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.


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.

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.


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.

We live, We learn … About Lactics

The herd supplying Neal’s Yard Creamery (also a herd with some Montbeliard influence) lining up to be milked.

As prospective cheesemakers working with a milk supplier usually do, Rose and I have been sending off milk samples for microbiological testing for some months now.  While we’ve had generally good results regarding absence of pathogens, I was taken aback to discover that we also seemed to have an absence of lactic acid bacteria…or certainly we had a lot less then we wanted.

‘Most milk in the UK now is not good for cheese,’ pronounced Ivan Larcher at one of my SAF courses, ‘It is dead milk.’

‘A little damning, surely,’ I thought.

Lactic, if my dictionary is to be believed, means ‘relating to or obtained from milk’. It derives from the latin ‘lactis’ genitive form of the word ‘lac’ or milk.

Doesn’t milk just HAVE lactic acid bacteria in it?

Well, apparently not always and if it does, 1 day in a bulk tank and they are not very happy bugs.

One side of the milking parlour at Merrimoles Farm showing the stalls in which the cows stand, the pipework and the clusters below.
For any of my non cheese industry friends reading this post. First off, well done for making it this far into a pretty cheese-geek technical post and good luck with the rest of it. This, should you be wondering, is a cluster and it goes on the cows udders.

Our milking system is like most in the UK Dairy industry.  It has a series of clusters along parallel milk pipes.  Vacuum pumps pulsate to remove the milk from the cows udders and it is piped out of the parlour, through a filter, then a plate cooler and finally into the bulk tank where it’s held at 4C until the lorry comes from Dairycrest to collect it.   They come every 2 days and collect 4 milkings.

The Bulk Tank.

When we test, we take our samples from the outflow pipe of the bulk tank.  We also send off the milk filter from the last milking which the lab immerse in water and then test the rinsate.  We don’t know anyone else testing the milk filter so when we got our first set of results back and discovered literally millions of bacteria on it, we didn’t know whether this was normal, really bad or even really good.  We certainly knew that millions of the little critters looked pretty alarming on paper.

Our bulk tank milk samples seemed to show a happy grown of Pseudomonas (we don’t want happy Pseudomonas) and a rather less happy growth of Lactic acid bacteria.  The milk filter results seconded this.  In the autumn, we called Ivan back for advice and subsequently did a big clean through using peracetic acid.  Following that we have used a weaker peracetic acid solution for the final rinse of our pipework.

To start off 2014 in the way we intended to continue, with some more testing.  This time, we were hopeful for better results and to be a bit flirty we were going to get Andrew the kindly milker to hand milk a couple of cows for us to see how they compared for lactic acid bacteria.  These cows were a black and white cow that looks more Friesian Holstein in appearance who goes by the name of 266 and a brown and white one that looks more Montbeliard in appearance with the name 258.  266 was docile and calm when milked.  258 was disconcerted not to be in her usual clusters and stamped about a bit. We could identify the test results later because Andrew got less milk from her before asking if he could give up.  The cows that were hand milked were only given a dry wipe to their teats before milking.  Normally when they are milked into the parlour, their teats are given a wash before the pumping starts.  It has reduced the total bacterial counts of the milk right down but rather unfortunately we think it may be washing off our lactic acid bacteria.

The bulk tank contained 3 milkings at this stage.  The fourth was about to take place as we tested and Dairycrest were due that night to collect.   The milk filter was from that morning’s milking.

The samples were posted, results duly came back and we emailed Paul Thomas for advice and guidance in their interpretation.



The bulk tank results were better than we’ve had at other points in the past in terms of Pseudomonas.  Before now we have had counts of 21,000 per ml of milk.  This time we had a count of 170 per ml.  However it did show us some staph aureus too which is less than ideal.  According to our lab (Microtech Wessex) we would hope to see around 80% of the total bacterial count being lactic acid bacteria and unfortunately still on this sample it is considerably less than that.  With a total count of 53,000 total bacteria per ml of milk, this would mean we’d like to see 42,400 of these to be lactic acid bacteria.  According to the test result there are 1,200.

