Kirkham’s Lancashire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walls and Windows

Well, it’s not so long since I was getting excited about concrete being down on the floor and drainage channels being dug.  However today, I have received most exciting photos.  The outside walls are nearly up.  Most of the cladding is up and you can really get a sense of what the building itself will look like finally.  It’s looking pretty good, I must say.

Meanwhile, I am still working on HACCP and Quality Systems paperwork.  It’s a long haul and will be the subject of another post in due course.  Just need to get the stuff finished first!

Nettlebed Creamery as seen from the Western corner.
Nettlebed Creamery as seen from the Western corner.


The 2 Cheesemaking Rooms (1 for St Bartholomew and 1 for the blue cheese).
The 2 Cheesemaking Rooms (1 for St Bartholomew and 1 for the blue cheese).


Nettlebed Creamery, first floor.  This is where our offices and staffroom will go.
Nettlebed Creamery, first floor. This is where our offices and staffroom will go.


Nettlebed Creamery, the Western side.  Look.  Doors.
Nettlebed Creamery, the Western side. Look. Doors.

Technical Cheese Geekery – Can’t wait!!


Prototype St Bartholomew curd
Prototype St Bartholomew curd



Technical Cheese Geekery – Can’t wait!!

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

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

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

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


Nettlebed Creamery Roof

We got a roof!!!!

Stripping the Barn

Facing South from the Skeleton of our Barn

‘There seems to be rather less of it than there was before,’ my mum said as I proudly showed her the photos that proved work was continuing on our building site, ‘Is that right?’

It is right although it’s understandable that it doesn’t immediately seem like a step forward.  Before the new roof goes on and the external wood cladding, they have to remove the old roof that needs to be replaced and check the metal structure for repairs.  Next step will be repairs to the frame and to the concrete foundations that each steel stanchion sits in.  After that, comes the excitement of new roof and the walls going up.

Until then, in this instance, less is actually more.

Our building site!

Musical Chairs or Where to Site a Dairy

When Rose and I first spoke about their cheesemaking plans, she explained that one of the big obstacles was that they had not yet found an appropriate place on the estate to build the dairy.  A couple of places had been proposed.  She had her favourite.  Neither one was without its problems.

Chair No 1, Manor Farm

Manor Farm, was close to Rose’s house and the main road through Nettlebed, with a lovely view over the hills looking to the south west, but, unfortunately, also with a tenant..

Chair No 2, The Grain Dryer

The other site, known to us as the Grain Dryer Site, was basically a field next to a sawmill and a barn with grain drying silos, hence the name.  There were no tenant issues here but equally the build would be much bigger and more expensive.  There was no structure we could use, so everything, including the foundations and hardcore needed to be put down.  It was also potentially more difficult to get our planning permission too, as it would need to be a completely new build.
The Grain Dryer site, looking back to our potential neighbours
Looking north to the copse, our potential view from the make room

Chair No 3, At the Dairy itself

Both sites offered a challenge but a third possibility presented itself.  There was a field adjacent to the milking parlour and the cows on the farm itself.  It wasn’t a popular option with the farm managers as they need to expand the milking parlour sometime in the next five years and need their space as much as possible, however in theory it was an option.
Around this time, we called in Ivan Larcher to advise us and help design the dairy.  He visited all 3 sites and pronounced in favour of the field by the milking parlour.  A dairy should be close to the milk ideally after all.  However shortly after Ivan’s visit, the farm managers decided that the field was too valuable to them to give up.  The other sites on the estate were on flinty soil, no use for grazing land and not particularly easy to farm for arable too.   This field was good grazing land for the cows and they needed it.  It was a very fair argument and one we accepted.  Back to our first two sites then.

