It’s getting real!

 

We have windows and doors in!
We have windows and doors in!

Lots of bits and pieces have been happening recently.  Building work has slowed down a bit since the heady days when the walls went up.  The thing holding us up is that the concrete laid as foundations for our floor has cracks and although it’s quite likely that these are just cracks caused by the concrete drying, we need to be sure they aren’t a sign of something more serious like subsidence.  So we wait for someone with structural engineering knowledge to assess them and sign them off.

Once that is done we can put in the framework for the first floor and with that in place, we can start to put in the panelling that forms the interior walls.  In other words, we’ll have rooms.

Meanwhile I have been working on paperwork still – the end is in sight finally.  Actually, I hope it is, every time I say that to myself, I remember some other record sheet or schedule that I’ll need and it goes on the job list.  We’ve ordered and paid for our industrial dishwasher, the final payment on the equipment from Avedemil has been made and 4 pallets including vat, racks, wash tubs, multimoulds and stainless steel tables should soon be on their way to us.  The pipework to divert our milk out of the main milkline before it can be cooled or can get into the bulk tank is on order and we’re pushing for it to be in by 11th August.

Why 11th August did you ask?  Well because officially I have a date to move south.  7th August.  And come what may, I will be on the payroll as of the 11th as with Rose on holiday in Greece, I’ll be managing the build and using our warm milk, I’ll be making trial cheeses in the kitchen of my house and then maturing them in a wine fridge.  It will be good to get my hands on some curds again – just have to remember to order a few key bits of gear: starters, a tub to make cheese in, an electric blanket and indeed the wine fridge.

The trial cheesemaking came about on a visit from Jason Hinds, David Lockwood and Bronwen Percival from Neal’s Yard Dairy.  They came for an informal morning chat to look at progress, talk about the quality of cheese they are looking for and its implications for milk quality, sales and advice on our financials.  All three of them felt that as soon as the milk was in place, making some kitchen trials would be well worth the exercise in understanding where the milk quality is at this year (it’s bound to be rather different to February when we last did any testing and again to last summer when I was making trial cheeses at SAF) as well as hopefully having something to taste and start to comment on. We’re going to go down to London for a big cheese tasting with Bronwen at the end of August which will be a useful calibration exercise.  In theory I know what their cheeses are like but it’s a few years now since I’ve been tasting them regularly and I’ll need a refresher to check out our washed rind competition.  For Rose, seeing how Bronwen tastes, assesses flavour and quality and understanding what she is looking for will be invaluable.  It’s her job to look after sales when we’re up and running so a bit of calibration with one of our customers (we hope) can only be a good thing.

So it’s a mixed bag as I’m sure will be familiar to anyone who’s been involved in building work: some progress, some delays and on not too many occasions the odd step backwards.  Overall though we’re getting there and with a confirmed date in the diary for me to start work, it’s getting real.

Link

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.

Dougal Campbell Bursary

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Last week, the Soil Association announced three winners of its Dougal Campbell Cheese Bursary.  We applied, for Nettlebed Creamery, in early February and to be honest didn’t really expect to get anywhere.  But we did.  In fact we are one of the winners!

Dougal Campbell was a very influential figure in the Specialist Cheese industry who I’m afraid I never met.  I do know people who speak feelingly of how inspirational and generous he was with his knowledge and time.  If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have either Lincolnshire Poacher or Hafod on our cheeseboards to name but two.

I do remember his cheese though.  In the mid 90s when I was fresh out of university and learning the ropes at this quirky shop in Covent Garden called Neal’s Yard Dairy, we received a delivery of some of the last Tyn Grug cheeses he had made before he died.  Possibly because it coincided with me learning to set up a display and learning to sell and taste out cheese to customers, I can still l distinctly remember the big, heavy natural-rinded wheels that could be built into a pleasingly eye-catching tower.  I remember the cheese’s golden colour and a fruity flavour that flirted with wildness.  I also remember the sadness at his death  that was felt at Neal’s Yard amongst the more experienced mongers behind the counter who had met him and knew the cheese and its maker considerably better than I did.  It feels very apt to have the influence of this cheesemaker again as I’m embarking on another new learning curve.

