We live, We learn … About Lactics

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.

One side of the milking parlour at Merrimoles Farm showing the stalls in which the cows stand, the pipework and the clusters below.
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.

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.



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.



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.

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!

News from Nettlebed


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?

A Very Neal’s Yard Dairy Christmas

For just over a week at the end of December, I was back in the wellies; back at the Neal’s Yard Dairy coal face.  I was working in the Covent Garden shop with Martin Tkalez, Nathan Coyte and Adam Verlander.  It was knackering but it was really, really good fun.  The shop was well organised, the atmosphere busy but controlled, friendly and high spirited. I have, since, slept for practically the whole 12 days of Christmas, but I had a great time.
People buy a lot of cheese at Christmas and they tend to make a special trip to the 2 Neal’s Yard Dairy shops in Covent Garden or Borough Market because, even in these austerity times, splashing out a bit on some nice cheese is a treat… and after all it is Christmas.  In my full time days at Neal’s Yard, I would explain to friends and family that it got very busy; that consequently I was very busy.  They all nodded sympathetically and seemingly understood, but you could tell that they didn’t really.  They suggested meeting up for drinks or tried to hold social events and invited me, little realising that I had cheese to sell!  Didn’t they know I had just worked 14 hours without a lunch break and didn’t have a day off until Christmas Day.  When I did turn up (inevitably late) to any of the functions, I was in a slightly shell-shocked world of my own.  I felt as though I was looking at my nearest and dearest from an out-of-body height.  They smiled, laughed and chatted happily amongst themselves while I tried to join in and also tried not to fall asleep in my food / pint.
Days were regimented and organised.  Up at 5 or earlier, no hanging about, straight into the shower, dressed, out the door.  A lull while the train / bus / tube did its thing then into the shop or office.  15 minutes for the necessary strong coffee (thank god for sister company Monmouth Coffee Company) and then… Showtime!  Be it retail, or more often in my case mail order, it was time to turn on the adrenaline and get going. Evenings, too, were a business like affair: head home, cook food that had been purchased especially for its quick cooking appeal, wash up (because if you don’t do it right there and then it won’t be done till January), all the while calculating at what hour I needed to be in bed, in order to get enough sleep, before I had to get up at godawful o’clock the following day.
It sounds like a nightmare when I list it like that, but the thing is, it wasn’t.  It was a lot of fun and it certainly was team building.  After your colleagues and you had been banded together through the battle campaign that was a Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese-selling Christmas, you were thick as thieves.  You’d been on the front line together selling that Stichelton to literally hundreds of people a day.  There was a bond there.  On the memorable 2 years that the country was hit by massive snowfall (the winters of 2009 and 2010) when I was in charge of mail order, my man Friday Flynn Hall had keeled over with a nasty bout of chicken pox, over 45% of our deliveries were delayed due to weather conditions and I had around 900 anxious customers who were afraid of Christmas without their Colston Bassett to reassure, it was more than our well laid plans could handle. Jason Hinds (sales director and my direct boss) had to come to my rescue, help field the phone calls, help strategise and probably most important of all, did this with irrepressibly positive spirit and enthusiasm.  Of all the baptisms of fire Christmas has thrown at me, this was the hottest.  By hometime on Christmas Eve, I was so grateful, I would probably have taken a bullet for him.
You think on your feet, you react, you solve problems on the run and at the speed of light, but it isn’t flying by the seat of your pants. You have also planned for this one month of December since the end of the last one.  You see your plans, thoughts and decisions tested and delivering success and probably the most important thing for me is this:  you do your damndest to give all of the hundreds of people, to whom you are selling, the very best cheese and the very best service they have had in their lives.  Just being ok is absolutely not good enough when they have made a special effort to get to the shops or have chosen the mail order.  You fight for your department’s rights to the best cheese.  No matter how many people you have spoken to that day, you listen to your customer carefully, get to know their likes and dislikes and advise them accordingly.  In the case of mail order, you get their orders packed up perfectly and you follow up every single delivery online and track them until you know they have got to the right place.  They didn’t have to choose Neal’s Yard.  Waitrose cheese is really pretty good these days as are numerous little delis around the country.  Some of the latter are excellent in fact.  These people chose Neal’s Yard because they perceive it as a Christmas treat, so you make bloody sure it is.
I hate doing things badly.  It’s a question of pride to do things as well as I can.  The importance Neal’s Yard puts on its customer service, really plays to that instinct in me.  It was a happy marriage.
So a week back in Covent Garden was busy, exhausting but fun.  Jokes bantered back and forth.  Cheese was cut. 50lb wheels of Cheddar were hauled around and chopped up into 2kg pieces for display.  Stiltons and Sticheltons were halved, quartered and chopped up continuously.  Customers queued down the street stretching past the shop window and obliterating the doorway of the shop next door (oops – sorry Cambridge Satchel Company) and yet waiting time didn’t exceed 20 minutes in all that time.  While they waited, customers were fed cheese and are chatted to by the ‘door person’ who then directed them to the next free monger when it was their turn to be served.  The busy atmosphere bred energy as the week inevitably built to what had been predicted as the busiest day.  This year it was Friday 21st (luckily the world didn’t end).  The 2 Neal’s Yard shops in that one day sold £75,000 of cheese.  Gobsmacking is the only word that springs to mind.
That makes it 2 Christmases since leaving that I have returned for a fix of the Neal’s Yard Christmas Experience.  Part of me actually yearns for more of the sort of Christmas build up I remember from the pre Neal’s Yard days, decorating the tree on Christmas Eve whilst listening to the Carols from Kings on the radio, making mince pies, making Christmas puddings, really enjoying the Christmas preparations and wrapping presents ahead of time rather than on Christmas morning.  But it’s a hard habit to shift.  Who knows, I might yet don the white wellies again….if they’ll have me back.
the infamous Christmas Queue courtesy of the Rockets & Rayguns blog on Tumblr

