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.
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.
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.
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
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.
‘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!’
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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
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.
Over the summer we received planning permission for our build based on some preliminary plans. I received the news by text somewhere in the Labirinto in the Dolomites (see above). It was a rather good setting in which to receive good news and felt appropriately celebratory.
Of course we hadn’t really expected to get the go ahead quite that early and I was in Italy for another 6 weeks so our progress wasn’t as quick as perhaps it could have been all things considered. We did, by dint of long distance phone calls to Alan Hayes of Capital Refrigeration who had expressed interest in building the interiors, manage to agree a basic interior layout and after a trip to Cheese in Piedmont and a rather informal meeting with Ivan Larcher by the side of the NYD stand, got confirmation that it would be appropriate for the volumes we intend to make and the types of cheese we intend to make.
(Cutting edge Dairy design happened right next to this scene of cheese retail).
On my return to the UK and having managed to ascertain a date when Ivan would be in the UK, we arranged for him and Alan to meet and go through our final plans, sign off on them more or less and basically agree what we were planning to build in terms of its cost effectiveness and practicality. We also met our future EHO who is all we could possibly wish for! She freely admitted that she didn’t have experience of cheese but when Rose initially mentioned plans to make cheese and unpasteurised cheese at that, her employers put her on a course taught by Dr Paul Neaves so that she could learn more. She was surprised to find that on this course, raw milk in and of itself wasn’t considered a problem and as long as we have good hygienic practices in work and hygiene is made practical and easy to achieve by the design of our building, she will be happy. I was particularly impressed too that she had researched the Specialist Cheesemakers Association and was aware of current negotiations by the SCA’s Technical Committee to nominate a primary authority in Cornwall. Primary authorities are a new(ish) idea, I believe, which are particularly useful for big companies with lots of different sites, like Arla or Dairycrest. They nominate the authority at their head office or main manufacturing plant as their primary authority and this means that each site doesn’t have to deal with a different local authority as interpretations of the regulations is apparently extremely changeable from one borough to the next. The SCA has used this as a template for themselves as an organisation so that all members of the SCA can deal direct with one authority. The hope is that this will put an end to the issues individual members have had with one authority being unneccessarily obstructive with raw milk cheese producers due to half knowledge and perceived threats from its unpasteurised nature where one with more experience is a dream to work with and entirely co operative. From the EHO’s point of view, as we learned when meeting ours, it’s a big relief too because it means that should there be a problem with a new business making a ‘dangerous’ raw milk cheese, the buck doesn’t stop with them.
From those meetings, things continue to move on. Our barn is full of straw that the current tenant needs to move. This hasn’t happened yet though I am assured that it will be doing so on either Wednesday or Thursday this week. Once that happens a structural engineer will go in and assess what strengthening and repairs need to be done to the existing structure which has been up for a few years and may need a little bit of TLC to get it up to scratch for what we need it to do. After that, accurate costs can be drawn up and following that, work can begin on the exteriors. And when the walls go up outside, I will start to relax a bit. Until then it’s weather dependent and we are of course entering winter. Once the outside walls and roof are done, interior work can carry on regardless of the rain. If everything runs to time (which we’ve been advised not to expect) we could start cheesemaking on April 8th. However, as the advice from older and wiser heads is that it won’t run to time, we could hope to be up and running anywhere from May to September. Another reason at this stage why I’ll relax a bit more when there are some walls there. It will give a clearer idea of when I need to move house again and when I can get my hands in that curd!
Until then, however, I have Christmas Cheese Mongering to take my mind off things. The next couple of weeks will see me, swaddled in so many layers of thermal clothing that I look like the Michelin man, behind the counter of the Mons Cheesemongers Borough Market Stall.
Can I switch my allegiance from Neal’s Yard Dairy British Cheese to the French stuff? You bet I can. It’s in the family now! Vacherin and Gruyere for Christmas anyone?