The hand milked samples were very different one from the other.  No 266, the black & white cow’s sample was extremely low in everything.  Almost nothing grew on the lab plates according to the lab.  Its counts are 0 in everything except yeasts.  So it has no coliforms, pseudomonas or staph aureus but unfortunately no lactic acid bacteria either.  I imagine Dairycrest would love it.  For making cheese it isn’t ideal.

No 258, the brown and white cow’s counts however were about spot on what we want.  It had a total count of 8,800 total bacteria which isn’t huge.  However, according to our ideal 80% we would be hoping to see around 7,100 lactic acid bacteria and we have 7,040.  There are 10 yeasts which is good, no Pseudomonas, no Staph aureus.

The two cows results, while interesting and raising a few interesting ideas, thoughts and questions only really give us a snapshot of the milk of 2 animals.  Importantly, though, it does show us that we have got the right balance of lactic to everything else in some of the animals in our herd.  Interestingly, Paul suggested that according to some of the papers he has read, the animals that line up to be milked first, being in general the livelier and healthier animals of the herd, often have lower somatic cell counts (an indicator of health) and as a result often have higher amounts of lactic acid bacteria.  If, as we are planning to do, we take our milk from the animals that are milked first, not only will we be using the pipelines at their cleanest but we will also be getting milk that is better suited to our cheese.  In addition, we will be taking the milk away without it being cooled.  This makes sense from an energy standpoint – why cool it to heat it back up to 38C – but also allows the lactic acid bacteria to compete with the Pseudomonas.  Cooling the milk to 4C and then storing it at that temperature for 36 hours has stopped the small numbers of lactic acid bacteria growing and reproducing but at those temperatures, the Pseudomonas can still grow.  According to survival models Paul referenced we could probably knock that 1200 per ml down to 120 just due to the storage time at cold temperatures.

Milk Filter:

The Milk filter results have always looked rather alarming to us in terms of Pseudomonas.  But corresponding with Paul Thomas meant he helped us by analysing the results so that we can compare them more easily against our milk results.

The relevant results are (per filter):

  • 1,500,000 Pseudomonas
  • 10,000,000 Enterobacteriaciae

So – big numbers.  But, as Paul said, we have to interpret them based on the amount of milk that has gone through that filter.  The most recent milk report I have from the farm dates back to December but if levels are similar to those in December’s monthly report, we are looking at 120,530 litres of milk for the month.  This means a daily total of 3,888 litres.  Each milking there’s a new milk filter so while I expect there’s a difference in quantity between morning and evening, for the sake of mathematical ease, let’s say half of that quantity is applicable to our filter tests: 1944 litres.  1944 litres works out at 1,944,000 ml which has gone through the filter.

Assuming the filter removed 50% of our bacteria, this then suggests that before filtering the total quantity of milk (all 1,944,000ml of it), it contained:

  • 3,000,000 Pseudomonas.
  • 20,000,000 Enterobacteriaciae

So per ml of milk we have

  • 1.5 Pseudomonas and
  • 10 Enterobacteriaciae.

Which makes it all look rather a lot better.

Even if we assume the filter only removed 10% of our bacteria, this still suggests that the levels in the milk weren’t huge.  If that were the case, we’d be assuming pre filtration numbers of:

  • 15,000,000 Pseudomonas
  • 100,000,000 Enterobacteriaciae

So per ml of milk we have

  • 7.7 Pseudomonas
  • 51.2 Enterobacteriaciae

However this doesn’t take into account the fact that the filter had been in the parlour during the day and we didn’t have fully frozen ice packs in our insulated box.  The sample was 10C when it was tested and apparently we can knock at least a couple of zeros off our total counts on the filter based on the time it had rested at that temperature since milking and whilst being posted to the lab. All of a sudden, this makes our Pseudomonas and Enteros presence not alarming at all.