Head, Heart and Gut

Out in the big bad world of consultancy and self employment, the consequences of different expectations can be significant and trusting your gut is invaluable.   It just takes practice to know when to call it.
There are those that suggest there’s no room for the heart in business, and, while this is something with which I utterly disagree, there are times when the 3 way decision process of head, heart and gut get a little complicated.  This sounds a little cryptic and not unlike an offal menu choice in a restaurant to boot?  I will elaborate.
I have been waiting to work with a farm in Cumbria about which I’ve posted before.  The whole process has not been straightforward from the get go.   Someone with more experience than me would have cut their losses sooner.  Someone with more experience than me actually did.  It was they who put my name forward, thinking, in all fairness, that it would be an experience that I could learn from.  I have indeed, but perhaps not in the way that any of us expected.
The farm itself is beautiful, with 18th century stone barns, horses and cows out on pasture, a tiny  slate-floored butter-making dairy, wooden stalled milking parlour and the most picturesque of dairy cows, long eye-lashed Jerseys.  For a potential cheesemaker there is a lot to excite the intellect and rev up the gut instinct as well.  There are so few cows that cleanliness in the milking parlour is phenomenal, the animals are milked into a bucket with no lengths of pipework to require excessive pumping, or with difficult to clean corners.  They want to set up a dairy and produce cheese.  So far so good.
So in the winter, as work at Holker Farm was winding down and Martin put me in touch with them, why did I hesitate so long before calling?  Certainly part of it was nerves – what if they say no?  However, I was also unsure that we were on the same wavelength.  This seems a crazy thing to consider before having actually discussed the project with them, but there was a niggle from the off.   One of the farm owners was already connected with the food industry and involved in a product that, for most people, has a great reputation. But, the rareified foodie atmosphere I’ve been involved with due to Neal’s Yard and the early days setting up Borough Market has either made me the worst kind of foodie snob, or exceptionally discriminating on quality.  I do hope that it’s the latter, although one of my oldest friends, Elaine Macintyre, thinks I should start up another blog called Foodie Bitch after watching Saturday Kitchen with me a couple of times and hearing my running commentary!  Did I want to make cheese with someone whose quality aims were to get into Booths and Waitrose?  Or did I want to see it on the Neal’s Yard shop counters and being sold with the full enthusiasm of their wholesale sales teams into some of the best restaurants and shops in the country and across the world?  And at the end of the day could I afford to discriminate anyway?  I did have to earn money after all.
As it turned out, the Head said, ‘Get involved and get a job’.  So I met them.  Things seemed positive and there was a lot to like about the farm and the cows and their plans.  But the work wasn’t immediate, not even on a developmental basis before planning permission.  So I moved away from Cumbria and we stayed in touch.
Planning permission for them has been a royal nightmare.  While waiting has also been frustrating for me, I am hugely sympathetic to the agonies they’ve been through with its attendant stress and emotional roller coaster.   But all this time, I wasn’t making cheese.
Head began to say ‘Get another job’.
I began work on my CV and as it was a good 16 years since it had been dusted off to get a job at Neal’s Yard Dairy, as a mere lass, that was a project in itself.
Heart however said ‘Hang on.  If it does work out it at this farm, it would be so great.  Look where you’d be working.  Look where you’d be living.  Look what great milk you’d be working with.’
Gut was indecisive – there were things to like, but it was still not quite sure…
Planning permission got worse.  Communication dwindled.  I was in Cumbria, went in to see them and found out a few key dates to contact them on for further information.  They still wanted to make cheese very much but they were having a stressful time fighting with the administrators of the Lake District National Parks over Open Days, a key part of their business plan and marketing strategy.