Chair no 4, Off the Estate

With both of these sites problematic for the moment, we were considering going with the latter when Rose’s cousin made an offer of a barn on his farm, just off the estate.  It was a big, wooden clad barn, attractive to look at and with plenty of space.
The problem here was that Rose has a major business rule:
‘Don’t go into business with friends or family but become friends with people you go into business with.’
While an element of family involvement had to be on the cards if she wanted to build a creamery that would buy from the estate’s farm (itself a family business), using her cousin’s barn seemed unwise in case he had cause at any point to regret his offer and discovered, a couple of years in, that actually he didn’t like having cheesemaking on his doorstep.  Lest family relations become strained, his kind offer was declined.

Back to Chair no 2 then

So we returned to the Grain Dryer site.  We adapted Ivan’s drawings to the new site and its orientation and investigated what we would need to get together in order to present an application for planning permission: a business plan, architects drawings, an ecologist’s report stating that we would not be damaging the environment. We emailed the highways agency to check they would have no objection.  Along the way we made the unfortunate discovery that in Oxfordshire the council requires new builds to conform to BREEAM which sets out requirements for the new building to be as energy efficient as possible.  Unfortunate, that is, in that it would involve an audit to a standard that is as thick as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, only with A4 pages and that it would add at least £10k to our costs, the principles of being as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible and keeping our energy consumption as low as we can are actually pretty key to our whole ethos. While it largely applies to buildings larger than the one we planned to build, the council were still keen to enforce it.  Then the Highways Agency got in touch – the access road had insufficient visibility, in their view, given the speed limit of the main road at that point.
This bombshell dropped just before Christmas leading to a slightly dispiriting atmosphere over the Christmas break and many a curse was sent the way of the Highways Agency in my house.  Damn them , what were they trying to do, make sure people didn’t die on the roads or something?  They  needed us to cut down 250m of trees in both directions to improve the vision splay and unfortunately some of those trees were ancient woodland which would make the ecologist, who, until now, was very happy with our plans, because we are putting in a wetland system that will have a positive impact on wildlife, very unhappy indeed.
the yellow lines show the potential tree destruction – a very long way along the road in both directions
In the New Year we found a Highways Agency consultant (no I never knew they existed before now either) and they arranged to visit the site and look at the road.  Meeting them was very positive, they pointed out that because the road was curved (although it doesn’t look that way on the maps), the cars were slowing down and drove at considerably less than the sixty miles an hour that was the speed limit.  In their opinion this meant less trees needed taking back and the ancient woodland would be safe.  However we still had a case to fight and despite the report and speed survey they intended to carry out we had no guarantee that the Highways Agency would agree.  In addition, the architects and BREEAM consultant had indicated that we would need to raise around £600k to build the place and have it conform with the expected standards.

Chair no 5, The Temporary Home

With a long and potentially complicated planning application in the offing, ever more reports that needed to be generated and a lot of cash to be raised, Rose’s mother came up with the extremely sensible suggestion that we look for a temporary home, so that we could at least start making cheese even though our planning application and build wasn’t finished.  We looked at nearby light industrial units and found one that had potential.  Not as picturesque as the dairy we wanted to build but perfectly functional if the costs stacked up.
We wouldn’t be able to stay in it for all that long as it wasn’t big enough for us to make more than one type of cheese and we wouldn’t have much maturing space but it was worth doing the number crunching.  Rose’s mother was also able to let us know that the situation at site no 1, Manor Farm had changed and it was now potentially a possibililty..

Chair no 6 or is it no 1 again

A second and third visit to the industrial unit revealed some rather unpleasant and food tainting smells coming from a metalworks next door which ruled that site out of the running.  However, good news, the site at Manor Farm was indeed possible.
So the twisting turning route of our game of musical chairs has spun through the full 360 until we’re back at the place we first thought of.  It has a structure already and hard foundations so the building costs won’t be as much as at the Grain Dryer site.  It also only needs change of use planning permission rather than full planning permission for a new build.  The signs are good.  Ivan is designing us another dairy layout, ecologists are reporting, the highways shouldn’t have a problem with access as the road leads out into the village where the speed limit is a very sedate speed.  The aim is to apply for planning permission in the next month.
Keep your fingers crossed.

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.