The reason the bulk milk samples have been high in Pseudomonas in the past is that they are able to grown at 4C whereas lactic acid bacteria aren’t.  If there aren’t that many lactic acid bacteria in the milk in the first place and even on our brown and white cow friend 258, there weren’t huge numbers then the bulk tank is the worst conditions for them to grow and the best conditions for something that is happier at cold temperatures to get a head start.  Lactic acid bacteria like a range of temperature around body temperature basically but can grow from 20C – 50C.  So the bulk tank is giving an advantage to the wrong bacteria for cheesemaking.  In other words it is entirely worth it to arrange for the pipework we are planning and have our cheesemaking milk taken off before it goes through the plate cooler, and not just because of the energy use considerations.

There is still the cluster wash and some of the pipework which remains a concern as it will reduce lactic acid bacteria and potentially if there is doubt about the cleanliness of the water, will add in pseudomonas and possibly listeria.  In order to investigate this, we need to do a further milk test or water test.  I don’t know if it’s at all possible for the cluster wash to be switched off ever?  I am imagining not but it’s worth asking.  For the cheesemaking, it’s all about balancing the lactic acid bacteria against the pathogens and spoilage bacteria and the better we preserve the lactic acid ones the less we worry about the others.

Staph aureus:

The test results on this occasion aren’t hugely helpful but they basically indicate that they are present in the bulk tank and passing through the milk filter.  Evidently they aren’t present on every cow as there were none on either hand milked cow.

Paul Thomas’s theory based on some studies he has read (but I’d have to ask him if you wanted to know which ones) is that the animals that line up to be milked first tend to be the more vigorous, healthier ones which will be less likely to have Staph. aureus infections even at a subclinical level.  The less healthy ones will lag behind.

This suggests that our idea of taking the first bit of milk that goes through the milkline is probably a good one from the point of view of getting milk that is better suited to our cheesemaking.  Interestingly the animals with lower somatic cell counts (according to Paul), also tend to be the ones with higher counts of lactic acid bacteria as well.  Again, I’d have to push him for which papers supported that theory but it seems to indicate again that we will get more suitable milk for the cheese if we take the first lot of milk rather than from later in the milking.  Which means I will be getting up bright and early to collect.

A possible thing we could investigate as well is to look into the mastitis records to see if there are any patterns.  Paul (again) has had previous experience where with his milk supplier’s animals each cow that developed mastitis got it on the same quarter for a whole 2 week period.  It turned out that there was a contaminated rubber on one of the clusters.

Lactic Acid Bacteria:

The hand milk results do show that on individual animals we have pretty much perfect milk provided we can then manage the process so that we can get hold of that.

There’s no scientific basis for this that I know of but it’s a commonly held opinion that Friesian Holsteins are not as good producers of lactic acid bacteria and other breeds like Montbeliard are better.  Interestingly our results showed the perfect milk from a brown and white cow that Andrew felt would have more influence of Montbeliard in her genetics.  I don’t know how true that is however and it’s something to try and find out more about.

By taking milk from the livelier, healthier first milkers and keeping that milk warm we’ll give the growth advantage to the lactic acid bacteria as well as the other organisms.  Conventional wisdom sounds a loud klaxon at this point and shouts

‘What about growth of pathogens??? Re-frigerate!! Re-frigerate!’

And were it in isolation with no lactic acid bacteria, they’d be right to be cautious.  But by keeping the milk warm we are giving our lactic acid bacteria an even chance to consume that lactose and reproduce.  Then, when we add our starter cultures into the mix as well it should mean that lactic acid bacteria as a proportion of the total bacteria as we start to make cheese, out competes any pathogens or spoilage organisms.

The hand milking results also reassure us that the milk when it hasn’t gone through the cluster wash system does have enough lactic acid bacteria in it to try the experiments of making our own starter cultures from the milk.  This has always been an aim of ours which we thought we would have to postpone for a year or so at best but now seems much more possible.  It is, however, a discussion for another day and will involve a lot of hand milking and some careful selecting of suitable cows.

So, at the end of a rather head-hurting few days of analysing, emailing and thinking very hard, it’s good news.  We can try out making starter – hooray!! Obviously we won’t be using it unless it passes micro testing but for a while it didn’t look like we’d be able to even try.