Back home again, Gut went from indecisive to negative.  Head was checking for jobs online.  Heart was still holding out but getting talked down.
At this point, they got in touch and said, let’s make some trial batches.  I booked in a weekend and travelled up to make cheese.  I made 3 cheeses and left them with instructions on how to look after them in our Heath Robinson adaptation of their old butter dairy.  I knew it would take a few goes to get something worthwhile.   Unfortunately they didn’t.  Then, into the bargain, the planning permission struggle took a turn for the worse.
On the eve of my next visit, I was told they wanted to cancel or postpone.  Too late, the hotel room was booked already.  At 10.30 the night before I was due to drive up, we agreed to have another trial make with them uneasy about the cost.  Gut wanted to back out by this point, but the agreement had been made.  Head rationalised that it was employment and experience and would be a good thing.  Heart was happy to be back there again and enjoying itself in Cumbria and ladling curd – both things that please it immensely.  I made 6 cheeses this time (more milk) and went home.
About 3 weeks later as it comes time to pay the second invoice for hours worked, Gut finally emerges the winner.  I should have let him argue louder and earlier.
The farmers are stressed, fed up with all the obstacles in their path up until now, physically exhausted with farming in the evenings and weekends on top of full time jobs plus family and emotionally and mentally knackered too.  Finding that 2 batches in, they don’t yet have a cheese they could put on sale has been a knock back that leaves them distraught and dissatisfied.  For me, it’s only to be expected that after making a mere 9 cheeses, you haven’t finalised the process and recipe yet.  Particularly so, when it all has to be done while camping in a room they normally use for other things.  But, I suspect, that’s not what they want to hear.
I may be aiming at making something more challenging than they are comfortable with.  I could have chosen something easier to make.  They may just be a little too used to an easier or more automated process of food manufacture.  Less hands on, less hand made and more standard.  At the end of the day getting partisan about things doesn’t help any of us.
I have suggested someone else for them to work with who has vastly more experience than me.  Gut says this is probably a better fit for them as they are new to the whole farming business, never mind cheesemaking too.  They can find an easier, less stressful cheese to make and employ someone local.  I can find part time work and put my cheese-directed energies into another dairy with whom I’m working.  It’s time to cut losses and move on.  Heart has been told to stuff it.
With the new dairy, Gut, Head & Heart are all in accord.  From the very beginning, Gut, in particular has felt this was the right fit.  Heart remains a little wistful about life in Cumbria and will miss how exceptionally beautiful it is there, but it will also love the hills, woods and fields of Oxfordshire and especially the kites and birds of prey swooping high above.
I still believe strongly that business should be about heart as well as head and gut instinct.  A business without heart is something I can’t work for, especially if it is my own.  At the end of the day, profit and money are not enough.   I don’t think any artisan food producer feels differently.  But it can lead you astray if you listen to it for too long and it knows how to sing that siren song.
A business isn’t just about intellect either.  My head can rationalise anything to myself.  It can take up any position it chooses and argue convincingly, even if, a second ago, I was arguing for something completely opposite.  An intellectual, unemotional analysis and presentation are valuable but they can be twisted whichever way you want.  There are lies, damned lies and statistics.
Instinct, at the end of the day, is the most valuable tool I have.  Evolutionarily it’s there to keep me alive, safe and away from danger.  A few months wasted on a cheesemaking project that hasn’t come to fruition is hardly the greatest danger I’ve ever faced, but in the modern world, that’s the sort of thing my instinct has to work with.  Gut my old friend, I will listen to you more in future.
Hmm that too sounds like ordering off a restaurant menu.  The analogy works right to the very end.


