Winter Blues


‘I see you have Bleu de Termignon,’ he said looking up and down the counter, ‘That’s very rare!  There’s only one producer.’

‘We’ve been selling cheese from two producers,’ I corrected, ‘We still have some of both on the display.  Most of the cheese is made by Catherine Richard and she tends to make a firmer, drier cheese but this piece here is all we have left of Bernard Richard’s cheeses and they tend to be softer and more broken down.’

He, was a french exporter who wanted also to import Cheddar and Stilton and to that end had just been in a meeting with Jay Butcher of Neal’s Yard Dairy.  Unfortunately for him, as Mons Cheesemongers, buys its french cheese exclusively from Mons in France, he wasn’t going to get a sale here.  However he took the news very well, was most impressed by the name of Herve Mons (‘He is very well known in France’ I was told) and proceeded to peruse the cheeses we had out to sell and try a few.

Bleu de Termignon is not an easy sell.  It looks scary.  It has entirely natural blueing – no mould powder is put into the milk and the cheeses aren’t even pierced.  It blues inwards from cracks in the rind and it looks in some way prehistoric.  It tastes extremely subtle though.  At its best, the blueing has fennel, liquorice notes and because the blueing only follows tiny cracks in the curd, it is very gentle and herbacious rather than having bigger pockets of blue which you get in most continental blue cheeses.  It’s made up in the Savoie in a ridiculously beautiful mountain valley and I can’t help feeling that it is a glimpse into a bygone age of cheesemaking.  Catherine Richard uses wooden moulds to drain her curd which must help those natural cultures of Penicillium roqueforti going in the environment and drains her curd overnight in great big bags before it is moulded.  In fact, there are many aspects of the recipe that are very close to Stilton.  It’s just interesting to note that Stilton has developed into a creamy textured cheese over the years (but in that not so far removed from Bernard Richard’s Termignans) where Bleu de Termignan even in its softer cheeses has more structure.  Again, this is purely supposition as I don’t know the cheeses, but Piedmont’s Castelmagno and Blu del Moncenisio (in its farmhouse versions), I feel must surely follow similar techniques as well or perhaps if they don’t any more, they must have developed the same way.  Blu del Moncenisio in particular is made on the Italian side of the mountain of Mont Cenis.  The Richards are just over the border on the French side.


Termignan isn’t the only blue cheese on the Mons Cheesemongers counter however, we are also selling the much more crowd pleasing Persille de Beaujolais which is effectively a Fourme d’Ambert recipe but they use hemispherical Gorgonzola vats and buy their mould cultures from Italian Gorgonzola making friends.  This may or may not be Penicillium expansum / glaucum as discussed in a previous post but it certainly has a gentler and more mushroomy flavour than most savoury, herby roqueforti blueing.  Another example of how the AOC system isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to quality because this cheese is gentle and delicious and yet can not command the prestige of Fourme.


(Persille de Beaujolais being made in semi hemispherical Gorgonzola vats)

And as if there were a theme to these last two cheeses we come on to Persille de Malzieu.  This is Herve Mons’s Stichelton in effect.  It is Roquefort but more traditional than Roquefort.   Most Roquefort production is done on an industrial scale these days.  There are smaller producers and there are some extremely quality driven producers, but there are no longer farmhouse Roquefort producers.  Herve has persuaded a farmer just outside the AOC area for Roquefort cheese production but who had been selling their Lacaune sheeps milk for Roquefort production to make cheese with it.  They basically make a farmhouse Roquefort and rather than following the strict letter of the law for recipe as laid down by the AOC, they mature it at warmer temperatures and without it going into the famous caves.  They also seem to pierce it less.  In essence they are going back to some of the techniques that would have been employed in farmhouse Roquefort production without the access to big refrigerated cold rooms or the desire to deliver that big, salty strong blue hit that Roquefort has become known for.  In my opinion, it is delicious.  It has the caramel notes of sheeps milk with the herby notes of blueing.  That and the Bleu de Termignan are my favourite blue cheeses to sell.  Oh and it’s about two thirds the price of Roquefort too.  Without the AOC, it can’t command the same price.  Better cheese, less money.  I’m in!