It’s also a new list of questions to research.  Do the brown and while more Montbeliard looking cows like 258 give us better milk for our cheese?  Do the black and white cows have less lactic acid bacteria?  Does it all relate to their Somatic cell count levels?  Does the cluster wash still remove too many lactic acid bacteria and can there be an alternative?  If we can hand milk cows to make our own starter, does that matter?  And so on and so on.  Then there’s an off the wall ideas that Paul suggested too.  There are some studies in humans indicating that before giving birth, the nipple duct microflora is influenced by apparently deliberate movement of bacteria from the gut to the mammary gland by dendritic cells.  Perhaps this happens in all mammals and may account for the transfer of lactic acid bacteria into the baby’s and calf’s stomach with colostrum?

Who knew milk could be this complicated and this fascinating?  Just as well I never wanted a quiet life.

Building Begins!!!!!!

The builders begin by removing sections of the roof which needs to be repaired.  Tuesday 11th February 2014.
The builders begin by removing sections of the roof which needs to be repaired. Tuesday 11th February 2014.

Digging and Delays

Manor Farm old photo
Manor Farm as it used to be. This land is now the house and garden of our neighbours.

It takes the working world a while to get going again after its Christmas break.  Having felt like we were making progress on the build just before Christmas, January proved to be a very slow month of chasing up people who had said they would do something to see if they had done what they said they would.

Our first delay was waiting for straw to be moved from inside our barn which we thought needed to happen before any assessment of the existing structure could take place.  As it was slow going, Rose tried to organise a site meeting and a digger to look at the foundations of the steel framework holding up the roof around the straw and did manage to find out a few basics.  The aim, having agreed on an interior layout was to check how stable the existing barn structure was and what would need repairing.  A cherry picker ensured that she was able to assess the existing roof and that it would need repairing extensively – in other words a new roof.   The digger revealed that the concrete bases to our steel stanchions were a bit hit and miss.  Some of them were in place and working fine but others had eroded away and as a result water had accumulated at the base of the steel, weakening the structure.  More repairs would be necessary.

Rose also held talks with our neighbours with whom we share a party wall and who are also installing a wood chip boiler that we are going to be able to use for our hot water and heating requirements.  Negotiations over the wall and any ramifications from our building were carried out amicably and they were able to show Rose a picture of how Manor Farm had looked in the early 1900s when it had been a working dairy farm (above – the photo shows what is now their house and garden and our dairy will run to the south of that).  Building a cheesemaking dairy on the site of a dairy farm feels very appropriate somehow.

When the straw was finally removed and the site boundaries marked with metal gates, further information could be gleaned.  The concrete floor was revealed showing sections with a herringbone pattern which we believe is the floor of the milking parlour of the original dairy at Manor Farm.  Drains have been discovered.  Although the existing drain onion that they would have fed into isn’t usable any more, it is still handy to know there are channels there for us to start from.  A long deceased and dessicated stoat has also been discovered – not a feature we intend to preserve.

Our barn, ready for construction to begin.
Our concrete floor.  The herringbone bits are apparently from the original dairy at Manor Farm.
Our concrete floor. The herringbone bits are apparently from the original dairy at Manor Farm.

A local structural engineer undertook to take on our structural drawings so that the builder who will be carrying out our external cladding and roof repairs could get going.  He seemed to move rather slowly getting a quote out for the work.  Unfortunately after a further fortnight of chasing and reminding, he admitted to being swamped with other work and had to give up.  Alan Tucket to the rescue (the builder) as he has a structural team who have taken that over.  As a result, work should start very soon.

In short, a funny period of meetings and activity for Rose and not so much for me.  A lot of chasing, hassling, reminding and getting bits and pieces ready so that the build can start.  Progress is being made.  We are getting closer to the day that building begins but as yet the earth hasn’t moved (quite literally).  It’s a bit like that stage before you go on holiday where you’re doing the packing and trying to remember everything you might need; a little nerve wracking and tense as you hope you’ve planned everything as well as possible and still too early to have set off and be able to say to yourself

‘Sod it, if I haven’t thought of it by now, I’ll just have to deal with it when it happens.’