This year, at Slow Food’s Cheese, I noticed a new development that for once I had time to take advantage of, workshops on milk production.
I’ve been going to Cheese every year since something frightening like 2003 as part of the Neal’s Yard Dairy contingent. Consequently my time has been spent on retailing, resting, staying up late eating pizza at Da Ugo or in club Macabre (when it still existed) and then necking strong but delicious coffees the following morning.
This time, however, I was here with purely the aim of furthering my cheese education. Where better to comparative taste Gorgonzolas and Taleggios? Where better to explore the concept of what a traditional recipe or make actually tasted like in the interests of developing the recipes I’d been trialling at the School of Artisan Food? Where better to learn more about cheese? To which end, I trawled Slow Food’s website for tastings and discovered the milk workshops.
I’d helped Randolph Hodgson prep some of his own talks at Slow Food workshops in the past which were purely cheese focussed and with an element of pairing wine / beer etc and cheese. I’d found them interesting but not hugely technical (not a reflection, I should explain, on what Randolph talked about – he was easily the most technical person there, it’s the other speakers who were a bit more pedestrian). The milk workshops held in the piazza XX Settembre were more technical sounding, geared towards cheesemakers and milk producers and while there were some things that I didn’t feel the need to attend (a talk on adulteration of food and labelling regulations didn’t thrill me), there were some that were most definitely relevant.
The topics I thought it was a good idea to get clued up on were: animal welfare, the importance of pasture, milk quality that goes beyond simply whether it is raw or pasteurised, sustainable agriculture and the role of fermentation.
A white board displayed around town with loads of technically useful cheese facts and recipes on. Just there for you to copy and to spread the cheesey knowledge. This sort of generosity of information in the interests of the bigger picture is typical of Cheese.
It lead to a hugely interesting few days and a lot of food for thought and luckily for me, the happier the cows, bees and environment it would appear the happier the cheesemaker. Let me elaborate:
The talk on animal welfare with speakers from Compassion inWorld Farming started by stating that animal health and human health are linked and animals farmed in a higher welfare manner produce better milk. There are obvious examples of this: animals on pasture have less instances of mastitis and cleaner udders than animals that live indoors. To put it bluntly, in the fields, if they need to defaecate, they just walk away from it and to a nice clean bit of pasture. In the sheds they can’t do that and although their bedding will be replaced frequently during the day, there’s more than just a chance that they will end up lying down on dirty straw at some point. However, it goes beyond cleanliness. The milk from animals that are grazed on pasture has been found to be more healthy with better levels of Omega 3 fatty acids and betacarotene.
The talk on pasture discussed milk composition in more detail, citing EU funded research projects that have demonstrated the effects of each different herb or grass or wild flower variety that the animals graze on the composition of the fats and the number of flavour ethanols in the milk and also its vitamin content. One speaker, Roberto Rubino from ANFOSC (the Associazione Nazionale di FormaggiSotto Il Cielo), had particularly interesting data to demonstrate the different fatty acid composition between animals eating oats, borage, hawthorn (really), wild geranium and plenty of other plants. His point was not that there was any one plant that was the cow / goat or sheep superfood but that the bigger variety the better. Just like humans, a varied diet is better for the animal but we are able to reap the benefits of that through the composition of the milk. He went on to also explain that the animals’ diet also affects the cholesterol in their milk.
Contrary to the thinking on nutrition that I remember growing up which had us ditching butter in favour of margarine and believing all cholesterol to give us heart attacks, current thinking now considers cholesterol a necessary part of the diet, provided it is not oxidised. A diet of pasture contains 4 or 5 times as many antioxidants as the diet of animals on a zero grazing indoor farming system. In other words, they consider that you can drink milk and eat butter and cheese without worrying about heart disease, provided it’s farmed a certain way.