Choosing a Cheese: The Neal’s Yard Dairy Dilemma

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

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

A Very Neal’s Yard Dairy Christmas

For just over a week at the end of December, I was back in the wellies; back at the Neal’s Yard Dairy coal face.  I was working in the Covent Garden shop with Martin Tkalez, Nathan Coyte and Adam Verlander.  It was knackering but it was really, really good fun.  The shop was well organised, the atmosphere busy but controlled, friendly and high spirited. I have, since, slept for practically the whole 12 days of Christmas, but I had a great time.
People buy a lot of cheese at Christmas and they tend to make a special trip to the 2 Neal’s Yard Dairy shops in Covent Garden or Borough Market because, even in these austerity times, splashing out a bit on some nice cheese is a treat… and after all it is Christmas.  In my full time days at Neal’s Yard, I would explain to friends and family that it got very busy; that consequently I was very busy.  They all nodded sympathetically and seemingly understood, but you could tell that they didn’t really.  They suggested meeting up for drinks or tried to hold social events and invited me, little realising that I had cheese to sell!  Didn’t they know I had just worked 14 hours without a lunch break and didn’t have a day off until Christmas Day.  When I did turn up (inevitably late) to any of the functions, I was in a slightly shell-shocked world of my own.  I felt as though I was looking at my nearest and dearest from an out-of-body height.  They smiled, laughed and chatted happily amongst themselves while I tried to join in and also tried not to fall asleep in my food / pint.
Days were regimented and organised.  Up at 5 or earlier, no hanging about, straight into the shower, dressed, out the door.  A lull while the train / bus / tube did its thing then into the shop or office.  15 minutes for the necessary strong coffee (thank god for sister company Monmouth Coffee Company) and then… Showtime!  Be it retail, or more often in my case mail order, it was time to turn on the adrenaline and get going. Evenings, too, were a business like affair: head home, cook food that had been purchased especially for its quick cooking appeal, wash up (because if you don’t do it right there and then it won’t be done till January), all the while calculating at what hour I needed to be in bed, in order to get enough sleep, before I had to get up at godawful o’clock the following day.
It sounds like a nightmare when I list it like that, but the thing is, it wasn’t.  It was a lot of fun and it certainly was team building.  After your colleagues and you had been banded together through the battle campaign that was a Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese-selling Christmas, you were thick as thieves.  You’d been on the front line together selling that Stichelton to literally hundreds of people a day.  There was a bond there.  On the memorable 2 years that the country was hit by massive snowfall (the winters of 2009 and 2010) when I was in charge of mail order, my man Friday Flynn Hall had keeled over with a nasty bout of chicken pox, over 45% of our deliveries were delayed due to weather conditions and I had around 900 anxious customers who were afraid of Christmas without their Colston Bassett to reassure, it was more than our well laid plans could handle. Jason Hinds (sales director and my direct boss) had to come to my rescue, help field the phone calls, help strategise and probably most important of all, did this with irrepressibly positive spirit and enthusiasm.  Of all the baptisms of fire Christmas has thrown at me, this was the hottest.  By hometime on Christmas Eve, I was so grateful, I would probably have taken a bullet for him.
You think on your feet, you react, you solve problems on the run and at the speed of light, but it isn’t flying by the seat of your pants. You have also planned for this one month of December since the end of the last one.  You see your plans, thoughts and decisions tested and delivering success and probably the most important thing for me is this:  you do your damndest to give all of the hundreds of people, to whom you are selling, the very best cheese and the very best service they have had in their lives.  Just being ok is absolutely not good enough when they have made a special effort to get to the shops or have chosen the mail order.  You fight for your department’s rights to the best cheese.  No matter how many people you have spoken to that day, you listen to your customer carefully, get to know their likes and dislikes and advise them accordingly.  In the case of mail order, you get their orders packed up perfectly and you follow up every single delivery online and track them until you know they have got to the right place.  They didn’t have to choose Neal’s Yard.  Waitrose cheese is really pretty good these days as are numerous little delis around the country.  Some of the latter are excellent in fact.  These people chose Neal’s Yard because they perceive it as a Christmas treat, so you make bloody sure it is.
I hate doing things badly.  It’s a question of pride to do things as well as I can.  The importance Neal’s Yard puts on its customer service, really plays to that instinct in me.  It was a happy marriage.
So a week back in Covent Garden was busy, exhausting but fun.  Jokes bantered back and forth.  Cheese was cut. 50lb wheels of Cheddar were hauled around and chopped up into 2kg pieces for display.  Stiltons and Sticheltons were halved, quartered and chopped up continuously.  Customers queued down the street stretching past the shop window and obliterating the doorway of the shop next door (oops – sorry Cambridge Satchel Company) and yet waiting time didn’t exceed 20 minutes in all that time.  While they waited, customers were fed cheese and are chatted to by the ‘door person’ who then directed them to the next free monger when it was their turn to be served.  The busy atmosphere bred energy as the week inevitably built to what had been predicted as the busiest day.  This year it was Friday 21st (luckily the world didn’t end).  The 2 Neal’s Yard shops in that one day sold £75,000 of cheese.  Gobsmacking is the only word that springs to mind.
That makes it 2 Christmases since leaving that I have returned for a fix of the Neal’s Yard Christmas Experience.  Part of me actually yearns for more of the sort of Christmas build up I remember from the pre Neal’s Yard days, decorating the tree on Christmas Eve whilst listening to the Carols from Kings on the radio, making mince pies, making Christmas puddings, really enjoying the Christmas preparations and wrapping presents ahead of time rather than on Christmas morning.  But it’s a hard habit to shift.  Who knows, I might yet don the white wellies again….if they’ll have me back.
the infamous Christmas Queue courtesy of the Rockets & Rayguns blog on Tumblr

Cheese in Bra

No, not an unfortunate sartorial incident in the cheese world, Cheese is in fact a 4 day festival organised by the Slow Food movement in Italy to celebrate all things milk related.  And Bra is a mid-sized town near Cuneo in Piedmont.  That’s not to say, of course, that the English speaking visitors and exhibitors at said festival haven’t had the odd snigger over the idea in years past.