Looking west from our barn - note the metal barriers that indicate the site boundaries.  This is our land!
Looking west from our barn – note the metal barriers that indicate the site boundaries. This is our land!

The Naming of the Cheese

Trial cheeses - the prototype (sort of)
Trial cheeses – the prototype (sort of)

It may be Christmas and I may be having a well earned break after a frantic couple of weeks of the Mons mongering but time and cheese wait for no woman.

When Rose and I made our decision to change our plans from making a lactic cheese to a washed rind, we knew we needed to name our cheese.  The lactic cheese had had a name but it was one that suited a little cheese.  We needed something with more heft.

However that was probably the least important bit of the process for then.  Building the dairy seemed to be a rather more pressing matter.  We put the matter of the name onto a back burner, every so often looking up local names on the map and considering them and then dismissing them.  Should the name be something that carried echoes of Rose’s grandfather, Jo Grimond, who apparently returned from fighting in second world war France, carrying a huge Brie de Meaux?  Should it be something local to our dairy, as the name for our lactic cheese would have been?  We felt that time would probably answer these questions for us.

And so it has proved.  In response to my ‘Happy Christmas’ text to Rose, I received this interesting message in return:

‘Hope you’ve had a wonderful day.  All good here.  Eaten a lot of Hafod over the last few days.  Was in church this morning and thought as I looked upon the donation envelope that the name of the church, next door to our facility, would work quite well for a cheese.  What do you think?  St Bartholomew’s.’

St Bartholomew’s.  St Bartholomew’s.  I tried it out in my mind and out loud a couple of times and I like the way it sounds.

It’s extremely local, the church is going to be our next door neighbour, and on quickly googling St Bartholomew himself, I discover that he is the patron saint of Florentine cheese.  Wikipedia and the internet at large differs in opinion as to whether he is the patron saint of Florentine cheesemakers or cheese merchants but quite possibly the merchants were in fact also the makers.  In any case the details are less important than the fact he’s (one of) the patron saint(s) of cheese!

It seems like a most auspicious omen.  Bring on 2014!

The Lightbulb Moment

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.
Now, I really get it.

Musical Chairs or Where to Site a Dairy

When Rose and I first spoke about their cheesemaking plans, she explained that one of the big obstacles was that they had not yet found an appropriate place on the estate to build the dairy.  A couple of places had been proposed.  She had her favourite.  Neither one was without its problems.

Chair No 1, Manor Farm

Manor Farm, was close to Rose’s house and the main road through Nettlebed, with a lovely view over the hills looking to the south west, but, unfortunately, also with a tenant..

Chair No 2, The Grain Dryer

The other site, known to us as the Grain Dryer Site, was basically a field next to a sawmill and a barn with grain drying silos, hence the name.  There were no tenant issues here but equally the build would be much bigger and more expensive.  There was no structure we could use, so everything, including the foundations and hardcore needed to be put down.  It was also potentially more difficult to get our planning permission too, as it would need to be a completely new build.
The Grain Dryer site, looking back to our potential neighbours
Looking north to the copse, our potential view from the make room

Chair No 3, At the Dairy itself

Both sites offered a challenge but a third possibility presented itself.  There was a field adjacent to the milking parlour and the cows on the farm itself.  It wasn’t a popular option with the farm managers as they need to expand the milking parlour sometime in the next five years and need their space as much as possible, however in theory it was an option.
Around this time, we called in Ivan Larcher to advise us and help design the dairy.  He visited all 3 sites and pronounced in favour of the field by the milking parlour.  A dairy should be close to the milk ideally after all.  However shortly after Ivan’s visit, the farm managers decided that the field was too valuable to them to give up.  The other sites on the estate were on flinty soil, no use for grazing land and not particularly easy to farm for arable too.   This field was good grazing land for the cows and they needed it.  It was a very fair argument and one we accepted.  Back to our first two sites then.