A speaker also from the European Forum on NatureConservation and Pastoralism explained that the value of mountain pasture is precisely that it hasn’t been planted or farmed. As a result, the plants are far more diverse than they would be even if planted with the most complex herbal seed mix. They quoted that an intensively farmed and planted field would contain 2 or 3 different species whereas you’d expect to find 50 to 100 species in natural grasslands. They even explained that animals left to graze and pick and choose will even eat shrubs and leaves off trees sometimes for a bit of variety (presumably hence the hawthorn research presented by Roberto Rubino).
During the talk on raw milk, a speaker called Tom Baas a biologist from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Germany (FIBL)talked about how research into raw milk in the past 10 to 12 years has shown a change in attitudes to unpasteurised dairy. Statistical research demonstrated that raw milk could actually assist in children developing a healthy immune system and lower incidences of asthma, allergies and even hayfever. Some of these points were rather circumstantial evidence, farmers children seem to be healthier than others, however, Basel University has done over 10 studies into the possibilities of raw milk against atopic conditions and other health benefits including that of a fatty acid called CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). Their studies showed that CLA which is produced by herbivores will be different depending on the animals diet. When fed to rats, the grass fed CLA did not make the animals put on weight or develop fatty liver while the CLA from animals on a different diet did. CLA is present in raw and pasteurised milk but the heating process will affect it and at least make it less effective if not actually contributing to weight gain actively.Further to this taste studies had been carried out also assessing the smell, taste, aftertaste, viscosity and visual aspect of 4 different milks, 2 of which were organic (1 actually biodynamic) and 2 intensively farmed. While the differences were subtle, a distinct difference was found.
The message of all of this? Raw milk, varied pasture that is left to grow as naturally as possible, grass fed as much as possible will be the healthiest dairy food for you and will also have the best flavour potential for the cheesemaker. Of course they were speaking in fairly black and white terms and you’ll find conscientious extensive farmers who do feed concentrates and silage who also manage to give their animals a varied diet while not using natural and unplanted grasslands.
Finally we moved to the role of fermentation. This was an idea I’d first heard proposed at courses that Ivan Larcher teaches. You have this amazing milk, with wonderfully farmed animals and all those aromatic flavour ethanols waiting to be liberated. How to make the most of it? Well using a naturally fermented starter. Just as the natural grassland is more diverse, so is the naturally cultured soured milk from your raw milk. Most commercial starters will contain possibly 1 or 2 different organisms. The more complex ones perhaps 4 or 5. Your own natural culture from your raw milk will have many more and also all the ripening cultures too (yeasts and moulds). It also renders your product truly a local and unique one. The speakers gave a brief method for producing your own soured milk starter, something they called ‘latte inesto’ and tasted a range of 4 cheeses chosen to demonstrate that the latte inesto starter produced the more complex flavour. Again, I’ve done enough tastings to know you choose your cheeses to demonstrate the point you want them to make so while the tasting was dramatic, it was also staged to be so. The difficulty of naturally occurring bacteria is that you can’t be sure of what will grow, but if you have followed certain guidelines you will maximise your chances of cultivating good starter cultures rather than a big bunch of spoilage bacteria instead.
Most interesting for me, as we research our milk at Nettlebed, was the discussion on where the natural lactic acid bacteria come from. The research in this case has not been carried out on dairy animals but on humans but it is extrapolated that other mammals will have similar processes. The baby’s gut is populated with the appropriate bacteria by the colostrum phase but after that is finished, the milk produced is sterile. Any lactic acid bacteria and other flora that get into the milk from that stage onwards are transferred from the skin of the udders which will be picked up from dust particles on their food and in the pasture, dust particles from the soil (this would be bad news things like E.coli and Listeria) or illness which would be mastitis (Staphylococcus aureus).