(A cobbled street in the ‘centro storico’ of Bra, leading to the main piazzas 
and all those cheese stands)

Bra is a self contained town with enough of its own industry to mean it doesn’t rely on Slow Food for its trade and existence.  It existed before Carlo Petrini started the movement and it continues to maintain its independence.  That said though, I doubt even in Italy it would have quite the same amount of good food and restaurants if it weren’t for the Slow Food movement having its headquarters here.  Then, every 2 years the town puts on a homage to all things Cheese and quite literally the entire town dedicates itself to the promotion of cheese.  Talks and tastings are held in some of the baroque buildings that form the older centre of Bra, its streets and piazzas become a market for cheese makers (particularly those who Slow Food have designated worthy of Presidia status – a protection for a highly artisan or unusual cheese that is in danger of dying out) and cheese maturers or retailers such as my erstwhile colleagues Neal’s Yard Dairy.

(The NYD stand this year, Stilton side)

Neal’s Yard Dairy has been selling cheese in Bra since 2003.  Randolph first visited the fair 2 years before that to help out a friend, Ari Weinzweig of Zingermans who had been due to give a talk there and was unable to get a flight post 9/11.  He was simply struck by the unique atmosphere of the place and the abundance of interesting cheeses and people there – completely unlike any trade show or food show held in the UK.  The town is entirely welcoming to its huge influx of visitors too with local shops getting behind the idea and theming their displays around cheese for the duration of the fiera.  If this was the UK, much as I hate to talk my country down, there would be groups of people moaning about parking and rubbish and the disruption to their daily routines.

(The butcher up near the Hotel Cavalieri getting into the spirit of Cheese.  
For those who like to know this sort of thing,
 this is where Giorgio Cravero buys his salsiccia di Bra.)

When we took the first stand in 2003 we noticed further benefits too.  Italians of all walks of life have a much more extensive vocabulary to describe food than the Brits, they are interested and keen to try new things and pretty forthright about saying what they think be it good or bad.  For a shop that values feedback, these comments on  our cheeses are hugely interesting.  There was also the minor consideration that as a place to meet and socialise with wholesale customers, the atmosphere of Bra can’t be bettered.  Maybe it’s all that Italian Dolce Vita, or ready access to Barolo, or the cafe society but people drop by and chat in a much more relaxed way than they ever do at any trade fair in the UK or USA and simply by enjoying a coffee together and having a chat, great ideas can spring up in a completely natural and unpressured way.

This year was my first year out there as a cheesemaker.  Before leaving NYD, Jason Hinds who had basically been my boss, asked if I’d join them on the stand as I’m an Italian speaker and, more to the point, I suspect, if I was there, my Italian speaking and absolute Trojan parents would be more likely to come along too and help explain and taste out cheeses to the Italian public.  As such, of course, there is a different perspective to the one you have as a cheesemonger.  I particularly wanted to know what they thought of the cheese and had a sneaky feeling they might well like it.  This proved to be the case.  I was waiting for people to come back with comments for improvements, over salted, too strong etc but didn’t really hear much of that.  On the contrary I did hear that pretty much everyone liked it.  To say that was a big pat on the back would be understating it really.  Of course the batches had been deliberately selected by Bronwen and the buying team to appeal to the Italian palate (a bit more adventurous and raucous than the UK) but between her selection and our cheesemaking, we made them happy.

With that established, the next thing I enjoyed while out there was meeting former colleagues and the wider family of the NYD network.  Mateo and Andy from Jasper Hill in Vermont were out there with their families, Joe Schneider and his Stichelton team were on the stand (naturally), Caroline and Will who make Stawley, Julie Cheyney formerly of Tunworth, Kate Arding who I worked with back in my early NYD days and who is now part of the Culture Magazine team, Val Bines, Jamie Montgomery, Mary Holbrook… I could go on and on.  It is a bit like in part a great big reunion of a lot of people you really want to chat to and you sell cheese and talk about your different cheeses altogether.  Yes it’s definitely an occasion for the cheese geek but as such it’s very rewarding and interesting.

