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.
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Introducing St James

St James is a square shaped washed rind cheese weighing from about 1.5 to 1.8 kilos.  Milk is pumped through the wall into the dairy from the milking parlour and into a 70 litre hemisphere vat and a 65 litre curdling tub (which fills up to about 45-50 litres full).
Martin & Nicola only milk in the mornings – most people I’ve been aware of milk twice a day in the morning and the evening but they only do it the one time.  The milk never hangs around, even for a few hours, and is completely fresh. If milk is kept overnight, it usually has to be cooled down to limit the possibility of any unwelcome bacteria growing, either simply spoilage organisms which could create some bitter or stale flavours or in the worst case the sort of bacteria that cause food poisoning (although in a healthy flock which are well managed this is pretty unlikely).  I think another important consideration as well is that it never needs to be cooled either, so it only needs a little gentle heating at the start of the day to get it to the right temperature for the cheese recipe.  Cooling the milk down and then heating it up obviously has an effect on the fats and proteins in the milk and does disturb them a little.  The risks are that the fats or proteins might become damaged with a rapid temperature change or too prolonged a temperature change such as one from about 4C (the temperature of many bulk tanks) to the one at which the recipe needs which could be in the 20s or 30s.  Again this can affect the flavours that the cheese develops later.  Gentle handling is key and as Martin and Nicola don’t store any evening milk, it’s one less stage that they need to worry about.  So the milk is about sheep temperature to start with and is gently heated up a few degrees and starter is added.
All starters are not equal.  This year they are using a bulk starter culture which has a texture a little like drinking yoghurt.  It’s called MT36 and is generally considered by those in the cheesemaking business to be a pretty sexy little bunch of bacteria.  It has an impressive pedigree; some of the cheeses made with it include Kirkham’s Lancashire, Stichelton, Gorwydd Caerphilly and Duckett’s Caerphilly.   Charlie Westhead at Neal’s Yard Creamery has used it in some of his Ragstone to pretty great effect and he also uses it for his Creme Fraiche (officially the best creme fraiche I have ever eaten…ever).  On the more technical side, it is apparently a very complex bunch of bacteria.  Those who know about these things (I’m afraid it’s a level of detail beyond me at this stage) speak in reverent tones about the different organisms in it and of course the potential for unlocking flavour from the milk as a result.  The bacteria in the starters release enzymes to break down the proteins and fats of the milk and the flavours are unlocked primarily from the protein breakdown. Each enzyme releases a different potential for flavour and the more different types of bacteria you have and by extension the more different types of enzyme, the more you have possibility for creating complexity & depth of flavour which is what makes the variety of bacteria in MT36 so exciting for the cheese geeks out there.  Another way of looking at it is that it tastes delicious.  At Gorwydd Farm they make up a batch of starter to have in the house for breakfast instead of yoghurt and I am toying with the idea myself of taking home the leftover starter that we don’t use in the day’s cheesemaking to culture on and have it for breakfast myself.
Returning to the recipe however, the starter is added and left for about half an hour before the rennet’s added.  By this point the bacteria haven’t really got active so their growth and the build of of acidity that accompanies this happens not only in the set curd but largely happens once the cheeses are moulded and are draining overnight.  The rennet starts to change the milk structure after anything from about 12 to 15 minutes where you can see particles of curd developing.  This point is called flocculation and however long it takes to get to flocculation is a quarter of the full set time.  In other words if it takes 12 minutes (like it did yesterday), then you’ve got a further 36 minutes until the curd should be cut.
If you leave it too long then the rennet has set the curd too hard and it can be difficult to release the whey when the cheeses are draining overnight and if this happens then the rate at which the acidity develops, changes.  Whey trapped in the drained cheese will lead to acidification after the cheeses are turned out of their moulds.  This means that when they are turned out, they are quite soft and bendy but whereas you might think this would lead to softer cheeses, actually the reverse happens.  The trapped moisture means the bacteria can continue to work even though you actually no longer really want them to and as they work they create more acidity.  The acidity then attacks the minerals in the curd and in particular the calcium and you end up with harder, brittle textured cheeses.  Demineralised is a term that gets quoted to describe this texture and it can be desirable if you are making something crumbly like Cheshire but St James is meant to be supple and to break down to a completely full oozing texture and for this, keeping the correct amount of calcium in the curd is the aim.
So as we’ve been spending the week making St James, drainage has been a key consideration.  Given that I’ve been making most of the cheese this week and it would be fair to say I’m quite a novice, that we’ve not exactly got it right yet.  I’ve managed to heat the milk a bit too high so the rennet went too quickly.  I’ve missed the flocculation point because I was washing up the moulds the curd would later be ladled into so the whole measuring of when to cut became an element of guesswork rather than something I was on top of.  Yesterday I was happiest with it on 1 vat, but because we’ve been setting 2 lots of milk, I then missed it for the 2nd one.  Martin said the other day that the technical understanding is only part of successful cheesemaking.  He reckons good time management is actually a more important consideration.  I think he’s probably right.
