The Nettlebed Adventure is Over (For Me At Least)

So. I’ve held back from writing this blog post for a while because I didn’t know how to phrase it but I figure the only thing to do is be honest.

It all went tits up. Well it did for me at least.

When I last left blogging we finally had a floor in at Nettlebed after several abhortive attempts and a lot of extra spend. It was angled beautifully and when we finally got in to clean it, it rewarded us by draining wonderfully. But it stained with hypochlorite and there were concrete or mud stains we couldn’t remove however hard we scrubbed. Even the final solution we had placed our hopes on was far from perfect. Is there a truly great flooring company out there? According to the Nettlebed experience, not unless you micro manage them. The floor set our timing way back. This meant we were finally ready to try an (un EHO approved) make on the 13th January. I left for a long-booked 6 week holiday to a very important wedding in New Zealand on the 15th January. The timing could not have been worse.

Between them, Rose and super-cheesemaker Tee kept production going until I got back at the end of February. They battled problems from low maturing room temperatures to over acidification in the make. They tried not to bother me on holiday and called in the cavalry: Paul Thomas and Bronwen Percival of the SCA Technical Team.

I got back to find a quicker recipe, more in line with Reblochon, than the one I’d worked on in the kitchen. It wasn’t exactly the direction I had been heading in, but on the other hand, the last 2 batches from February, made by Tee directly after the Paul Thomas and Browen visit and following their swifter recipe were perfect. Rich orange-red rinds and a yoghurty, buttery, creamy interior with an succulent crumble in the centre. It was the tantalising Taleggio of our dreams but being raw milk, had so much more to offer than any Taleggio we’d tasted so far.

We duly sold them to local restaurants and to Neal’s Yard Dairy, where they met with a great reception. We tasted them to NYD customers just before April 2015 and had amazing feedback. Unfortunately that was our last hurrah.

After I’d been back for 1 make, we increased to 500 litres; a full vat. On the first day, we noticed, with surprise, that rather than being harder work at the stirring stage, it seemed to gather its own momentum and work more efficiently than in the 200 litre makes we had done before and during my holidays. The acidities dropped. If we were aiming for a Reblochon, this was a good thing. It was getting further away from the recipe I had played with in my kitchen, but Rose and Tee wanted to follow this faster recipe and having had a 6 week holiday while they got the place off the ground, I felt I ought to oblige. Besides, it ought to still make good cheese.

Then the problems started. First our maturing rooms started to heat and cool on the wrong cycle. We had deliberately chosen to have pipework of hot and cold water rather than fans circulating air cooled to a specific temperature. With minimal air movement, we were less prone to the cheese drying out. In theory.

Unfortunately, if the heating and cooling cycles aren’t aligned well they create the perfect environment for drying the crap out of your cheese. This happened in March. The rinds looked like used and dried out elastoplast after a few weeks from beautiful plump pink reds earlier. Rose spotted this and we called in Capital Refrigeration to fix the problem, but unknown to us even as we fixed this problem, another was brewing: milk quality.

Merrimoles Farm are very confident in their milk production. Dairycrest consider them exemplary due to their exceptionally low bacterial counts. Trouble is, Dairycrest don’t make raw milk cheese and amongst those low counts was a tricksy blighter called chlostridium Tyrobutyricum which feeds on proteins in the cheese and gets going as the cheese starts to break down. It’s a pretty cruel confidence trick to the cheesemaker since you try and fix the problem in the make. Just as you hope to have evidence the problem is solved, the cheeses start to blow up like balloons and smell putrid.

Getting to the bottom of that problem took us about a month as we originally blamed our make. Tee and I worked very hard to speed up the make and eliminate any possibility of whey trapped between layers of curd and then fermenting. This could be a source of gas too. However when we finally called in professional help in the form of Paul Thomas again, it was confirmed that the problem came in with the milk. It was due to silage feeding. Chlostridium Tyrobutyricum survives anaerobically in silage but generally only in old or poorly made silage. Merrimoles Farm had won awards for its silage so it seemed likely it was due to end of season silage, which would have perhaps had more time to ferment.

This issue seemed to get better as the cows moved outside onto grass and we had, in our pockets, the idea of using egg white Lysosyme to inhibit bacteria in the silage milk which we hoped would work. However by this time, the financial crunch had come. What with delayed building, overspending on the floor and cheese problems we’d hit crunch time. Unfortunately for me, a full time cheesemaker’s salary was too expensive and production was scaling right back to one day a week. And so I was out of a job.

Any regrets? Well of course it would have been great if it had been a roaring success and I was a part of that, but hey that’s ego at the end of the day. I have learned so much about starting a business from this experience and in particular from starting a dairy. On a personal note, too, if I hadn’t moved here I would never have met my partner either and I wouldn’t take that back for the world.

But finally, I wish Nettlebed Creamery very success in the world. I’ve played my part in getting them to where they are and I hope that has been useful. Yes, I am sorry it won’t be my cheese that finally graces the cheese counters of delis across the country, but I would be more sorry if St Bartholomew sank before it swam. The recipe has changed since I left. It may be a firmer cheese, a more acidic cheese – who knows. That choice is down to Rose and Tee now. But I hope, and have good reason to believe, it will be a great cheese, eventually

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Oh My God – We’ve actually got a floor!