(The 2 Joes (Schneider and Bennet) talk cheese over a beer in a quiet moment on the stand)

And have I mentioned the eating out possibilities yet?  Not only is this Italy but it’s Piedmont, widely regarded as one of the best areas of Italy for food and wine and everyone is putting on the classic dishes over this weekend: vitello tonnato (veal with a tuna emulsion basically), vegetable souffles, fresh tajarin (thin tagliatelle) with butter and sage, hand pinched ravioli (agnolotti del plin), carne cruda (thinly chopped raw rose veal with olive oil), salsiccia di bra (raw rose veal sausages – seriously don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it they are addictive), meat braised in Barolo and panna cotta.  And then there’s Caffe Converso, the ONLY place in Bra to get your coffee and pastries with its wood panelled walls and the little shop next door selling home made chocolates, nougat and their own chestnut cream and upmarket Nutella.

(Caffe Converso – a place of pilgrimage)

All this and the chance to learn about other cheeses and try new things too.  The Strada dei Presidii is the road along which the endangered cheeses are displayed.  This ranges from the weird and wonderful like Swedish goats cheese, smoked cheese from Poland, to the more recognisable like Bitto an Italian mountain cheese like an aged and drier Gruyere or Sbrinz and finally Somerset Cheddar represented by Montgomerys, Keens and Westcombe.  Cheddar may not initially seem an endangered cheese but given that it is ubiquitously used as a name for hard block cheese these days, the Somerset Cheddar boys are claiming the name back for those still making cheese in the original county of Somerset and following an old fashioned and traditional recipe.

(Swedish goats cheese and a somewhat impressive poster of the goats!) 
(Romanian cheeses matured in fir bark and Polish smoked cheeses) 
(Bitto – the Italian mountain cheese)

For anyone with even a passing interest in all things Cheese that hasn’t discovered it yet, this fair is worth the trip.  See you there in 2013!

For another perspective on the Cheese event and more pics too have a look at Justine’s blog


As the sheeps milk decreases and due to a phone conversation Martin had with Randolph, we have been looking at temperatures of our make recently.  Out at Randolph’s country residence Old Kate’s Farm, Dr Jemima Cordle has been conducting cheesemaking experiments.  According to Martin, she’s been making cheese to roughly a St James recipe but playing with different temperatures and amounts of rennet to see what gets the best results in terms of producing heavier cheeses and a greater yield of cheese.  Obviously as we have less milk, that’s quite an attractive idea to us too.Perhaps a little ambitiously we thought we’d try dropping the temperatures slightly before we had a truly accurate way of recording the temperature.  The floating thermometer we have been using is about 9 degrees out.  The recipe for St James calls for setting the milk at 31C and by the thermometer we had been using, we were setting it at 23C.  You’d think that knowing this, we could drop to setting at what the thermometer tells us is 22C and try experimenting.  However, as it turns out, the thermometer is inconsistently inaccurate – great.  The first 2 days experiments have had to be discounted due to too much yeast in the starter which lead to gassy cheeses.  Dropping the temperature just a little slowed down the drainage and allowed them to take advantage of the extra moisture and get going far more than we wanted.  Experiment abandoned we invested in a good digital thermometer and realised that our previous 23C was in fact about 33C by the new equipment standards.

The temptation at this point would be to return to 31C set straight away, but by setting at 33C we had actually been getting a set time of about an hour and sometimes longer (which is not too short a time for this recipe) and more importantly the cheese has been good.  The NYD mongers have been reporting good things and the cheeses on Martin’s counter at Cartmel have also been tasting good.  So while that’s hotter than we’d intended, if it ain’t broke don’t try and fix it all at once.  We agreed to drop to 32C set temperature for starters and gradually reduce it from there on.

The temperature and set time that Jemima had found to yield most cheese is 28C and a set of an hour and a half which is longer than we have yet achieved.  By setting at what is probably 33C (it was with the old thermometer) and using half the usual quantities of rennet by mistake (1ml to every 10 litres rather than to every 5 litres) I did manage to get a set of an hour and a half.  The curd did set and it was a nice consistency at both cutting and ladling but the texture of the cheese is quite different to the usual St James.  It’s moist and succulent but sandy in texture.  In fact it reminds me of young Stichelton which considering that that is a cheese made with very small quantities of rennet is perhaps not entirely surprising.  However until it matures, we can’t be sure if dropping the rennet quite that drastically is a good thing or not.  Sometimes by making mistakes, you stumble on something good.  Sometimes, you don’t.

However armed with new thermometer in hand, I have been dropping the temperature a little by degrees.  For a few days I was renneting at between 32 & 33C (we can measure in decimal points now) and in the past couple of days I’ve dropped it further to between 31 and 32C.  Martin remains nervous about gassy cheeses, but by adapting the draining cloth work, I think we’re avoiding them.  In fact even the yeasty cheeses we made about  a fortnight ago haven’t remained gassy although they haven’t drained as I’d like either.  But they’ll be ok – not amazing but ok and for a while we weren’t sure that would be the case.  As far as set time goes, the magic hour and a half has eluded me so far but the set is a little over an hour – generally about an hour and a quarter.

