends also to have a higher bacterial load. Early lactation milk has a tendency for the fats to separate out more easily as well as also having a higher bacterial load. The more you can balance out these inconsistencies, the easier it is to make good cheese. The cows are fed silage all year round in addition to the pasture that they graze. In fact, last year (it was September 2015 when I visited), although they had free access to the outdoor pastures, the cows had been happier indoors where they have an airy barn with a back scratching brush roller. It had been monumentally rainy in Lancashire that summer. This meant they had eaten more silage than usual and the milk was more consistent.

Silage that the cows eat. The neatness, order and cleanliness of how it is stacked impressed me.
Silage that the cows eat. The neatness, order and cleanliness of how it is stacked impressed me.

The grass, being open to the air, varies. Variety can come from moisture content one rainy day to the next drier day as well as having higher sugars at the beginning of the season and more fibre towards the end of the season. When cutting grass for the silage, the Kirkhams wait longer than the average dairy farm. If you’re farming for milk production, you want fresh young grass, high in sugars and plenty of moisture. It’s rocket fuel for volume production. But if you’re looking at the solid content of the milk rather than the number of litres you’re producing, you’ll cut your silage grass later in the season when it’s more fibrous. This helps the fat percentage in the milk and is probably one of the reasons that the Kirkhams are able to make a Friesian herd give Jersey quality milk.

A couple of the Kirkhams cows in their comfy shed, eating away.
A couple of the Kirkhams cows in their comfy shed, eating away.

The reason they go to all this trouble with the milk is evident when you look at the way they make cheese. In the interests of achieving the correct buttery crumbling texture and slow acid development, they use tiny amounts of starter. For a vat of 2,500 litres milk they use milliletres of starter where a quicker recipe would call for 25 litres of starter or 1% of the milk volume. As a result of their starter use, they have a slow acid development, which helps the curd develop a richer, more nuanced, complex and subtle flavour that will develop over time. They mix the curd from 2 days production together when it comes to moulding cheeses so this slow development is what allows them to do this without compromising the flavour of the final cheeses. It is the traditional way of making Lancashire, dating back to when cheese would have been made without starter or at least using the whey from the previous day’s make as starter if necessary. Those were days in which cows, being milked by largely by hand, had more lactic acid bacteria in their milk so the need for starter cultures was reduced.

The cheeses are made over 2 days. On the first day, the milk is pumped into the vat and starter is added. They use a liquid starter, which looks like a runny yoghurt and tastes pretty delicious. The rennet is added about 20 minutes later, giving the starter time to acclimatise to its new medium but not develop appreciable acidity. The set is intended to take about an hour and, as they are practised hands at this, it does. The curd is then cut to the size of a hazelnut or roughly a 1cm cube. It is stirred briefly before it’s allowed to settle. Greater stirring would increase the acid production and create a bright and dry crumbly curd, which isn’t the mellow buttery, feathery texture Graham is going for. After about an hour, the free whey is pitched off and the settled curd is ladled into the centre of the vat, where the pressure of each new ladle of curd helps the curd-mass squeeze out whey.

Beginnings of the process of transfering scoops of curd from the side of the vat to the centre. Beginnings of the draining process.
Beginnings of the process of transfering scoops of curd from the side of the vat to the centre. Beginnings of the draining process.

When there are empty channels at every edge of the vat, the curd is allowed to bow out under its own pressure and then using a knife, blocks of curd are cut and stacked onto the curd mass continuing the whey expulsion. Finally a channel of curd blocks is cut into the centre of the vat and from then they begin to handle the blocks of squashed curd onto a cloth lined draining table. During this process, the curd has changed from a soft and jelly-like texture to something more akin to chicken breast. Once in the draining table the curd is broken by hand into pieces that roughly equal a handful of curd and then left to drain for an hour with the cloth wrapped around them and light weights placed on top to ensure the whey doesn’t stop draining.

Breaking the curd by hand in the draining table.
Breaking the curd by hand in the draining table.

The curd is broken again another 2 times during the afternoon with an hour’s wait in between each break. The time between curd breaks will then be used to combine a couple of days’ curd, mill it, salt it and pack it into moulds, which will form the final cheeses. It smells utterly delicious at this stage. In fact it’s one of the best jobs of the day, arm deep in curd that smells of lactic butter and, if you sneak a taste, tastes of salty, buttery gorgeousness.