Chair no 4, Off the Estate

With both of these sites problematic for the moment, we were considering going with the latter when Rose’s cousin made an offer of a barn on his farm, just off the estate.  It was a big, wooden clad barn, attractive to look at and with plenty of space.
The problem here was that Rose has a major business rule:
‘Don’t go into business with friends or family but become friends with people you go into business with.’
While an element of family involvement had to be on the cards if she wanted to build a creamery that would buy from the estate’s farm (itself a family business), using her cousin’s barn seemed unwise in case he had cause at any point to regret his offer and discovered, a couple of years in, that actually he didn’t like having cheesemaking on his doorstep.  Lest family relations become strained, his kind offer was declined.

Back to Chair no 2 then

So we returned to the Grain Dryer site.  We adapted Ivan’s drawings to the new site and its orientation and investigated what we would need to get together in order to present an application for planning permission: a business plan, architects drawings, an ecologist’s report stating that we would not be damaging the environment. We emailed the highways agency to check they would have no objection.  Along the way we made the unfortunate discovery that in Oxfordshire the council requires new builds to conform to BREEAM which sets out requirements for the new building to be as energy efficient as possible.  Unfortunate, that is, in that it would involve an audit to a standard that is as thick as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, only with A4 pages and that it would add at least £10k to our costs, the principles of being as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible and keeping our energy consumption as low as we can are actually pretty key to our whole ethos. While it largely applies to buildings larger than the one we planned to build, the council were still keen to enforce it.  Then the Highways Agency got in touch – the access road had insufficient visibility, in their view, given the speed limit of the main road at that point.
This bombshell dropped just before Christmas leading to a slightly dispiriting atmosphere over the Christmas break and many a curse was sent the way of the Highways Agency in my house.  Damn them , what were they trying to do, make sure people didn’t die on the roads or something?  They  needed us to cut down 250m of trees in both directions to improve the vision splay and unfortunately some of those trees were ancient woodland which would make the ecologist, who, until now, was very happy with our plans, because we are putting in a wetland system that will have a positive impact on wildlife, very unhappy indeed.
the yellow lines show the potential tree destruction – a very long way along the road in both directions
In the New Year we found a Highways Agency consultant (no I never knew they existed before now either) and they arranged to visit the site and look at the road.  Meeting them was very positive, they pointed out that because the road was curved (although it doesn’t look that way on the maps), the cars were slowing down and drove at considerably less than the sixty miles an hour that was the speed limit.  In their opinion this meant less trees needed taking back and the ancient woodland would be safe.  However we still had a case to fight and despite the report and speed survey they intended to carry out we had no guarantee that the Highways Agency would agree.  In addition, the architects and BREEAM consultant had indicated that we would need to raise around £600k to build the place and have it conform with the expected standards.

Chair no 5, The Temporary Home

With a long and potentially complicated planning application in the offing, ever more reports that needed to be generated and a lot of cash to be raised, Rose’s mother came up with the extremely sensible suggestion that we look for a temporary home, so that we could at least start making cheese even though our planning application and build wasn’t finished.  We looked at nearby light industrial units and found one that had potential.  Not as picturesque as the dairy we wanted to build but perfectly functional if the costs stacked up.
We wouldn’t be able to stay in it for all that long as it wasn’t big enough for us to make more than one type of cheese and we wouldn’t have much maturing space but it was worth doing the number crunching.  Rose’s mother was also able to let us know that the situation at site no 1, Manor Farm had changed and it was now potentially a possibililty..

Chair no 6 or is it no 1 again

A second and third visit to the industrial unit revealed some rather unpleasant and food tainting smells coming from a metalworks next door which ruled that site out of the running.  However, good news, the site at Manor Farm was indeed possible.
So the twisting turning route of our game of musical chairs has spun through the full 360 until we’re back at the place we first thought of.  It has a structure already and hard foundations so the building costs won’t be as much as at the Grain Dryer site.  It also only needs change of use planning permission rather than full planning permission for a new build.  The signs are good.  Ivan is designing us another dairy layout, ecologists are reporting, the highways shouldn’t have a problem with access as the road leads out into the village where the speed limit is a very sedate speed.  The aim is to apply for planning permission in the next month.
Keep your fingers crossed.