In order to apply for the bursary, we had give details of how our farm is managed along organic guidelines and our intentions for the cheese.  I found it pretty interesting, not least learning about what Phil the farm manager does.  With a bit of luck you will too.

Nettlebed Creamery is a new business and we are in the process of building a dairy with the aim of making a washed rind cheese and a blue cheese using the organic milk produced on the Nettlebed Estate at Merrimoles Farm.

Merrimoles Farm has been in the Fleming family since 1901. The farm is a mixture of arable, sheep and dairy. The Dairy has been sited at Bix since 1969; it became organic in 2004.

There are over 130 cattle in the dairy herd. They are cross-bred Holstein Fresians with Swedish Reds and Montbelliards.

Some specific farming practices with a view to sustainability

The herd are fed using as much home grown feed as possible including in addition to grazing: clover silage, whole crop barley, grain and beans (approx. 15% is purchased – parlour cake).  The growth of pasture and feeds are managed using a rotation including clover crops to fix nitrogen and provide fodder.  

The cross breeding of the dairy cows (Holstein-Friesian, Swedish Red & Montbeliards) has been undertaken to maintain hybrid vigour and provide long lasting, healthy, fertile animals.

The farm is in the Organic Entry Level Scheme (OELS) and has established grass margins, maintains hedgerows and trees and has areas of low input grassland to maintain and increase biodiversity.  They alternate grazing with sheep where possible to limit the effect  of internal parasites, reduce the need to worm and therefore avoid wormer resistance worms.  They use 500t of Green Waste Compost annually to maintain soil reserves and avoid using finite mined fertilisers. In addition they have invested in energy saving  electric motors and a heat recovery unit at the dairy (milking) to reduce our energy use.

The Creamery, we are building, is designed taking energy efficiency into account.  We will be using water from our neighbour’s woodchip boiler for all our hot water and for our heating as well. We have plans to use solar panels from the roof of the barn next door (our landlord is finalising these plans currently). After our first year of cheese making we will be creating a wetland system to take all the grey water, sewage and the whey from the facility: a system of swales and ditches to filter the waste into clean water. We then intend to plant fruit trees and willows, rushes and wild orchids to assist with the water filtration and at the same time encourage biodiversity.

The cheeses we intend to make will be made using raw milk and using traditional, liquid yoghurt starter cultures.  Eventually we intend to culture our own starters and ripening agents solely from the raw milk produced by the estate and vegetable matter grown on the estate (a valuable potential source of lactic acid bacteria), eliminating the need for bought in cultures.

The cheeses will be entirely made by hand which suits the production of soft and blue cheeses best.  We will use open vats and the cheese will be made without the use of mechanical stirrers as our soft and blue cheeses require a more gentle handling.  A comprehensive set of maturing rooms has been designed to then ensure the cheeses are kept at the appropriate humidity and temperature at all stages of their ripening.

By building a dairy we intend to provide the farm with a future for its Dairy herd which is no longer subject to the fluctuating prices of the milk market.  The need for an alternative customer to the current purchaser on the farm was highlighted at a point when the milk price and amount of organic premium was cut without very much warning. 

Our dairy will negotiate a fair milk price for the farm that allows them to be profitable and importantly that is guaranteed.  In return for milk being produced to specific standards regarding bacterial levels and fat and protein content our milk price can be increased.  In addition to cheese, we have plans to investigate the possibilty of using more of the farm’s milk to produce a range of yoghurts and frozen yoghurt.  This in turn will allow the farm to maintain and improve on its current sustainable practices and will mean it does not have to dramatically increase herd size in order to turnover more money.  