Graham Kirkham prepares to mill curd from 2 days to pack into the moulds.
Graham Kirkham prepares to mill curd from 2 days to pack into the moulds.

A mixture of blocks of curd from yesterday and the day before are put through the curd mill to bring them down in size. Salt is then added and mixed by hand before the curd with salt is milled a further 2 times and then when it’s a fine texture, is packed into moulds and put into the presses overnight. The presses are tightened slowly with Graham doing the final turn at about 9pm – you don’t want to press the curd too soon or it might actually make the surface too firm while the interior retains its moisture. This would lead to funky fermented flavours as trapped moisture and naturally occurring yeasts go crazy together at a cosy temperature of about 20C. It’s especially likely to occur if you try and mix curd from 2 days as one lot of curd has sat for an extra day at ambient temperatures and without any salt to slow down yeast and bacterial activity.  This makes the yeasts sound undesirable and as long as they are controlled and in balance they certainly are not.  They are part of the natural flora of the milk after all.  The key is balance and control thus it’s important to keep an eye on the drainage and pressing of the curd.  Why bother with 2 day curd if it’s so much more difficult? The 2 day curd is important because it creates a mellow, buttery, savoury and complex flavour and this is something that sets the Kirkhams apart from other Lancashire makers who have opted for the faster and moister way of making cheese.  On the face of it, it makes sense commercially to have a shorter working day and a fast maturing cheese but then by following the slower and more traditional route, the Kirkhams have a unique and delicious cheese that is highly sought after.  Its popularity and the satisfaction in tasting the cheese alone justifies the considerably greater workload that it requires but because it is something special, Graham can also charge a price that means despite the slower maturation, greater workload and indeed resulting wage bill, he can make a profit.  This is the way of artisan cheese.  If you listen to conventional business theory, it makes no sense and yet if you stick to your guns and make something really good, it makes money.  Goes to show the limitations of what we normally see as business sense.

If Graham made a ‘more efficient’ cheese, the curd would be too wet to keep for an extra day.  If he tried to then it would taste eggy, sulphurous and so the quicker and moister recipe tends to lend itself to a simple one day curd cheese. This is fine but one dimensional and lactic , whereas the addictive quality of Kirkhams is that it has so much more than that.  A few days in his dairy and I learned about milk production, cheesemaking and had a beautiful illustration of the shortcomings of the standard business model.

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

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.
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Technical Cheese Geekery – Can’t wait!!

 

Prototype St Bartholomew curd
Prototype St Bartholomew curd

 

 

Technical Cheese Geekery – Can’t wait!!

Two years ago the Specialist Cheesemakers Association and Neal’s Yard Dairy held a conference aimed at furthering the links between artisan cheesemakers and the scientific community.

Despite a generously discounted ticket offered by Bronwen Percival, I was too broke to afford to go.  At the time, I wasn’t making cheese either so instead of experiencing it in the flesh, I pored over the video files that they uploaded later to listen to presentations, particularly by Marie-Christine Montel on microflora in raw milk.

The dates for this year’s conference have actually been in my diary since last September but there was still a present worry that with all the money we’re spending on building a dairy, going to the conference would stretch the cashflow too far and I’d have to miss it yet again.  This year, as we’re hopefully starting to make cheese in July, all the topics which prioritise milk production for raw milk cheese, are even more relevant.  Without expecting to get anywhere but thinking we may as well have a go, we applied for a bursary and got one!  With the condition that we buy one ticket, we can get another ticket paid by the bursary.

Really looking forward to it.  It’s going to be GREAT.

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Nettlebed Creamery Roof

We got a roof!!!!

Dougal Campbell Bursary

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Last week, the Soil Association announced three winners of its Dougal Campbell Cheese Bursary.  We applied, for Nettlebed Creamery, in early February and to be honest didn’t really expect to get anywhere.  But we did.  In fact we are one of the winners!

Dougal Campbell was a very influential figure in the Specialist Cheese industry who I’m afraid I never met.  I do know people who speak feelingly of how inspirational and generous he was with his knowledge and time.  If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have either Lincolnshire Poacher or Hafod on our cheeseboards to name but two.