Nettlebed Creamery

Well, first off, apologies for a long absence.  It’s not that I’ve been doing nothing worth writing about, it’s pure disorganisation.  However to remedy this, it’s time to put pen to paper or rather fingers to keyboard and talk about something I’ve been superstitiously not blogging in case of jinxing the operation…. Nettlebed Creamery.

So, what has changed?  Well, it’s fast becoming the worst kept secret in my life anyway, as I talk about it to everyone I meet and progress is being made, so it’s time to set it out on the world wide web for all to see.
What is Nettlebed Creamery I hear you cry?  Well, are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin…
Back in the winter of 2012 as I sat surrounded by snow up a hill in Cumbria, I began looking for my next cheesemaking venture.  The time had come to move on from Holker, Martin and Nicola needed someone local who would be able to be a more permanent fixture and believed they had found someone, I wanted to try other types of cheesemaking.  A couple of possibilities presented themselves, Old Hall Farm in Cumbria which as we all know now didn’t work out, and the tantalising possibility of cheesemaking with Rose Grimond in Oxfordshire.
I had met Rose, on a number of occasions, through my sister Jane who, while working on the Mons Cheesemongers Borough Market stall way back in about 2007, had been introduced to the stallholder next door and got chatting.  Rose, at that time, was acting as a representative, promoter, wholesaler and retailer of produce from Orkney.  Part of that involved a stand at Borough Market which sold meat, cheese, oatcakes and smoked fish but probably most excitingly for Jane and me, the sweetest, juiciest scallops (‘as big as yer heeed’ as Jane remarked) and fresh sea urchins.  We had many a delicious weekend seafood treat courtesy of the Orkney Rose stand.  However, fast forwarding about 5 years, Rose had wound up her retail and wholesale business, moved to her family home of Nettlebed in south east Oxfordshire and had her first little boy.  Surfacing from new motherhood as her son grew a little older, Rose began to look for another business to get her teeth into.
Nettlebed Estate, the family estate run by her mother and her aunt, has an organic dairy herd of Friesian Holsteins crossed with Montbeliard and Swedish Red.  The milk of this carefully managed and farmed herd was and is being sold to Dairycrest for drinking milk.  Dairycrest delivered the bad news that the organic milk market was at capacity, so they would be cutting the organic premium they had been paying and would quite probably be looking at further cuts in future.  The farm and estate owners met to discuss how to proceed.
The wisdom in farming is that to succeed you have to get big, get different or get out.
Options A and C didn’t appeal but getting different did.
‘We should be making cheese!’ Rose opined with enthusiasm.
At first they pursued the idea with a local lady looking to change career and make cheese, but ultimately parted company due to different ideas of what to make.  Around this point, I entered the scene.
Initially, I contacted Rose because I was looking to arrange a month or so perhaps, working at Grimbister Cheese on Orkney making Seator’s Orkney cheese.  I still haven’t done this, but priorities have changed a bit since then.  I wondered if she had contact details and any recommendations of somewhere to rent for the duration.  During those enquiry emails we skated around the topic of cheesemaking:
‘Oh so you’re making cheese, how interesting….’
‘Oh so you want to make cheese on your estate and need a cheesemaker, how interesting….’
Finally, after meeting the family and farm managers, Rose and I began work in earnest to get the cheesemaking enterprise off the ground.  We looked at potential sites for a creamery and chose one, then changed our minds, then changed our minds again, then again.  Each had its advantages and disadvantages.  One of them seemed on balance to have more advantages than disadvantages until we got down the planning permission route and hit a dead end over an access road.  Finally we are back with the one we first thought of and that Rose had always had her eye on.  Planning permission applications are being drawn up again and the business plan that Rose created a year or so ago is being revised yet again to accompany our application.
This time, I am pretty confident that we won’t change our minds again.  Maybe that is what prevented me putting fingers to keyboard before.  This choice of site is for keeps… unless the council say otherwise.
The view from one of our former sites because I’ve not got a picture of the current one yet.