Further to that, a cheesemaker asked a question. He had been making cheese with latte inesto for 20 years but recently in response to demands from the milk dairies he had been trying to reduce his total bacterial counts. Ever since the counts went down, his latte inesto stopped working. It wouldn’t sour and when cultured, the only thing that grew was coliforms (gas producing bacteria from the gut – harmless but no help to the cheesemaker). It appeared that in pre-dipping the animals’ teats before milking, they were removing a healthy population of lactic acid bacteria and although there were very few coliforms present, in the absence of any competition, these became dominant. By trying to clean up what had been essentially clean milk before, they had created ‘dead milk’. The advice was to stop pre-dipping and do all they could to ensure lactic acid bacteria got back onto the teats (this can include wiping with hay before milking, making sure the animals are getting hay or natural grass as pasture) to make the milk come alive again.
In summary, what did I learn? Well to sum it up in one sentence: diversity, diversity, diversity and leave it to nature as much as possible. Naturally managed grasslands and animals kept as close to their natural state as possible will produce happy animals giving milk that is better both nutritionally and in flavour profile and potential. Then allow your naturally produced milk to sour with what nature in its bounty has given you and you’ll get cracking good cheese! In theory anyway….
One of the exciting things about working with Merrimoles Farm on the Nettlebed Estate is the potential inherent in their milk. The herd is a mixture of Friesian Holsteins with Swedish Red and Montbeliard bred into the herd for increased vigour. Increased vigour is the immediate benefit for the farmers along with better health, less likelihood of lameness and better fertility. However it isn’t just a benefit to the farmer. The cheesemaker (that would be me) naturally gets better milk from healthy, happy animals but the breeding with Swedish Red and Montbeliard is exciting because the solids in the milk of both of those breeds lend themselves more to cheesemaking than that of the Friesian Holstein or Holstein itself. In addition to that, the animals graze on organic pasture and, as a result, spend most of the year happily outside, munching grass, flowers and herbs in the fields, which in theory means that they should have a diverse diet which will lend to aromatic compounds in the milk and the potential for a diverse grouping of lactic acid bacteria derived from the bacteria present on the teats.
I had come into the discussions with Rose and with Merrimoles Farm with a mental ticklist of what I was looking for in a milk supplier, namely, interesting breeds (check), outdoor grazing (check), varied pasture (check), preferably organic or as near to as possible (check). Part of this is ideological, I don’t want to be involved in an enterprise where there are unhappy animals and where the farming isn’t sustainable and respectful to the environment. Part is flavour driven. Interesting breeds, varied pasture and organic management of the herd and pasture should, in theory, translate to the most interesting milk. In other words, if I can unlock it, there’s a lot of potential for good flavours in our cheese.
‘Our milk is really good’ Rose told me proudly when we first met.
We collected a sample from the bulk tank to drink it fresh and (naturally) unpasteurised. It tasted lovely. I agreed with her. On other occasions that I have drunk it since then, it consistently tastes lovely with a milky sweetness, mineral undertones and a velvety creamy mouthfeel.
‘And we get really great test results too’ she continued, ‘Dairycrest actually say that our counts are really low. For an organic farm it’s practically unheard of.’
When I first visited the farm, Phil, the farm manager showed me a printout of their milk results which included fats and protein content as well as their routine total bacteria counts. Having looked over other milk results in the past when I was Quality Assurance Manager at Neal’s Yard Dairy, I too was surprised at how low some of the counts were. I expressed my surprise to Phil also who confirmed that yes, they were often told how rare it was for an organic farm to hit those levels. It was something they were all proud of and justifiably so. For their current customers this is exactly what they need and want.
I was a little more cautious. Low total counts, seemed to me a good starting point, but more important than that is what that total count breaks down into. Ideally, of course, that total count is entirely composed of lactic acid bacteria. Worst case scenario, it’s entirely composed of Listeria monocytogenes or another pathogen. As we drove away from the farm, I mentioned to Rose that, before we got into cheesemaking, we needed to build up a history of testing the milk in more detail.
‘For raw milk cheese,’ I explained, careful not to cast aspersions on what was evidently, very carefully produced milk, ‘It’s not so much the total counts we’re concerned about, but what’s in there. So we need to send off some samples for testing and cover all the pathogens: Listeria monocytogenes, Staph. aureus, E.coli O157 and Salmonellae.’
