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.


Irons in the fire

It’s been a quiet old time since leaving Holker in many ways but as the title says, with projects in the offing.  The first one is hopefully about to become practice rather than theory quite soon.Old Hall Farm is a multi-disciplinary smallholding near the village of Bouth in Cumbria, not far from Cark, Cartmel and my old stomping grounds indeed.  It is owned by Alex and Charlotte Sharphouse who in their spare time (the farm isn’t yet their day job) have bought the place, are doing it up and setting up a very old fashioned way of farming.  They plough their fields by working shirehorse, grow their own feed for their jersey cows, have a few rare breed chickens (producing delicious eggs by the way) and thresh their grain by steam powered machinery.  In other words they are farming as it was done over 100 years ago.  Their plan is to open the farm for open days during summers to let people see the old fashioned way of farming and take part up to a point but they also want to have a range of foods, made on the farm that they can sell through a farm shop and to some local places.  They currently have some market garden veg and eggs and in due time hope to be selling cheese. This is where I come in, to try out a few recipes with their jersey milk and once we’ve got a good recipe and got the storage conditions worked out so it matures well, pass on all my knowledge to Alex and Charlotte themselves or their full time cheesemaker.

So far, the first cheese we’re going to try is a soft, mould-ripened Camembert / Coulommiers type.  To that end there has been a lot of perusing of the online catalogue of Andre Coquard for equipment.  Now for making a few trial batches of cheese it might seem a bit over the top to be ordering in equipment from France, but having researched this, I have to say I’m convinced it was the right move.  Not only does it mean you’re buying things that are designed for the purpose of making a Camembert type of cheese (which let’s face it can only help), they also turned out to be substantially cheaper than the UK vendors, so much so that it’s even worth paying for a more expensive delivery charge to get everything over from France.

So order in and paid for, goods due to be delivered this week – perhaps even tomorrow, who knows, next week I might even be up there making the first batch of cheese.  Is it too early to stop crossing my fingers I wonder?

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.