Re-reading this, although these are the aims we’ve talked about since the beginning it does make me feel a little nervous as our aim of fair milk price and providing a sustainable future for the herd will only work if the cheese is as good as I can make it and therefore we sell plenty of it.

No pressure!!

Paris is always a Good Idea

Paris from my taxi ride after the Salon de Fromage
Paris from my taxi ride after the Salon de Fromage

As Audrey Hepburn apparently said, ‘Paris is always a good idea’.  Even better if it happens to be hosting an agricultural show which according to Patricia Michelson of La Fromagerie and various other cheesemakers, is a must see.

With hopes of learning more about farming and cheesemaking equipment, Rose and I booked the Eurostar and set off.  It took a relatively short metro ride to get to Paris Expo and we were able to buy our entry tickets to the Salon d’Agriculture pretty easily.  We acquired lunch and looked at some cows, picking up leaflets on Montbeliards as we went and perused the map trying to find the Salon de Fromage.

Apparently it’s all been a bit easier to find and get into in other years but this year it took full on detective work to find the cheese bit of the show.  This is partly because it’s for professionals only and perhaps the guards last year just got fed up of turning away members of the public but all the same it was due to a good degree of exploration of the site and some fine ad lib blagging on Rose’s part and translation on my part that we got in.

We had business cards for Rose’s old business and luckily because we’d planned on talking about it on the train we had a plan showing the design of our dairy.  We first profered the business cards.  No good.  We called people we knew who were in there.  They weren’t answering their phones.  Rose got out the plans of the dairy and began talking the security guard through the process in franglais.  At this juncture, he realised we were

a) obstinate

b) legitimate

c) possibly slightly deranged

and sent us chasing after a nice lady in a green jacket who officially lead us past the security and to the desk in the hall where you presented your business cards and were allowed to register as a visitor.  Not entirely sure why it had been so cloak and dagger to get to that point but never mind, we were in.

Inside, we wandered around lots of stands of cheese in its many and varied forms.  We stopped by An Bord Bia’s stand and looked at their cheeses, unfortunately just missing a chance to say hi to the Furnos from Cashel Blue.  We found Guffanti’s stand and tried their Taleggio and different types of Gorgonzola.  They were really good.  We, of course, said hello at the Neal’s Yard Dairy stand and in the course of conversation that networker par exellence that is Jason HInds managed to direct us to a good paper supplier and to a nice cheese affineur called Mark who loved the idea of people going into making cheese and has offered to take us to visit some Reblochon producers in May or June.  We also ran into Jonny Crickmore who had come over on a very early train with Julie Cheney and who were both just leaving but we just had time to chat and compare notes on milk testing and things to look at in the cheese show.

After that as we partook of a nice glass of wine (well when in Paris…) at the show’s wine bar / restaurant we took stock, talked about website, packaging, labelling and other things that had absolutely nothing to do with vats and stainless steel but were very productive nonetheless.  And as we rounded the corner on a final tour of the show we managed to finally track down my sister and the inimitable Jon Thrupp who were chatting away to their Beaufort affineur.  They were mid meeting so there was only really a chance to say a quick hello but it’s always nice to run into friends and family even if it is only brief.

Having successfully found paper, Reblochon hosts and had a chance to chat cheese with Julie and Jonny, we set off for the Gare du Nord so Rose could catch a train home.  I stayed on in Paris for a very quiet night in (it had been a very early start) hence the photo of the Moulin Rouge from my taxi and returned to Blighty the following morning slightly regretting not having more time to do a good visit to the recommended Fromageries and buy up all the washed rind cheese I could.

Paris is great. I could have stayed all week!

Meanwhile at Nettlebed the steel is being repaired (you'll notice it's not the same colour as it was) and we're getting closer to putting up the walls and roof.
Meanwhile at Nettlebed the steel is being repaired (you’ll notice it’s not the same colour as it was) and we’re getting closer to putting up the walls and roof.