It wasn’t urgent to get started testing straight away and actually we are hardly going to go and find another milk supplier. Our cheese business is being started to make better use of the Merrimoles milk. Whatever the results, we were already committed to working with them, so to begin testing nearer our production time made more sense. I took a bottle of milk away to do a lactofermentation at home. They took 48 hours to set, tasted yoghurt-like, although a little bitter, and had about one gas bubble. I would have been happier to find no gas bubbles and to not have tasted the slight bitterness, but I wasn’t too bothered at this stage.
When we did begin our testing in May this year, however, we had a bit of a shock. The total counts were low, as usual, but the lactic acid bacteria counts as a proportion of that were also a lot lower than we had hoped for. We thought, especially as we want to culture our own starters, that we would be aiming for 80% of the total count to be lactic bacteria. We were finding considerably less than that.
This means for our cheesemaking, culturing our own starters is a project for a few years time and won’t be happening initially. If you make your own starters, the argument goes, you will have a more diverse population of bacteria but, of course, you don’t know what you are getting and they are likely not to acidify as strongly as bought and proven starters. Just at the moment, we need to use plenty of proven starter to get our milk to acidify. This is fine, I can work with that and still do my best to use a varied and interesting cocktail of cultures. What makes me a little nervous though is that not having a naturally strong population of lactic acid bacteria does mean that we don’t have a built in safety mechanism in form of the milk’s natural ability to out compete pathogens. If something nasty gets in, it can have a little pathogen party, reproducing itself all over the shop.
‘What does this mean for your cheese?’, I hear you ask.
Well as I said, we’ll use bought in starters and in addition we will record our acidity curves with every make. We will also prepare ourselves for higher testing costs as we will have to test each batch that doesn’t acidify quickly enough and higher wastage for the cheeses whose test results don’t make the grade. In the longer term, we’ll begin learning a lot about the factors that encourage or discourage lactic acid bacteria, because, in theory, with organic production and grazing outdoors, we should have plenty of them and yet we don’t. With that in mind, at Slow Food’s Cheese this year, I listened avidly to their workshops on milk production. But that is a blog-post for another day.
More importantly, all of a sudden, all the arguments in defense of raw milk that I have trotted out obediently, on behalf of Neal’s Yard Dairy to officials and other quality assurance managers, clarified in a moment of epiphany.
If you don’t want to bottle milk and offer your customers long shelf life of what is naturally a short shelf life product, pasteurisation is irrelevant.
It doesn’t make sense for a cheesemaker to seek out milk with low counts or be encouraged to use pasteurised milk which it is perceived as being safer than raw milk.
If the raw milk has a healthy population of natural bacteria, it’s the safer choice.
A lot of what a laboratory scientist may consider to be a risk and that has been worked into HACCP and the food safety risk analysis we all do, suddenly seems misdirected and possibly dangerously so. Pasteurising doesn’t sterilise. It doesn’t make milk a perfectly clean slate, there are still some organisms in there or organisms can get in there even if you think you’re doing everything at the very pinnacle of hygiene. With low counts, it’s key to your cheese quality that your starters work quickly. If they are slow to start, then they can be out competed and potentially they don’t get the upper hand. This doesn’t neccessarily happen – you might be lucky but it’s like driving without your seat belt. It isn’t a given that you’ll have an accident but if you do the consequences are worse.
I now see very clearly, that it’s not a question of absolutes and black and whites. It’s not that low counts of staph aureus or enteros are automatically good. It really depends on what they compete against. Cheesemaking is a question of managing populations and communities of organisms. It’s so much more complicated, nuanced and subtle than low counts good, high counts bad and it’s not a question of limits and levels but of balances. This is as necessary for food safety every bit as much as to get the recipe to work.
I thought I understood this when I worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy. I was only half way there.