Milk – the most underrated food in the world

So many people have either decided they don’t really like milk as a drink or just don’t think about it other than to put a bit in their tea or coffee.  When you taste the sort of milk you buy at the corner shop or in the supermarket frankly that’s not a surprise.  What comes out of those cartons is watery, vaguely mineral in flavour if you can really detect a flavour and when it goes sour, it’s chemical, aggressive and unpleasant.When I worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy, we used to hold regular tastings of the milk from our supplier Geoff Bowles at Ivy House Farm.  While this milk was and indeed still is pasteurised, it’s Jersey milk, organically farmed and has a whole heap more flavour than your standard supermarket pint.  Jersey milk has higher fat and protein levels than regular milk which more than likely comes from a rather intensively farmed Holstein herd and is therefore what people in the dairy world refer to as white water.  As I mentioned in the post about cows, Holsteins are very efficient producers of large amounts of milk but it’s not milk that’s particularly rich in fats and proteins and let’s face it, that’s where the flavour is.  Jersey milk therefore has a much richer and creamier mouthfeel but even in the skimmed milk because it has more protein too, it has much more flavour.  We tasted the milks side by side and the Ivy House Jersey milk was naturally sweet, creamy, savoury and mineral.  The supermarket (probably Costcutter actually cause that was the nearest corner shop / mini supermarket) milk was thinner textured and had none of the sweetness or savoury flavours more of a mineral that verged on the metallic.  In part this will be down to the breed of animal but also the freshness.  We knew that our milk delivered to us on one day would have come from the milking the day before.  With the supermarket milk who knows how old it was by the time we bought it.  It would have been collected from various farms, pasteurised all together with lots of other milk and bottled, sent to a distribution centre and from then out to the shops.  It was more likely to be a few days old at least.Since moving away from London and getting access to really fresh milk (minutes old in fact) that is unpasteurised into the bargain I can safely say that the difference between what I’m making cheese with and what you put in your coffee is like night and day.  In fact it’s hardly fair to even call them by the same name.  Of couse I’m working with sheeps milk which is different to cows milk in consistency, it can have rich and creamy fat content but because of the way the fats are structured, it doesn’t feel heavy and the savouriness has a different flavour because it’s sheepy in a subtle and fresh way rather than say beefy.  Those are tricky adjectives because truthfully that is what I find it to taste like but equally I can see those who are unconvinced by milk not warming to the idea of a rich sheepy or beefy thirstquencher.  Anyway, pressing on regardless, I shall continue.  My main point is that if you ever try unpasteurised truly fresh milk it is a revelation.  It has sweetness, fresh, clean creaminess, savoury animal flavours and and mineral restraint but as well as that, it has another aspect in that it tastes lively, which is perhaps a reflection of the freshness.  Supermarket milk with its age and pasteurisation is flat even at worst case perhaps slightly stale tasting.  Geoff Bowles’s milk had sweetness, creaminess and rich savouriness but damn fine stuff though it was and is, by comparison to milk that’s unpasteurised and just milked a few minutes ago, it had lost an edge.

Of all the foods that have lost their character by industrialising the manufacturing process, which include bread, beer, hydroponically grown veg, flavourless battery-farmed chicken and plenty of others too, I now feel that milk is the one that has suffered most in the loss of flavour and perception.  The fact is, most people who reckon they don’t like it, would happily drink a glass of the milk Nicola and Martin produce because it’s bloody delicious.

Milk being piped into the vat from the milking parlour – minutes old.