Cheese Grading

Chris George, like me, also ex of Neal's Yard Dairy, sampling cheese on a tour of their maturing facility, back in 2009
Chris George, like me, also ex of Neal’s Yard Dairy, sampling cheese on a tour of their maturing facility, back in 2008 (thanks to NYD for the photo – oh yeah and Chris)

‘A Cheese Grating Course?’ asked more than one of my non cheese friends when I told them I was going to learn more about cheese grading.

‘No, GRADING,’ I replied, realising again that I have indeed entered the realms of cheese nerdery that doesn’t quite translate to the outside world. ‘That’s the process by which cheeses are evaluated either during maturation in order to determine which market they should be sold into (retailers, wholesalers, exporters) or also during judging at a cheese show.  You assess the cheese for texture, body and flavour and note down your observations for review later.’

‘You eat cheese all day?  Wow, my kind of course.’

Not exactly, but I must say it was a very pleasant way to spend the day and yes, cheese was consumed…in the interests of education you understand.

About a fortnight ago at the beginning of February, Julie Cheney hosted a day’s course in her house on the subject of Cheese Grading.  The course was being taught by Jayne Hickinbotham of Dee Dairy Services who is one of the UK cheese industry’s unsung heros.  After years in manufacturing with big creameries like Dairycrest, she went freelance and now operates as a consultant who can pretty much do anything from calibrate your thermometers to write your HACCP to train your staff in Dairy Hygiene to help you write up risk analysis justifying the more traditional of cheese techniques like use of raw milk and use of wood in maturation rooms.  She is also a trained RPA auditor and Cheese and Butter grader and until she stood down from it, was the Chief Steward responsible for the Cheese and Dairy Show at the Great Yorkshire Show.  As if that wasn’t enough, she co-wrote the Specialist Cheesemakers Section of the SALSA + SCA standard and is one of their Dairy mentors and auditors as well as sitting on the SCA’s Technical Committee.  She knows her stuff.

The course, which, to give it it’s proper name was ‘Sensory Analysis (Grading and Selecting) and Managing Variation of Hard, Soft & Blue Cheese’ was attended by a very interesting bunch of people.  Again, we left a cheese function with Rose remarking, ‘Cheese people are all so lovely!’

Our fellow learners were Julie herself, Paul Thomas of Thimble Cheesemakers, Ned Palmer (my ex colleague from NYD days and now a freelancer himself), David Jowett, Francis & his wife from Taste of the Vine who are thinking of taking up cheesemaking, Robbyn Linden from The Cheeseboard in Greenwich, Patricia Michelson and Sofia from La Fromagerie, Jonny Crickmore of Fen Farm Dairy, a couple from Lyburn Cheesemakers whose names I never got (sorry) and a Neal’s Yard Dairy triumvirate of Adam Verlander, Terry Warner and David Holton.  I hope that was everyone!  It was certainly all quite cosy in Julie’s sitting room.

Jayne began by explaining the purpose of grading and how it was different from tasting as a sales tool.  This is a topic that I know she feels strongly about from her experiences as judge.  If you are tasting as a sales tool, it’s ok to think ‘I don’t like that,’ or ‘I really like that’.  If you are grading, subjective descriptions like that only lead to arguments and get you nowhere.  Grading needs objective and descriptive records.

For instance, a grader might record: ‘metallic, acidic, sour flavour, weak body’.

A sales taster would be more likely to communicate: ‘Don’t like that much, metallic, acidic and sour.’

You can’t really argue with the objective description.  It is what it is.  You can however argue with the subjective one and by being subjective it’s more likely to put the manufacturer on the defensive into the bargain.

‘What do you mean you don’t like it?  I don’t think it tastes at all metallic.’  And so on.

An interesting point too was that Jayne even refined it down to the choice of vocabulary.  ‘Astringent’ for instance we discovered was something that some of us identified as bitter and others as tannic.  That means it’s not clear or objective enough for grading.