Springtime at Holker, Lambs, Sheeps Milk & St James

My return to Cumbria after a nice lengthy Christmas break has only been in a part time capacity.  While I was in Italy in October and then helping at Neal’s Yard Dairy over Christmas, full time cheesemaking duties were taken over by Peter Mathew who is a local foodie and used to work in the Holker Hall food shop.  He continues 5 days a week to make cheese and for a month I took on 3 days a week, covering Peter’s days off and a cross over day to calibrate and check we were all on the same page cheesemaking-wise.
Calibration was quite a useful day because there’s nothing like working together to realise you both do things very differently.  For instance, the Brother David recipe calls for stirring but whether you stir by hand or with the steel paddle affects the texture of the curd at the end – is it cubes or more of a scrambled egg consistency and how does that affect the cheese?  Well the argument for cubes is that you lose less fats into the whey but that can mean that you have those fats impeding drainage.  On the flip side though, those fats can lend an extra unctuosity to the paste as it matures.   However if you do stir with the paddle, it can break down any large cubes better so that there’s less variation between size of cubes and thus it should drain better.  Really however at the end of the day, as it’s only a 500g cheese and due to the relative fat content of the sheeps milk versus the cows milk (9-10% in sheeps vs 3.9-4% in cows), drainage is much less of an issue than with St James and while there have been issues to resolve with bitterness on the rinds, there have however not been issues with the cheese breaking down correctly.   The extent of our drainage calibration has been a measure to remove more whey from the vat.  After cutting the St James curd, it’s quite easy to ladle whey off the top because there is no horizontal cut.  The ladling that happens after removing the whey is the horizontal cut in fact.  Brother David curd however is cut horizontally as well as vertically before the stir so when you try and ladle off some whey, the curd cubes just float up too and get caught up.  The trick had been to lay a couple of drainage cloths over the cut curd to act as a sieve of sorts and then the whey can be ladled off.  This was something Martin and I both did after our visit from Jemima Cordle.  However it got lost in translation from him to Peter – different interpretations of ‘Are you pre-draining with cloths?’  That’s the beauty of calibration.
Meanwhile outside the dairy, the lambs were being born.  Starting before I even went back to Holker in mid January, the first of the new mum sheep were lambing.   While the numbers were small, only one or two per day these were the difficult first timers with almost as many stillborn as live lambs; a difficult start to the season for Nicola.  However this time passed and the experienced mothers started to be ready to lamb.  This time the challenges were that more of them lambed together and it became full on hard work of a different kind.  Nature isn’t convenient and as Nicola sighed one day, the sheep always seemed to lamb at midnight (when she did her final check on them) meaning she’d be there until 2 or at 5am as she was trying to start milking.  Sleep is for wimps or at the very least it’s not for dairy farmers.
As far as the sheeps milk goes however this year was different to last year.  In the autumn of 2010 the sheep were dried off by mid October as the milk levels had by that point reached so low a point that it wasn’t worth carrying on making cheese.  In the winter and spring when the lambs were born, there was the choice to leave them to suckle with their mothers or take them off early and put them onto a lamb milk replacer.
Last year in order to get to the point where there was enough milk altogether, the lambs were left on their mothers (they either need to be taken off after the colostrum or left on for 30 days) so the first cheeses were made in early March.  This year however, due to having kept the milking parlour running through the winter because the cows were still producing milk, the choice was different.  If the parlour is running anyway and you don’t have to clean down, heat and get it going, then the number of milking sheep makes a difference.  Just as last autumn it was worthwhile continuing to milk the last valiant few as long as they kept going, it’s now worth starting at a smaller quantity of milk once the experienced mother sheep are ready and so the first few batches of St James were made early February with the milk quantities rocketing up even within my last week in the dairy!
St James curd in moulds from last season with some lactic Jersey experiments to the right (more on that later)
It was good to welcome St James back into the fold.  I’d missed using the sheeps milk and the challenge of playing with rennet quantities to achieve a similar firmness of set while using very different mediums made my 3 cheesemaking days extra interesting and fun.  It was hectic though.  Working two vats in place of one means that those gaps in the make (setting time, time between cloth pulls) which had previously been used for cleaning or rind washing, just disappeared as washing up, ladling and cloth pulling all began to take twice as long.  As I left, we were making 10 St James a day, which can only increase.  I hope to be back in Cumbria again soon (of that more later) and when or if I am, I hope I can spare a bit of time to help out with all that extra rind washing as well as my new cheesemaking work.
In the meantime, I have a souvenir of Holker Farm with me, Percy of Holker, Golden Labrador puppy from Nicola Robinson, Labrador breeder to the Specialist Cheese Industry.  His aunt belongs to Neal’s Yard’s David Lockwood and another relative is now residing in France at the home of the famous Ivan Larcher.
Gratuituous cute puppy picture – from Nicola Robinson, Labradors by appointment to the Specialist Cheese Industry.