The effect of dropping the temperature on the draining was the biggest difference I noticed.  It’s manageable but the curd drains less freely.  This really should be expected.  As I understand it, the reason for this slower and longer set is that rather than forming a number of stronger bonds as the curd solidifies, it forms perhaps weaker bonds but more of them and this at the end of the day forms a more effective net in which to trap moisture and fats so that the curd releases less whey when it is cut and left to rest and it needs more encouragement to continue draining after ladling.  The texture at cutting and ladling is less firm and it actually feels really nice to work with – more like gliding a knife through it than making the effort to cut.  After the curd is in its moulds however this means that it’s delicate and you can’t pull the cloths up as tightly as quickly.  So the cloths are pulled up and tucked in gently after ladling is finished.  The second cloth pull is 20 minutes later and whereas since then we’d been waiting for an hour to do it again, I now find that it needs looking at anywhere from half an hour to 40 minutes later instead.  At this point the curd is getting firmer and can stand a tighter cloth pull in which I aim to have pulled the curd in from the side of the mould so that it doesn’t touch the sides of the mould all the way round.  I won’t neccessarily have it pulled in so that it stands alone all the way round but certainly on some sides or corners it will.  The final cloth pull is then an hour after this and again can be pulled up quite firmly with the aim of standing alone from the sides of the mould as much as possible.  I usually have some cleaning or cheese turning to do after that and I’ve been keeping in mind the idea of a 4th cloth pull but so far by the time I get to cloth pull 3 I feel it’s probably drained enough.  The following morning, in general, the cheeses feel firm and well drained, perhaps a little softer than those made at the higher temperatures but no squelching that indicates free moisture.

In terms of yield and weight and whether we are getting more cheese as a result, my gut feeling is that we are.  Certainly in the last couple of days when I dropped down to between 31 & 32C, I seem to be getting more cheese than I’d expect.  I am not sure about what they weigh, but they seem to be perfectly reasonable sized cheeses and as they are well drained, it’s not trapped whey making them that size.  What I have noticed is that where I’d expect to get 11 cheeses by a process of calculation alone, I get 12 and where I thought I would get 10, I got 11.  In part this can be explained by the composition of the milk – it has higher solids in the latter half of the season than at the beginning but my gut feeling is that it is helped by the temperature and length of set too.

Certainly at this stage of the season when we’re very nearly down to 1 vat of milk only, every little extra is going to help.  The downside is that the longer set and lower temperatures can favour things like yeasts if the drainage doesn’t work so getting those cloths attended to turns out to be pretty vital.

Resting curd just before ladling.  This is the stage at which less moisture releases naturally at the lower temperatures and so more attention is needed to the cloth stages later.


Hospital Corners

It’s been a crazy few weeks since the last post on the 22nd May with Cartmel Races and Holker Festival pulling all hands to the shop and leaving me a cheesemaking flying solo a lot of the time.  However just because at the end of that I haven’t really had the spare brain to write anything, doesn’t mean that work has not been being done.  Far from it in fact.Shortly after the last post we had a visit from the Neal’s Yard Dairy crew which on that occasion were Bronwen (the buyer), David (one of the directors), Sarah (cheese maturation and allocation of correct age profile and flavour profile for each sales department) and Charlie who works in the shops.  They came with an issue to discuss – moisture levels in the cheese and drainage.  This of course was something we were looking at ourselves but the issues at NYD were that they were maturing the cheeses longer and finding on the cheeses from end of April that they became very very runny at the rind to the extent in fact that the rinds weren’t stable and fell off very easily if handled.  Unfortunately we hadn’t had that issue ourselves in our stores but certainly it was a problem.  We shared a few ideas about storage (are we storing drier than them?) and age of selling but ultimately didn’t reach a conclusion, especially as we’d made quite a few changes since the end of April already.  By the time of the visit we’d moved on from turning out cheese from the moulds onto shelves on day 2 to having a day draining on racks in the dairy in the moulds still then a day draining on racks again while 1 side is salted, then on day 4 finally making it onto the shelves for salting on the other side and then after that on day 5 a further day out on shelves to allow a nice coating of yeasts and fledgling B. linens to grow before they went into the cold store.  Since that visit we have also turned the cold store up a little so the temperature is warmer and the rinds develop quicker.

However having heard back from London and given that we’d been worrying about drainage now for a few weeks, I decided to go for advice to the dynamic cheese duo of Hodgson & Cordle (Randolph Hodgson & Dr Jemima Cordle that is) who had visited Martin earlier in the year to get him started with the MT36 starters and had given some advice on use of the cloth liners to the moulds to help get better drainage.  They had made their own test cheese and taken it away with them after the day but the experiment had made them both feel strongly that using the cloths enough was pretty key.