Remaining with vocabulary, we discussed the difference between ‘body’ and ‘texture’; body being mass, solidity, density and something you can touch while texture is formation of structure and is visible.  We talked about use of certain words and their associations during grading.  You don’t use the word ‘sweetness’ as a positive descriptor with cheese.  It describes a fault relating to whey retention or adding potassium sorbate as a mould inhibitor (in industrial block cheeses).

We covered analysis procedures and hygiene – including personal hygiene.  You can’t accurately judge flavours in the presence of strong perfumes and you particularly can’t if you’ve just used very perfumed handsoap.  This latter is especially relevant to hard cheeses where you don’t just taste the cheese but also hold the sample between your fingers and knead it to assess the texture.  Then you taste it.

‘Mmmm – tastes like…um…freesias???’

Jayne even warned us about the planning a professional grader puts into their packed lunch.  She once suffered by having packed an orange to eat and realised only afterwards that the smell of orange oil on her hands which persisted after handwashing was distracting her from the product she was grading.  Several further washes of the hands in neutral soap were required.

It wasn’t all theory though, we also had the milk drinking challenge.  Six different milks were poured out and handed out in a blind tasting.

First was the control: standard full fat milk from the supermarket.  It was, white and uniform in appearance with a buttery and slightly animal aroma, tasted slightly metallic but with a caramel note and was relatively weak in body.  Jayne pointed out that it left a slightly drying sensation in the mouth.  This, she explained, is very common in all milk sold in our supermarkets nowadays.  The milk itself will have been collected from the farms and then moved to the processing plant.  It will have been pumped at milking, then pumped again to fill the milk tanker, then pumped a further time to empty it into the silos at the processing plant.  The time frame for this can be 3 days before it is pumped through a pasteuriser and then homogenised.  During this time and especially with all the pumping going on, the fat particles in the milk are damaged, oxygenised and this drying mouthfeel is the very beginnings of what would become rancidity if it were butter.  It won’t get that far as milk because there’s relatively little fat and in any case it won’t be kept that long.  This is one of the reasons that organic unhomogenised milk tastes better.

Our second sample was slightly pinky off-white and smelled distinctly caramelised.  It had flavours of coconut, malt and caramel but was also more strongly metallic.  The mouthfeel was most definitely drying, more so than our control sample.  It was more viscous in the mouth as well.  This, we discovered was UHT.  The caramel flavours coming about because the milk is heated to 135C in which process the milk sugars, not surprisingly, cook.

Uht_Milk

Our third sample again was off white and smelled slightly of caramel.  It tasted rather odd, distinctly of vanilla and sugar and at the same time, watery.  The feeling in the mouth was powdery and drying and the body was most definitely weak.  Turns out it was rice milk – vanilla is added as a flavouring to make it palatable.

ricemilk

Sample number four was pure white and glossy, almost reflective.  It smelled yeasty and had a very distinctive taste: slightly salty, caramel, coconut and most definitely GOAT.  The mouthfeel was not drying – it was quite neutral – however the caramel was an indication it might be being pasteurised at too high a temperature.  This often happens with all animal milks we consume ‘just to be on the safe side’.

goat-milk

Sample five was cream in colour and smelled buttery.  It tasted very sugary, mineral and nutty.  It produced a definite drying sensation but was quite creamy.  This was soya milk which I normally find very difficult to actually swallow so it was a pleasant surprise – well as pleasant as soya milk can be which, frankly, isn’t very.

