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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Choosing a Cheese: The Neal’s Yard Dairy Dilemma

When I left Neal’s Yard Dairy, I had a vague idea of learning how to make a traditional dales type of cheese like Cheshire (the house cheese where I grew up) or Lancashire (the fabled house cheese of my dad’s childhood).  I also had a pipe dream of my own orchard and market garden and a yoghurt making facility where I made yoghurts and fruit coulis to be sold together using  rare and interesting varieties of cherries, pears, apricots, strawberries, rhubarb or whatever other fruit took my fancy.  A visit to Caroline Atkinson at Hill FarmDairy to make Stawley, reminded me how much I enjoy the pace of a lactic cheese make.  Nine months at Holker Farm Dairy getting my head around drainage of a washed rind cheese made me wonder if I really did want to put that all to one side and make something entirely different in future.  Equally, memories of the sticky, greasy, gloopy and slimey business that is rind washing cheeses did put me off the idea of making a washed rind of my own.

When I first got in touch with Rose, they had made a Chaource on a very much ‘in the kitchen’ basis which tasted really pretty darn good.   I was very keen to make a lactic cows milk cheese and to be honest this did encourage me to keep the email correspondence going in those early stages.  The fact that she also was interested in making yoghurt (albeit for a frozen yoghurt range primarily) was an added bonus.  Should it ever be even a remote possibility, Oxfordshire is a considerably better place climate-wise to try and plant the odd fruit tree than Cumbria.
I did my market research too – by which I mean I got in touch with Jason Hinds and Bronwen Percival at Neal’s Yard and asked them what they suggested would be a good choice for a dairy that was just setting out.
‘Bloomy rind soft cheese and continental style blue’ came the reply.
‘Does a lactic cheese qualify as bloomy rind?’
‘Yup’
Emboldened, Rose and I set about our sales projections and planning with a soft lactic cheese in mind and to then bring on a gorgonzola style blue a year or so later into production.
‘What about doing a washed rind though?’ she asked.
‘Well I have made one before,’ I said, reluctant to abandon all that I’d learnt in Cumbria for projects new, ‘I could probably be up for doing one again if we could have a bit of help on the rind washing.’
We tentatively pencilled it in for year 5.
‘I’d quite like to do a hard cheese too’ Rose ventured.
‘I think we’d need to think about that further down the line when we’ve got more money.  It will probably need more equipment than our soft cheeses…. but we could definitely have a go.’
So we were decided.  Year 1 would be a delicate little lactic cheese, year 2 would see the launch of our blue and we would then let those establish themselves for a few years before embarking on anything new but a washed rind and a hard cheese were a possibility.  The Cheshire / Lancashire or Cotherstone type of cheese was still in with a chance.
Why so many cheeses?  Wouldn’t it be better to just do one cheese and do it right?
It’s a very valid and good point, but I think if we don’t take the possibility of maintaining the quality of all of our cheeses lightly and are always trying to improve, then we can manage it.  It also appeals to my nature to have a variety of work to do and have the challenge of doing it all well.  It’s not the easy path.  There are risks that we’ll take our eyes off one of the cheeses and mess it up.  There are plenty of examples of cheesemakers who make a large variety of cheeses and make a range of decent but not amazing cheeses.  There are also compelling examples of people who sensibly limit their product range to only one cheese and just make it good: Kirkham’s Lancashire, Stichelton to name but two.  However being nothing if not fussy about what I make and obstinate to boot, I believe I have the tenacity, doggedness and pig-headedness to make it work.  Although not commonly seen as such, I think, in this instance, these will be positive character attributes.
So, all set, we begin finding our site, getting our plans together and preparing for our planning application and build.  We call in Ivan Larcher and he designs us a beautiful layout in which we can make a lactic cheese and a blue cheese with a little yoghurt room off the side for playing around with yoghurt making and lactofermentations.  It’s all good.
But time moves on and while we are battling the planning process and pursuing the all important question of where our dairy should be (it’s going to be a permanent structure so we’d better get this vital point right), the industry waits for no man or woman. Julie Cheyney is making a lovely lactic cows cheese, St JudeDavid Jowett is alternating his mountain cheese makes with Alscot, his lactic cheese.  Jason also knows of a couple in Suffolk experimenting with a Brie.
So, one day, after heading in to meet Bronwen and ask if they might be prepared to mature on some of our lactic cheese trials that we hope to make later this year before the dairy is built, I get home to discover 2 missed calls from one Mr Jason Hinds.  I call back.
‘Anne,’ he says without preamble, ‘ I’m about to throw you a curveball, but you know me and curveballs, so I’ll carry on…’
‘Go on, I’m listening.’
‘What we really need right now isn’t a white rinded cheese.  We could really do with a washed rind.’
Gulp.
He carried on, explaining what they felt they needed on their counter and I mentally reversed our white rind lactic cheese to year 5 and brought forward the washed rind to year 1 to see how I felt about that.  Although I’d been entirely decided about the lactic cheese, I found that I actually didn’t feel particularly upset about switching things around and we ended the conversation by agreeing that I’d talk to Rose and we’d both consider the matter further.
Meanwhile I had a Blue Cheese course to go on at the School of Artisan Food where I’d have chance to talk to Ivan Larcher about the idea so I emailed him to ask how it might affect our dairy plan and to warn him I’d be asking him about it when I saw him.
‘What do you want to do?’ Ivan asked, getting to the point with clear sighted accuracy and without beating about the bush, ‘Make a cheese you want to make or sell to Neal’s Yard?’
A good question.
I examined my motives and in doing so, I realised that, having spent 16 years at Neal’s Yard, I did want them to sell my cheese.  In part, I wanted the friends I have there to be excited about what I’m making, but also I know from working at Holker with Martin that if anyone can be relied upon to push you, always ask for the cheese to be better and make sure you aren’t resting on your laurels, it’s Neal’s Yard Dairy.  I want someone to be a pain in the arse and insist that I make them better cheese.
That said, I want to make what I want to make.  So in answer to Ivan’s question, I want to do both.  I want to make what I want to make and I want to sell to them.
In terms of a washed rind cheese, I want to look to Italy for inspiration, just as I did with our blue cheese.  Italy is my second home.  I’ve spent about a tenth of my life there over the years and in many ways I’ve grown up there.  It doesn’t matter which city I arrive in or whether I’ve been there before or not, I am at home.  While France boasts wonderful washed rind cheeses (and I’ve been helping out with Mons at Borough Market recently so I’ve been getting to know some of them in much more detail), I don’t have the connection with France that I do with Italy.  So if we’re talking washed rind, then I want to make something based on Taleggio with its sweet, milky, honeyed, savoury flavour profile and its silky texture.
In terms of lactic cheese, well we’ll see, in Year 5, if they are interested.  They can plan and look for gaps in their range as any efficient shop or affineur would but that’s not the only thing that makes your product choice for you.  Sometimes you just respond to a cheese that’s damn good.  In other words, if I make it delicious enough, they will buy it.  I do like a challenge.