First off I checked whether they had done more cloth faffage (pulling really) than we were currently doing and at what intervals it had been done.  Pretty much the same as we were doing, yet their cheese had ended up pretty darn dry (admittedly partly due to being kept in an unrefrigerated and unhumidified environment but partly drainage) whereas ours most definitely weren’t.  It had also had a close knit texture and again that wasn’t something our cheeses were doing at the time – they were quite open textured.

Going back then to ask what they’d done differently, Randolph came back with the suggestion of pulling the cloths tighter.  He said ‘We are talking about hospital corners and taught sheets’.

The aim of the exercise therefore was to give a squeeze and put pressure on the curd rather than agitate it.  Fortified with the information I set off to give it a go the following day and pulled the cloths up so damn tightly that every morning still (as the cloth pulling continues to be tight) I have fingers that won’t bend properly from the muscles being so stiff.  And I have to say it did work and continues to work.  It also highlighted that we really needed new cloths as the older ones had weakened through use and were ripping with every cloth pull.  More were on order and in fact had been for a fortnight but the suppliers were being rather slow about getting them to us.  Even with daily chasing, it took a further 10 days for them to arrive!

So what has the change been?  Well there’s still the odd bit where the curd doesn’t knit together.  The problem with relying on cloth pulling so much for drainage is that if your tension isn’t equal across the cloth and the whole side of the cheese then you get a less drained area.  Sometimes the constraints of the space you’re working around on the draining table and number of moulds you need to fit onto it, just means that some are harder to get at and work with than others.  As a general rule though, they are more closely knit together in texture and certainly smaller at the end of the day than the cheeses I used to make.

We just had a follow up visit from Bronwen and the NYD crew this time with Joe Schneider (Stichelton cheesemaker for those of you who don’t already know) which meant our discussion had another point of view in the mix too and was very interesting.  Joe also uses cloth liners when draining his curd although they are used at a different stage and before the curd makes it into the moulds, but it means he knows what the aim of the exercise is.  That is, reducing free moisture (pockets of it in the open texture of the cheese) so that the starter bacteria can’t continue acidifying the curd as much and as a result the curd retains calcium.  If there’s enough calcium, the curd will hold onto moisture but it will be locked into the curd structure and will allow for the cheese to breakdown better during maturing.  If there’s too much acidity, the calcium dissolves and the curd, having lost its calcium, has less ability to lock in that moisture and it won’t break down so well.   Or to put in another way, here is what Jemima Cordle emailed to me as an explanation and I won’t try to paraphrase any further:

‘Basically the quantity of calcium left in your final curd along with the moisture content give you your texture. The more calcium you have the more elastic or rubbery the cheese will be. British cheeses contain less calcium than the continental types due to the fact that the curd that makes them loses its moisture over a greater portion of the acidity increase.  The curd that makes Comte for instance loses most of its moisture before the pH has dropped further than  6.5 whereas for cheddar to reach the equivalent moisture level the pH will have got down to about 6.0. The bit of chemistry that is important is that as the pH decreases calcium is released from the casein into the surrounding whey. As the whey is lost the calcium goes with it.
It is this loss of calcium that gives all our cheeses their characteristic textures so it is important to achieve. However it is very easy to overdo. If too much moisture is still being lost when the pH is much below 6.0 too much calcium will be released and the cheese will end up being chalky. It will also be dry because the decalcified curd cannot hold the moisture correctly.
More often than not this happens because too much starter is added so that the curd acidifies too quickly for the drainage to keep up and the moisture is not got out in time. In the case of St James, with the starter quantity you are using, this is not an issue as long as you give the curd the help it needs to drain.’
The help needed is those cloths and making sure they are hospital bed tight.
It’s been a fun & exciting few weeks as well as a crazy few weeks!
Cheeses just ladled and ready to start draining.  Photo taken on 21st May and I’ve been cutting and ladling smaller pieces since then too which also helps drainage.
Drained cheeses the following morning, also from 21st May.  The cheeses with cloths pulled tighter are about half the height of these ones.