Soya Milk

Finally we came to sample six.  It had a creamy white colour, barely any odour at all and tasted mineral, salty and slightly sour.  The sensation in the mouth afterwards was most definitely drying.  Jayne ‘fessed up.  This was milk with dilute hypochlorite solution in it.  That is, milk with bleach.  You may be wondering at this moment if it’s safe to drink milk with hypochlorite in it.  In fact it is.  Hypochlorite and bleach work by blasting open the cell walls of the organic matter they come into contact with.  In that process the solution however breaks down into its individual components which are salt, water and chlorine gas.  The gas escapes of course so all that is left is water and salt.  The milk therefore was completely safe and largely unaffected in flavour.  I described it as being a little more salty than our control sample but not everyone did.

hypo

Just as we were about to ask Jayne, ‘If that’s the case with hypochlorite, how come you can end up with food that tastes a bit like bleach?’ she went on to say:

‘So hypochlorite in itself doesn’t taint, but you know sometimes when you make tea with chlorinated water, you get a bleach taste?  That is a reaction with the phenols in the tea.’

We’ve all, in our years of cheese tasting, encountered cheeses that tasted a bit chloriney.  This would likely be the same issue.  As the milk is broken down by its starters it releases phenols and flavour compounds.  Some of these can react with hypochlorite.

With our milk tasting over and a lot of information imparted, we had a go at ironing cheese and then stood up to help ourselves to lunch – a particularly tasty macaroni cheese Julie had hand crafted which was made all the more flirty by the addition of crispy bits of bacon and artichoke hearts.  Returning after lunch, we settled down to the serious work of grading sample of cheese brought by our fellow course attendees.  I didn’t get round all of them, but I happily made objective and descriptive notes on: St Jude (of course), Paul’s Little Anne & Dorothy, Jonny’s Baron Bigod (incredibly edible – in large amounts), David’s St Oswald (which I could also eat a lot of with alarming ease), Old Winchester, a lovely Gouda-esque cheese from Lyburn, David Holton’s experimental John Littlejohn and Innes Log.  Perhaps inevitably, however, given the quality of cheese on offer, assessments became less objective and more subjective.  We may have been writing descriptively but it was hard to stop the exclamations of ‘Wow that’s amazing!’ that seemed to crop up with every new cheese tasted.

Maybe, at heart, we’re all salesmen.

Vacherin, Sancey Richard

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(Vacherin production at Sancey Richard)

If you’re selling British cheese, then Christmas is all about Stilton.  Even with the advent of Stichelton, Colston Bassett is still a major player on the Neal’s Yard Dairy counter and at Mons, we get several customers per day asking for Stilton and needing to be directed to the Neal’s Yard Borough Shop, which we happily do.  Many people ask if Neal’s Yard Dairy is competition, but to be honest that’s not the attitude.  Neal’s Yard Dairy will happily direct French cheese lovers in our direction so we will happily return the favour.  It goes beyond that too, we all want to promote small cheesemakers who are making artisanal, traditional cheeses.  We’re a team.  Nationality isn’t all that important.

However, I digress from my main point, which is, that if you’re selling French cheese at Christmas, it’s all about the Vacherin.  Most cheeses adhere to the usual seasonal pattern of when the cows / goats / sheep go out to grass and production happens over the summer.  This is particularly evident in the mountain cheeses where the summer season is so short and the difference between grazing the amazingly varied pasture of the alpine meadows versus the hay of the winter housing is so pronounced.  Vacherin is very different in that case because its season begins as the animals go indoors.  To an English person this smacks of winter.  Cows here went in to their indoor housing fairly recently because the weather has been quite mild so far this winter.  I was at Nettlebed at the end of October and the cows were still outdoors on pasture, although it was recognised that this was due to the mild weather.  Meanwhile in the Alps, it has been snowing at pasture level since September.  This summer, I spent some time in Vigo di Fassa in the Dolomites and while there, I set the app on my phone to monitor the weather.  It’s a ski resort so it’s available.  While there, I realised it’s at the right altitude to be interesting from a cheese point of view as well and indeed I saw plenty of very happy looking cows there grazing away while I was on my walking holiday.  I kept the app monitoring Vigo di Fassa’s weather, long after the end of my walking holiday,  just for interest and I noticed that fairly early on in September it started snowing and temperatures plummeted into the minus degrees.  The cows they have there, whose milk contributes to Cuor di Fassa and Puzzone di Moena (amongst others), were most definitely indoors at this point.  I can’t really imagine that over the border in the mountain areas of France things were hugely different.

