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.

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Walls and Windows

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Nettlebed Creamery, the Western side.  Look.  Doors.
Nettlebed Creamery, the Western side. Look. Doors.
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Technical Cheese Geekery – Can’t wait!!

 

Prototype St Bartholomew curd
Prototype St Bartholomew curd

 

 

Technical Cheese Geekery – Can’t wait!!

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

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

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

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

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Nettlebed Creamery Roof

We got a roof!!!!

Stripping the Barn

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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.

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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.