Introducing St James

St James is a square shaped washed rind cheese weighing from about 1.5 to 1.8 kilos.  Milk is pumped through the wall into the dairy from the milking parlour and into a 70 litre hemisphere vat and a 65 litre curdling tub (which fills up to about 45-50 litres full).
Martin & Nicola only milk in the mornings – most people I’ve been aware of milk twice a day in the morning and the evening but they only do it the one time.  The milk never hangs around, even for a few hours, and is completely fresh. If milk is kept overnight, it usually has to be cooled down to limit the possibility of any unwelcome bacteria growing, either simply spoilage organisms which could create some bitter or stale flavours or in the worst case the sort of bacteria that cause food poisoning (although in a healthy flock which are well managed this is pretty unlikely).  I think another important consideration as well is that it never needs to be cooled either, so it only needs a little gentle heating at the start of the day to get it to the right temperature for the cheese recipe.  Cooling the milk down and then heating it up obviously has an effect on the fats and proteins in the milk and does disturb them a little.  The risks are that the fats or proteins might become damaged with a rapid temperature change or too prolonged a temperature change such as one from about 4C (the temperature of many bulk tanks) to the one at which the recipe needs which could be in the 20s or 30s.  Again this can affect the flavours that the cheese develops later.  Gentle handling is key and as Martin and Nicola don’t store any evening milk, it’s one less stage that they need to worry about.  So the milk is about sheep temperature to start with and is gently heated up a few degrees and starter is added.
All starters are not equal.  This year they are using a bulk starter culture which has a texture a little like drinking yoghurt.  It’s called MT36 and is generally considered by those in the cheesemaking business to be a pretty sexy little bunch of bacteria.  It has an impressive pedigree; some of the cheeses made with it include Kirkham’s Lancashire, Stichelton, Gorwydd Caerphilly and Duckett’s Caerphilly.   Charlie Westhead at Neal’s Yard Creamery has used it in some of his Ragstone to pretty great effect and he also uses it for his Creme Fraiche (officially the best creme fraiche I have ever eaten…ever).  On the more technical side, it is apparently a very complex bunch of bacteria.  Those who know about these things (I’m afraid it’s a level of detail beyond me at this stage) speak in reverent tones about the different organisms in it and of course the potential for unlocking flavour from the milk as a result.  The bacteria in the starters release enzymes to break down the proteins and fats of the milk and the flavours are unlocked primarily from the protein breakdown. Each enzyme releases a different potential for flavour and the more different types of bacteria you have and by extension the more different types of enzyme, the more you have possibility for creating complexity & depth of flavour which is what makes the variety of bacteria in MT36 so exciting for the cheese geeks out there.  Another way of looking at it is that it tastes delicious.  At Gorwydd Farm they make up a batch of starter to have in the house for breakfast instead of yoghurt and I am toying with the idea myself of taking home the leftover starter that we don’t use in the day’s cheesemaking to culture on and have it for breakfast myself.
Returning to the recipe however, the starter is added and left for about half an hour before the rennet’s added.  By this point the bacteria haven’t really got active so their growth and the build of of acidity that accompanies this happens not only in the set curd but largely happens once the cheeses are moulded and are draining overnight.  The rennet starts to change the milk structure after anything from about 12 to 15 minutes where you can see particles of curd developing.  This point is called flocculation and however long it takes to get to flocculation is a quarter of the full set time.  In other words if it takes 12 minutes (like it did yesterday), then you’ve got a further 36 minutes until the curd should be cut.
If you leave it too long then the rennet has set the curd too hard and it can be difficult to release the whey when the cheeses are draining overnight and if this happens then the rate at which the acidity develops, changes.  Whey trapped in the drained cheese will lead to acidification after the cheeses are turned out of their moulds.  This means that when they are turned out, they are quite soft and bendy but whereas you might think this would lead to softer cheeses, actually the reverse happens.  The trapped moisture means the bacteria can continue to work even though you actually no longer really want them to and as they work they create more acidity.  The acidity then attacks the minerals in the curd and in particular the calcium and you end up with harder, brittle textured cheeses.  Demineralised is a term that gets quoted to describe this texture and it can be desirable if you are making something crumbly like Cheshire but St James is meant to be supple and to break down to a completely full oozing texture and for this, keeping the correct amount of calcium in the curd is the aim.
So as we’ve been spending the week making St James, drainage has been a key consideration.  Given that I’ve been making most of the cheese this week and it would be fair to say I’m quite a novice, that we’ve not exactly got it right yet.  I’ve managed to heat the milk a bit too high so the rennet went too quickly.  I’ve missed the flocculation point because I was washing up the moulds the curd would later be ladled into so the whole measuring of when to cut became an element of guesswork rather than something I was on top of.  Yesterday I was happiest with it on 1 vat, but because we’ve been setting 2 lots of milk, I then missed it for the 2nd one.  Martin said the other day that the technical understanding is only part of successful cheesemaking.  He reckons good time management is actually a more important consideration.  I think he’s probably right.
So assuming you do hit the flocculation point and make the right calculation, you then cut the curd into long strips which are a little more narrow than a finger’s width in first one direction and then across that so that they are cube shaped.  Cut them too big and again it will drain slower and you risk those brittle cheeses.