Some people romanticise the milk that goes into Vacherin production, claiming that it’s the richest milk that is produced when the cows go in to their winter housing and as such is reserved for Vacherin.  I have to be honest and say I think that is not a reflection of their housing but just a lucky coincidence.  In mountain areas, it still makes sense to have seasonal grazing and seasonal calving, meaning that the cows are calving in the late winter and getting to the end of lactation towards August through to October.  The end of lactation milk is always richer in fats and proteins.  It’s probably nature’s way of getting the last bits of nutrition into the calves.  If only we weren’t nicking it to make cheese!  A higher fat milk, however, isn’t great for making Comte which is the summer cheese in Vacherin areas.  To make a long maturing cheese, you don’t really want too much fat as it hinders drainage in the cheese and that ultimately means a moister cheese which can go a bit leftfield when maturing over many months.  It is, however, great for a quick maturing soft cheese.  So the enterprising mountain cheesemakers who, due to the early onset of winter in the mountains, have to house their cows indoors when they still have rich end of lactation milk to give, developed a recipe to showcase this milk and turn it into what we now call a marketing opportunity.

Vacherin is a high moisture cheese.  It is set very quickly and firmly which allows the rennet to trap in the maximum moisture.  The spruce cambium binding actually serves a practical purpose, to stop the cheese from overflowing its rind and spilling out as it matures.  The bonus is that it also adds to the flavour.

Sancey Richard, personified by Patrick Richard the head cheesemaker, make their Vacherin particularly well.  Interestingly they make their cheese using a vegetarian rennet.  I’m sure there are other Vacherin producers using animal rennet which would basically be the more traditional way but vegetarian rennet is often more proteolytic than animal rennet (more prone to protein breakdown) and this causes a more liquid and runny texture.  If you think of the Spanish and Portuguese sheeps milk cheeses that use a thistle rennet and need to be spooned out of their rind, you get the idea.  The choice of rennet has been due to technical reasons, however it does mean that for the vegetarian cheese buyer coming to a French cheese stand, they can buy a Christmas Vacherin!  Commercial bonus.

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(Vacherin on the Mons stand with Max in the background)

Patrick is also apparently a great character.  There is no shortage of these in the cheese world and particularly when you venture into the cheese world of France which while it may have strong traditional standards in its AOC certification also has its fair share of iconoclasts.  However nearly everyone I spoke to on the Mons stand when asking about the Vacherin, remembered fondly the time Patrick was convinced to do a promotion at Selfridges Food Hall.  A couple of hours in and he was autographing the cheeses for his customers and proudly pronouncing

‘Je suis le producteur!’

Vive le Vacherin de Sancey Richard.

The AOC dilemma

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I first met Bronwen Percival, now better known as the buyer at Neal’s Yard Dairy and the founder of the London Gastronomy Seminars when she was a student, writing a paper on the shortcomings of the PDO and AOC system.  At the time, my experience of this system was purely UK based and to be honest in the UK, PDO certification isn’t hugely meaningful.

Stilton, our most famous PDO (Product of Designated Origin) cheese has enshrined in its certified production methods, the use of pasteurised milk.  The PDO was organised and established when most of the Stilton producers in the UK were using pasteurised milk as this was the trend at the time in UK dairying.  I think this was sometime in the 1960s.  The second best known PDO in the UK is that for West Country Cheddar and in this, production standards were so loosely worded that it encompassed block and traditional clothbound wheels of cheddar.  Where the Silton PDO did at least ensure that its cheeses adhered to basic production standards, for instance a natural rinded cylinder form and that this was not bound in wax of plastic to lock more moisture in, the West Country Cheddar PDO only really established the geographical origin as a quality measure.  Jamie Montgomery, one of the best known and respected cheddar makers in the UK decided to leave the PDO because it was more damaging to his brand than enhancing it.  Hafod, one of the most traditional recipe cheddars currently made in the UK can not fit into the PDO although in essence its recipe is one that was followed on farms all over Somerset before the 1920s.