The Mystery of the Non-setting Sheeps Curd

After a summer and early autumn feeling like I got to grips with making some pretty good cheeses, the late season milk has thrown me a curve ball.  A lot is talked about seasonality in rather hazy, romantic terms of the terroir and what grasses or herbs or clover is available during the summer versus hay or silage in the winter.  Or even slightly more scientifically in terms of levels of fats and proteins in late season milk.  Very little, in my experience, is talked about in terms of temperature.We have recently had a head spinning turnaround from milk that set quickly and firmly (which we put down to high solids) to milk that just isn’t setting.  Fats and proteins aren’t dramatically different from the fast setting curd milk, there may be a little less calcium in the milk due to the grass quality not being what it was but basically that doesn’t seem to be the key issue.  Temperature.

For starters, the milk that had been arriving in the dairy at 27C or more in fact earlier in the year is now about 18C or 19C.  There are less sheep milking as more of them are served and those that are milking give less and less milk.  The body temperature of each sheep and the temperature of milk coming from each sheep hasn’t changed, but other factors mean the milk is much colder.  The sheep are milked before the cows.  The pipework is cold in the mornings now as it’s autumn and in addition it’s dark when the milking starts so what sun or daylight there is has had no chance to raise the temperature of the air or surroundings.  The milking system works by accumulating about 8 litres milk in a jar and then pumping it through into the dairy.  However it now takes longer to accumulate the 8 litres allowing the milk longer to cool as it does so.  It’s then pumped through cold pipes into the dairy.

Then there’s the room temperature or really to put it more accurately, drafts and currents of cold air.  If you look at the thermometer in the room the temperature hasn’t dropped massively and the heaters are going full blast and turned up as high as they can be.  However in the corridor where we do the packing the temperature is quite a bit colder which means that at this time of year, doors need to be closed to preserve the temperature in the dairy.

In the past couple of weeks the milk has gone from setting a bit too quickly because of its solids to setting very very slowly. Thinking back, the last of our fast setting milk was also at a point when the days were a little longer and then there was the brief Indian Summer when everyone went to the beach in October.  As the weather broke, the setting problems begain.  In looking at why this is happening (largely to me but it has happened to Martin too) we’ve looked very closely at the different ways in which temperature affects what we’re doing and how without us actually changing what we do, the parameters have entirely altered just because it’s autumn and we have less milk.

1. The milk is colder.  Any time it is left standing before the starter goes in, used to be a brief period of pre-ripening time as it was at 27C but very little is happening at 18C.  The lactic acid bacteria activity from the milk itself and from the starter once added is less even if the milk is heated and the starter added at around 31C because where there was a pre-ripening period, now there isn’t.  This in turn affects the quality of the set because the beginnings of acidification would free up a certain amount of calcium ions from the milk which helps for a good set and increases the yield.

2. The milk needs to be warmed up much more slowly and consistently.  To heat quickly, using the ‘flag’ or mini radiator type thing we use to warm milk (it works by running hot water through it) and stir the hot milk in, means it loses temperature more quickly.

3.  Even warmed more slowly, the milk doesn’t keep its temperature in the same way because there’s much less of it.  Whereas with quantities like 70 or 80 litres, the milk might drop 1 degree between adding starter and then adding rennet an hour later, it can now drop 2 or 3 degrees.  Losing temperature more easily again of course means the set will be weaker.

4.  The top of the curd, where you usually test the set, is colder than the lower part of the vat as it’s the area that’s open to the air the most.  Often this will set more weakly than lower down the vat.

Even by increasing rennet and trying to keep the vat next to the dairy’s heaters at all times after it’s been heated, the set just isn’t as strong as it has been.  The implications of this on the cheese are pretty huge.

1.  Weak curd forms a more sloppy substance going into the cloths.  Small and more mushy particles of curd clog up the cloths and reduce the effectiveness with which they let the cheeses drain.