One of the projects we’d hoped to attempt before my arrival was that with another person in the dairy we might get a chance to play around at making a cows milk cheese.  Martin has done this in the past with a cheese called Jewnywood (a St James recipe with cows milk basically) that was made using Friesian milk from a farm nearby with a small herd.  Unfortunately they are tied into a contract to supply liquid milk and can’t sell just the odd kit to a cheesemaker.  There are other farms in the area of course but ideally Martin hasn’t wanted to use Friesian-Holstein milk as it tends not to have the solids that you need for cheesemaking as crossing with Holsteins ups the milk production but also produces a more watery milk.  The ideal breed for this area is Dairy Shorthorns which were once ubiquitous and in the 18th century, I believe, Holker Estate had a renowned pedigree Shorthorn herd.  The farm opposite Holker Hall is still called Shorthorn Farm today.Currently the sheeps milk is decreasing.  We are half way through the season and the sheep that lambed early are beginning to dry up.  In August, the tups will go in with the ewes that are ready to get in lamb again and we’ll be looking to the next season already.  Time flies huh?  But from having had about 120 litres a day at the peak of the season we’re now down to about 80-90 and from making 17 or 18 cheeses to a batch we’re now at 11.  As the milk decreases, we’ve been thinking further about the whole idea of making a cows milk cheese and extending the season so that Martin & Nicola are selling cheese through the winter.  About 4 weeks ago when the Neal’s Yard Dairy crew visited, we floated the idea over our evening meal together to gage reaction.  The idea we proposed was to buy in local milk and make a soft washed rind cheese.  The idea had a mixed reception.  Bronwen and David who urge caution and not running before you can walk, were interested in the idea if the cheese was good but also conscious that buying in milk requires a level of testing and therefore expense that we don’t currently have because the sheep are milked by Nicola and the milk is super fresh when it’s used.  There’s a quantity issue too – there is a minimum amount you can buy milk in and Martin suggested that’s around 500 litres so it would need a bigger vat.  The evening ended, Martin talked a bit further to me after we left the NYD crew about the practicalities of buying in milk and how we might adapt our equipment to cope with it and then we parted ways.

The following day was my day off and by Thursday a newer idea had planted in the brain of Mr Gott.  Cows.  This seems like a rather radical idea when you first hear it but actually makes more sense at the end of the day than buying in milk.  They are already set up to milk animals and a milking parlour is not so hard to adapt.  They don’t need to buy more than 6 cows in order to have enough milk to be making the equivalent of peak sheeps milk season over the winter and these cows can be bought from a breeder, already in milk a couple at a time.  And finally, if it does all go wrong, the cows can be sold at pretty close to the amount for which they were bought while a new vat will depreciate and also could be difficult to shift too.

Of course the other bonus of buying the animals is that we can make cheese from Shorthorn milk too.  Why Shorthorn?  Because the older breeds of cow are better suited to the older ways of using milk – ie cheese.  Modern dairy farming assumes that the farmer wants to sell liquid milk and the more he (or she) can sell, the more he (or she) can earn.   So cows are bred to produce higher quantities of milk but at a cost.  There are higher incidences of fertility problems both getting in calf and delivering the calves and in birth deformities as well.  They are often taller but lean and rangy needing large quantities of food and in concentrated form in order to keep up with their milk production.  They can go lame a lot more easily.  In other words they are bred to be very specialised for the purpose of giving large quantities of milk.  For a farm like Martin & Nicola’s however they need a smaller animal that requires less veterinary attention and certainly less intensive feeding as their animals are largely pasture fed.  They also don’t need a lot of milk but do need milk with good solid content.  Again the older breeds score highest here too because the cows giving large volumes don’t give the highest fat and protein contents per litre so while the amount of milk is greater, the yield in terms of cheese doesn’t increase in the same ratio as production.

So Nicola and I went to the Great Yorkshire Show on Wednesday to look at livestock and see the sort of cows they’re likely to be buying.  Important for Nicola in particular as she’ll be doing the lion’s share of the milking and purely practically speaking, she can’t be milking a big animal.  I was largely along for a day out and out of curiosity and the chance to say hello to a few people I know there.  Meanwhile after having made the day’s cheese, Martin headed off to Kendal to a local Shorthorn breeder and found that there were cows available from August to November and that they could buy the smaller, plumper, docile and lower yielding animals they want.  On Saturday, they ordered the new milking parlour equipment to be able to milk 2 cows at a time through the parlour.  There’s no going back now!

Shorthorn at the Great Yorkshire Show
Somewhat blurry photo of a nice manageable sized Shorthorn.  The disadvantage of taking photos at speed.

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.