So assuming you do hit the flocculation point and make the right calculation, you then cut the curd into long strips which are a little more narrow than a finger’s width in first one direction and then across that so that they are cube shaped.  Cut them too big and again it will drain slower and you risk those brittle cheeses.
We have then been experimenting with leaving the curd so that the whey can begin to drain off before we ladle this cut curd into the cloth-lined square moulds.  The experiments this week have shown that if you leave the curd too long, that too can set the cut pieces too hard and they don’t drain so well later.  The ideal time so far appears to be about 20 minutes which allows about 7 litres of whey to rise to the top but leaves the curd cubes still soft enough that they will knit together well when they are ladled into the moulds and again the whey can drain out.
Cut to the right size and left for the right amount of time, the whey is poured off in jugs and the curd is then ladled into moulds.  Here again, the ladling technique also affects how big your curd pieces are and again how well the cheese will drain.  We’re aiming for relatively shallow ladle scoops and smallish curd pieces.  Also you want to ladle relatively quickly as the longer you take, the longer you leave the final curd bits and they are firming up all the time.  Martin has said to aim for 15 minutes to ladle the 70 litre vat.  It would be fair to say I haven’t managed that yet although I think I’ve got it to roughly 20 minutes so that elusive  15 minutes is in my sights.  Maybe next week.
After ladling, the draining cloths that line the moulds are pulled up and folded gently over the top.  20 minutes after that we pull the cloths up again, quite decisively and then fold them more tightly over the top.  The cloths are then pulled up again an hour later and a further hour after that.  This too helps aid drainage – you can hear the increase of whey dripping off the end of the draining table as you start pulling the cloths about. Then that’s my part of the job done as the final stage for the day is done later by Nicola or Martin if he’s not working in the shop that afternoon.  At about 5ish, the cheeses are unwrapped, turned, re-wrapped in the cloths and put back into the moulds with a wooden  block on the top which will press it just slightly and encourage more whey to drain out overnight.  Put the blocks on too soon and although you’d think you were allowing more time for the pressure to drive the whey out, again (it’s a bit counter intuitive), this actually keeps moisture in!  It presses the moulded curd mass at the edges but before it’s had enough time to all settle down and knit together enough so actually by forming harder curd at the edges the whey is trapped in and yet another way of getting those brittle cheeses that we don’t want.
So then the cheeses drain overnight and first thing in the morning, they are turned out of the moulds, turned over and assessed.  If they are still soft and whey filled, they are kept in their moulds on a trolley in the dairy for a day to drain further.  At this stage however we know that they’re holding too much moisture and they aren’t going to be the supple cheeses we’re after.  If they have drained well overnight, then they don’t need the support of the moulds but they do sit in the dairy for a day on boards before they are salted.  Salting happens one side at a time and over 2 days.  By now we’re on day 3 & 4 of the make so it isn’t until day 5 that they go into the cold store and get their very first rind wash.
Rind washing is another parameter that we’re playing with.  Until yesterday, Martin was waiting for the joiner to put a door in between his 2 cold rooms.  Until that happened we had the St James store running quite cold in order that it would help the Swallet development (as they were drying in the room next door).  Now we’ve put the temperature up a bit and the fans don’t kick in as often which means it’s a stiller, more humid atmosphere in there and this should help the rind development.  While the store was colder and dryer, we were needing to wash the cheeses daily but with more humidity, we should be able to do less washing once the rind has started to establish itself.  The washing develops a pink / orange rind of Brevibacterium linens (among other things) which likes the extra moisture.  This releases further flavour as the bacteria that for the rind also release enzymes which break down the curd further, softening the texture from the outside in but also unlocking flavour as they go – characteristically quite savoury, meaty and sometimes smoky flavours.
So next week our plan is again to make St James only and no Swallet so the focus again will be getting that rennet temperature right and the curd cut and ladled to the right size and left for the right amount of time in the whey and the draining cloths faffed around with sufficiently and the blocks put on at the right time and not too soon.  Of course, it has rained this weekend and just in time too as Nicola was running out of fields to put the sheep on as the grass wasn’t growing back quickly with the sunny weather.  Rain will mean more milk for one thing – the sheep move around more and eat more so produce more.  It will also mean that as they’re eating the new grown grass the fat and protein levels of the milk will vary.  This is the final variable piece of the jigsaw.  Whereas with feed, you can’t really increase the protein content of cows milk, you can in sheeps milk.  With cows, what you can influence is the balance between fats and proteins in the milk by feeding so that they produce greater or less fat content and therefore because of that the ratio between the 2 can be tailored to the protein’s advantage.  This is important for harder cheeses like Cheddar for instance. However sheep can be fed to produce more protein which means there’s even greater capacity for variability of the milk and therefore a whole new set of parameters to consider when it comes to the milk we’ll get next week and how we will have to adapt those parameters of the recipe that we’re already juggling to get the cheeses to drain at the rate we want them to.
It’s going to be interesting.  Life as a cheesemaker, would appear never to stand still.PS – A sort of disclaimer.  This is St James cheesemaking as best I understand it so far.  That’s not to say I’ve got it right yet so if you know something I don’t or can see where I’ve not understood something correctly, please tell me!  Thanks.