2. Weaker and colder curd drains more slowly anyway.  It doesn’t free drain in the same way.  More cloth pulling only has a limited effectiveness as the cloths are clogged up already and also because with a weaker structure you end up losing fats and squashing the nutrients out of the curd by using more force but still finding that it feels soft and wet in texture.

And the effects of the weaker curd on the drainage cloths are:

Badly formed rinds because they are largely formed from the soft particles that collected on the cloths.  When salting or maturing further, these rinds are loose, too moist and come away from the cheese.

Cheeses that hold free moisture.
That old enemy we’ve been fighting with our draining cloths!  Because the cloths are clogged up, hindering drainage but also because the curd didn’t have enough resistance to the cloths to force out the free moisture when they were pulled up tightly and in the end slightly collapsed under the pressure we have floppier and less stable cheeses when they are turned out.  The effect of this is that the cheeses do not mature in a stable manner.  They don’t retain the calcium which will allow a full and elastic breakdown and they develop what is more of a lactic cheese texture with a very runny breakdown just under the rinds and a curdy, moist, acidic centre.  It’s not that this is unpleasant to eat, in fact it can be very tasty, it’s just not what we want.

Before I began making cheese, I might have tried to explain this to a customer by saying that at the end of lactation with the milk composition being different and the pasture being different, the cheese would change.  Having made cheese for a few months, I would now tell it very differently.  The biggest change has been the temperature.  So much for terroir!

How do you cook?

As the milk amounts decline (the tups went in last week and half the ewes are now served), I’ve been thinking back to when I started making cheese in April and how the way we make cheese now has changed.The biggest change is that we’ve slowed the recipe right down.  Whereas we were heating the milk up to achieve a set time of an hour and then having to work the draining cloths hard to get the free moisture out of the mass of curd bits, we’re now getting a set time of more like an hour and a half or longer.  We’re not heating the milk as much now.  In fact I’m not heating it at all.

I do take the temperature of the milk when the starter goes in and from that, I’ll work out (in a slightly guess-work style it has to be said) how much rennet I want to add to get the set time of an hour and a half.  Sometimes this works out and sometimes I get it wrong and it goes slower than that but, on the whole, it does seem to work out that if the milk is around 27C then 1ml rennet to 5l milk seems to be the right quantity.  If the milk is warmer, say around 30C, then 1ml rennet to 7l milk seems to get a set time of an hour and a half.  If hotter, still like 33C which was the temperature on the occasion I first got the hour and a half set  by adding too little rennet by mistake, 1ml rennet to 10l milk.  So I adjust how much rennet to use roughly based around that scale.

I think that this suits me better because I’m not the sort of person who can cook to a recipe every day.  I like to get the gist of a technique and then cook it my way. Certainly looking ahead to when I’m doing my own thing, this is something I’d be interested in continuing.  At the beginning of the season, of course, I couldn’t apply this attitude to cooking, to cheesemaking.  I needed to stick to the recipe religiously because I didn’t have the experience and also because I’m making cheese for someone else.  It wasn’t my sales on the line if I messed it up.  I suppose with a bit of experience and practice I’ve got more confidence now to react more to the circumstances of the milk temperature on the day rather than make it do what I want and heat it to a specific temperature every day.

It seems to be a more forgiving recipe that we’re using now with the longer set.  There’s more moisture but it’s not free moisture.  The curd is more fragile and needs more gentle cloth pulling but still seems to drain appropriately anyway.  Even moister cheeses still don’t have the levels of free moisture.  The first cheeses made with this sort of set, are maturing rather nicely.  I like the texture of the one cheese I’ve kept back in the stores (and that I’ve marked for me to buy for myself  when it’s ready).

The other thing is that we’re leaving the starter for about an hour to mix and get working in the liquid milk before adding the rennet.  The idea behind this is that the bacteria can get going better because it should be easier for them to get distributed and to get dividing in a liquid rather than in the set curd.  Or so we hypothesise anyway.  Another thing that should help this also is the fact that at temperatures like 27C, the milk reaches its first fragile set much more slowly.  In fact it can still be liquid an hour after the rennet has been added but still reaches the firm set (or second set as it can be known) in about an hour and a half or a little longer.

My gut feeling is that this long set and longer ripening time will make a good texture and flavour when the cheeses are mature and ready to sell.  Time will tell I suppose, but if the mistake cheeses of the 28th June are anything to go by, I can allow myself to be cautiously optimistic.

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.