We have then been experimenting with leaving the curd so that the whey can begin to drain off before we ladle this cut curd into the cloth-lined square moulds.  The experiments this week have shown that if you leave the curd too long, that too can set the cut pieces too hard and they don’t drain so well later.  The ideal time so far appears to be about 20 minutes which allows about 7 litres of whey to rise to the top but leaves the curd cubes still soft enough that they will knit together well when they are ladled into the moulds and again the whey can drain out.
Cut to the right size and left for the right amount of time, the whey is poured off in jugs and the curd is then ladled into moulds.  Here again, the ladling technique also affects how big your curd pieces are and again how well the cheese will drain.  We’re aiming for relatively shallow ladle scoops and smallish curd pieces.  Also you want to ladle relatively quickly as the longer you take, the longer you leave the final curd bits and they are firming up all the time.  Martin has said to aim for 15 minutes to ladle the 70 litre vat.  It would be fair to say I haven’t managed that yet although I think I’ve got it to roughly 20 minutes so that elusive  15 minutes is in my sights.  Maybe next week.
After ladling, the draining cloths that line the moulds are pulled up and folded gently over the top.  20 minutes after that we pull the cloths up again, quite decisively and then fold them more tightly over the top.  The cloths are then pulled up again an hour later and a further hour after that.  This too helps aid drainage – you can hear the increase of whey dripping off the end of the draining table as you start pulling the cloths about. Then that’s my part of the job done as the final stage for the day is done later by Nicola or Martin if he’s not working in the shop that afternoon.  At about 5ish, the cheeses are unwrapped, turned, re-wrapped in the cloths and put back into the moulds with a wooden  block on the top which will press it just slightly and encourage more whey to drain out overnight.  Put the blocks on too soon and although you’d think you were allowing more time for the pressure to drive the whey out, again (it’s a bit counter intuitive), this actually keeps moisture in!  It presses the moulded curd mass at the edges but before it’s had enough time to all settle down and knit together enough so actually by forming harder curd at the edges the whey is trapped in and yet another way of getting those brittle cheeses that we don’t want.
So then the cheeses drain overnight and first thing in the morning, they are turned out of the moulds, turned over and assessed.  If they are still soft and whey filled, they are kept in their moulds on a trolley in the dairy for a day to drain further.  At this stage however we know that they’re holding too much moisture and they aren’t going to be the supple cheeses we’re after.  If they have drained well overnight, then they don’t need the support of the moulds but they do sit in the dairy for a day on boards before they are salted.  Salting happens one side at a time and over 2 days.  By now we’re on day 3 & 4 of the make so it isn’t until day 5 that they go into the cold store and get their very first rind wash.
Rind washing is another parameter that we’re playing with.  Until yesterday, Martin was waiting for the joiner to put a door in between his 2 cold rooms.  Until that happened we had the St James store running quite cold in order that it would help the Swallet development (as they were drying in the room next door).  Now we’ve put the temperature up a bit and the fans don’t kick in as often which means it’s a stiller, more humid atmosphere in there and this should help the rind development.  While the store was colder and dryer, we were needing to wash the cheeses daily but with more humidity, we should be able to do less washing once the rind has started to establish itself.  The washing develops a pink / orange rind of Brevibacterium linens (among other things) which likes the extra moisture.  This releases further flavour as the bacteria that for the rind also release enzymes which break down the curd further, softening the texture from the outside in but also unlocking flavour as they go – characteristically quite savoury, meaty and sometimes smoky flavours.
So next week our plan is again to make St James only and no Swallet so the focus again will be getting that rennet temperature right and the curd cut and ladled to the right size and left for the right amount of time in the whey and the draining cloths faffed around with sufficiently and the blocks put on at the right time and not too soon.  Of course, it has rained this weekend and just in time too as Nicola was running out of fields to put the sheep on as the grass wasn’t growing back quickly with the sunny weather.  Rain will mean more milk for one thing – the sheep move around more and eat more so produce more.  It will also mean that as they’re eating the new grown grass the fat and protein levels of the milk will vary.  This is the final variable piece of the jigsaw.  Whereas with feed, you can’t really increase the protein content of cows milk, you can in sheeps milk.  With cows, what you can influence is the balance between fats and proteins in the milk by feeding so that they produce greater or less fat content and therefore because of that the ratio between the 2 can be tailored to the protein’s advantage.  This is important for harder cheeses like Cheddar for instance. However sheep can be fed to produce more protein which means there’s even greater capacity for variability of the milk and therefore a whole new set of parameters to consider when it comes to the milk we’ll get next week and how we will have to adapt those parameters of the recipe that we’re already juggling to get the cheeses to drain at the rate we want them to.
It’s going to be interesting.  Life as a cheesemaker, would appear never to stand still.PS – A sort of disclaimer.  This is St James cheesemaking as best I understand it so far.  That’s not to say I’ve got it right yet so if you know something I don’t or can see where I’ve not understood something correctly, please tell me!  Thanks.