I do remember his cheese though.  In the mid 90s when I was fresh out of university and learning the ropes at this quirky shop in Covent Garden called Neal’s Yard Dairy, we received a delivery of some of the last Tyn Grug cheeses he had made before he died.  Possibly because it coincided with me learning to set up a display and learning to sell and taste out cheese to customers, I can still l distinctly remember the big, heavy natural-rinded wheels that could be built into a pleasingly eye-catching tower.  I remember the cheese’s golden colour and a fruity flavour that flirted with wildness.  I also remember the sadness at his death  that was felt at Neal’s Yard amongst the more experienced mongers behind the counter who had met him and knew the cheese and its maker considerably better than I did.  It feels very apt to have the influence of this cheesemaker again as I’m embarking on another new learning curve.

In order to apply for the bursary, we had give details of how our farm is managed along organic guidelines and our intentions for the cheese.  I found it pretty interesting, not least learning about what Phil the farm manager does.  With a bit of luck you will too.

Nettlebed Creamery is a new business and we are in the process of building a dairy with the aim of making a washed rind cheese and a blue cheese using the organic milk produced on the Nettlebed Estate at Merrimoles Farm.

Merrimoles Farm has been in the Fleming family since 1901. The farm is a mixture of arable, sheep and dairy. The Dairy has been sited at Bix since 1969; it became organic in 2004.

There are over 130 cattle in the dairy herd. They are cross-bred Holstein Fresians with Swedish Reds and Montbelliards.

Some specific farming practices with a view to sustainability

The herd are fed using as much home grown feed as possible including in addition to grazing: clover silage, whole crop barley, grain and beans (approx. 15% is purchased – parlour cake).  The growth of pasture and feeds are managed using a rotation including clover crops to fix nitrogen and provide fodder.  

The cross breeding of the dairy cows (Holstein-Friesian, Swedish Red & Montbeliards) has been undertaken to maintain hybrid vigour and provide long lasting, healthy, fertile animals.

The farm is in the Organic Entry Level Scheme (OELS) and has established grass margins, maintains hedgerows and trees and has areas of low input grassland to maintain and increase biodiversity.  They alternate grazing with sheep where possible to limit the effect  of internal parasites, reduce the need to worm and therefore avoid wormer resistance worms.  They use 500t of Green Waste Compost annually to maintain soil reserves and avoid using finite mined fertilisers. In addition they have invested in energy saving  electric motors and a heat recovery unit at the dairy (milking) to reduce our energy use.

The Creamery, we are building, is designed taking energy efficiency into account.  We will be using water from our neighbour’s woodchip boiler for all our hot water and for our heating as well. We have plans to use solar panels from the roof of the barn next door (our landlord is finalising these plans currently). After our first year of cheese making we will be creating a wetland system to take all the grey water, sewage and the whey from the facility: a system of swales and ditches to filter the waste into clean water. We then intend to plant fruit trees and willows, rushes and wild orchids to assist with the water filtration and at the same time encourage biodiversity.

The cheeses we intend to make will be made using raw milk and using traditional, liquid yoghurt starter cultures.  Eventually we intend to culture our own starters and ripening agents solely from the raw milk produced by the estate and vegetable matter grown on the estate (a valuable potential source of lactic acid bacteria), eliminating the need for bought in cultures.

The cheeses will be entirely made by hand which suits the production of soft and blue cheeses best.  We will use open vats and the cheese will be made without the use of mechanical stirrers as our soft and blue cheeses require a more gentle handling.  A comprehensive set of maturing rooms has been designed to then ensure the cheeses are kept at the appropriate humidity and temperature at all stages of their ripening.

By building a dairy we intend to provide the farm with a future for its Dairy herd which is no longer subject to the fluctuating prices of the milk market.  The need for an alternative customer to the current purchaser on the farm was highlighted at a point when the milk price and amount of organic premium was cut without very much warning. 

Our dairy will negotiate a fair milk price for the farm that allows them to be profitable and importantly that is guaranteed.  In return for milk being produced to specific standards regarding bacterial levels and fat and protein content our milk price can be increased.  In addition to cheese, we have plans to investigate the possibilty of using more of the farm’s milk to produce a range of yoghurts and frozen yoghurt.  This in turn will allow the farm to maintain and improve on its current sustainable practices and will mean it does not have to dramatically increase herd size in order to turnover more money.  

Re-reading this, although these are the aims we’ve talked about since the beginning it does make me feel a little nervous as our aim of fair milk price and providing a sustainable future for the herd will only work if the cheese is as good as I can make it and therefore we sell plenty of it.

No pressure!!