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.


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.