Anyone who’s spoken to me recently will know that the floor of our Dairy has proved a major problem and a huge source of frustration all round.
Today, finally, we have the beginnings of our resin floor.
Hallelujah!

The green really ties the rooms together.
The green really ties the rooms together.

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A Change of Scene

I have swapped the Peak District for the Chilterns.  View from Nettlebed Creamery.
I have swapped the Peak District for the Chilterns. View from Nettlebed Creamery.

At the beginning of August, I finally moved to Nettlebed. At the time, it seemed that we’d have 6 weeks of build left and at the beginning of October we’d be making cheese. Then it moved to mid October and now it looks a bit longer than that too. Building projects huh?

It’s not that things haven’t been happening though. In fact lots of things have been happening.

The paneling for our internal walls arriving in Nettlebed on a massive lorry.
The paneling for our internal walls arriving in Nettlebed on a massive lorry.

We have internal walls now which is very satisfying to see the building really take shape. From what will be our make room, I can look down the building through what will become the salting and hastening room, warm aging room, cold aging room and ginormous cold room. I can walk through our entrance way and hygiene barrier system and be satisfied that it works. There are scribblings all over the walls showing where the power points are going to be and where our wash down points and hand wash stations are going to be.

Our milk reception room.  This is where we'll back the truck in to hook up the milk tank to its pump and deliver the milk in to the vat.
Our milk reception room. This is where we’ll back the truck in to hook up the milk tank to its pump and deliver the milk in to the vat.
View from the make room
Looking from the make room down through the salting / hastening room, then warm aging, cold aging and, right at the back, the cold room.
The cheese lab.
The cheese lab. This is where I’ll be making starter cultures, ricotta, doing lactofermentations and all kinds of milk related experiments.

We have drains in place and like the big geek I am, I am so happy with them. We have lovely stainless steel trench drains which are going to be so blissfully easy to clean. There are 2 different types of concrete on the floor: regular concrete and a different mix with a higher sand content that Lee, the man who laid the floor at Trethowans’ Dairy had to specify and order in especially. It was laid down beautifully with the right rises and falls etc and then John Lord who will lay the final resin layer of flooring came to do their work. Unfortunately at this point, things slowed. John Lord were concerned the concrete hadn’t set hard enough and queried if the correct mix had been delivered.  Since then many opinions have been given from other flooring firms and concrete suppliers, hammer tests have been done several times and unfortunately our worst fears were confirmed.  It wasn’t good enough and needed to be done again.

Meanwhile, Alan Hayes has been shifting the schedule around in order to do as much as possible while we wait for the floor and so the delay can be as minimal as possible. We have electrics going in next week, a phone line and broadband as well. Given that we can’t finish the downstairs until we have a floor, we’ve put more attention on the mezzanine floor, designing an open plan office space but also working out how our changing room plus shower block will work and where our hygiene barrier fits in. We also have a nice big space at the back of the building where we’ll have storage space for filing but also a space for cheese tastings with our customers but also possibly if there’s interest locally, at some point in the future, tastings for the general public.

And I have been practising cheesemaking in the kitchen as my Facebook friends can attest. I’ve also found the enforced wait to be quite useful getting to understand the pace of our starter cultures. We’ve bought cultures from Standa in Normandy on the advice of Ivan Larcher and after much deliberation, we’ve bought 2 different yoghurt cultures and a mesophilic culture which are supplied as freeze dried powder but that we need to bulk as a levain culture before use. One of the yoghurt cultures acidifies a lot quicker than the other, making it quite nice and easy to use but actually the slower culture tastes nicer. Today I have been making cheese in the kitchen again and having made up starter cultures a couple of days ago, I have left the yoghurt cultures straining in cheese cloth. I intend to have them for breakfast tomorrow. I’ll report back. There’s more to be said on the subject of kitchen cheesemaking than one paragraph in a general update post. That’s a topic for next time.

Draining cheeses that were made in the kitchen and are left to drain in the bathroom.
Draining cheeses that were made in the kitchen and are left to drain in the bathroom.

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.

Walls and Windows

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Nettlebed Creamery, the Western side.  Look.  Doors.
Nettlebed Creamery, the Western side. Look. Doors.

New things are a-happening!

So it has been over a month since I last wrote but buildings are being built, logos are being designed, websites created and as you know from my visit to Avedemil, equipment is being bought.

So, as we left it, we had steels and the best part of a roof.  After that, the builders had to dig drainage channels which meant that progress wasn’t hugely visible but was made.  Finally however we have concrete on the floors and bits of walls up  – brick at the bottom and wooden frames which are going to support traditional dark wood cladding.

The floor is down.  Concrete baby.
The floor is down. Concrete baby.

 

The view that I will be gazing on from my make room as I make St Bartholomew
The view that I will be gazing on from my make room as I make St Bartholomew

 

As you know I already blogged about visiting Avedemil which was an experience for definite but in a good way. While we wait for our equipment to be delivered, we have also been putting our bursary money to good use by commissioning a website.  It’s just a holding page at the moment but with Harry Darby (NYD’s design guru) on our side, we’re hoping for some great things in the future.  So far we’ve just decided on our house fonts and incorporated them into the holding site and business cards.  Photos are to follow!

In the meantime, I’ve been doing a lot of HACCP.  Which, if you’ve done it before, will explain why it’s been a bit quiet on the blog.  My head hurts.

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Nettlebed Creamery Roof

We got a roof!!!!