However, I was of the impression that the AOC system in France worked better; that it actually protected the important factors of traditional production as it was set up at a time when there was considerably more farmhouse cheese production knowledge and thus it was more meaningful.  Since working at Mons Cheesemongers it has become apparent that wherever it becomes a marketing tool and has financial importance as a result, it loses its ability to protect tradition.  And this, if I remember correctly, in a nutshell is what Bronwen Percival proposed around 9 years ago.  She’s a clever one.

Mons have recently encountered their own issues with the AOC systems and these cover the immensely petty to the more fundamental.  A key area that causes concern is that the AOC system in some places encourages the use of specific AOC approved starter cultures and this in turn means that individual producers cheeses personalities are not able to be fully expressed.  In fact, with different intentions of course, it achieves the same end as globalisation and industrialisation of cheese.  Many farmhouse cheeses in the UK who don’t have the same variety and choice of starter cultures or the knowledge to ferment their own, end up using around 2 or 3 freeze dried cultures bought from Christian Hansen.  These cultures are also used by the block, factory cheeses.  It isn’t the best way to reveal the full individuality of the milk.  This is a big topic and indeed it’s one for another post but the essence is that by buying commercial cultures, the individuality of each producer diminishes.  We will not ever live in an age of identikit cheeses: recipe, cheesemakers’ skill and farming methods resulting in differing compositions of the milk will answer for that, however it does mean that we don’t have the full effect of the terroir, farming system, breed of the animal and cheesemaking skill reflected in the final cheeses.  An example here of the bureacracy of the AOC system here is Mons’s Beaufort Alpage and Ete (see picture).  These are made by a cheesemaker who makes his own starter in the latte inesto style I described after the milk workshops I attended in Bra.  He makes his own rennet too from dried stomachs of his male calves.  However he has 2 farms.  This means he can not be considered artisanal because his production is too big and yet his recipe and key production techniques are the quintessence of tradition.

Meanwhile, Mons is having to rebrand a few of their Provencal goats cheeses as a result of wanting to improve them.  The AOC states that in order to be considered to bear their name, they have to have a minimum aging time in the area.  In principle, I can understand the argument for this, however in practice it has problems.  Mons in France (the parent company of Mons Cheesemongers) have been encountering problems with the goats cheeses as they needed better drying facilities before the age at which they arrived in Lyons for affinage.  It’s quite a big ask that each farmer should be able to invest in state of the art drying facilities.  Herve Mons decided that he could accomplish that for them better at his own caves.  However this means that they are no longer AOC cheeses.  And thus renaming has happened.  Jane, explained this recently to Mons Cheesemongers Wholesale customers.  I have copied her words so this is straight from the horse’s mouth as it were:

‘it’s time to focus in on our Loire goats cheeses… & in this region, change is afoot. Being such a well known area for goats milk, many of the Loirien cheeses are protected by AOCs. & within the rules of these AOCs, it’s stated that cheeses can only share the prestigious protected names if the remain in their region until at least 10 days old.

Well, Mr Mons has plans for improving his maturing of these recipes & part of his scheme entails bringing the cheeses into our caves so he can manage the drying process himself. And that means getting hold of the cheeses at the earliest stage possible.

In order to take this step towards improving the evolution of these cheeses, he’s had to rename a number of them so’s not to contradict the AOC rules. & so ladies & gentleman, we give you……

Selles sur Couffy for Selles sur Cher (the Couffy is a tributary of the Cher river which runs by the producer’s farm),

Pouligny for Pouligny St Pierre,

Ste Maure de la Dragonniere for Ste Maure de Touraine &

Auzanne Cendree for Valencay’

It may be time for the AOC system as well as that of our own UK PDOs to consider adaptation and evolution.