Bungay: Dairy farmer’s cheese business is maturing nicely

Bungay dairy farmer Jonny Crickmore who has started producing cheese using milk from his own herd.

Bungay dairy farmer Jonny Crickmore who has started producing cheese using milk from his own herd. - Credit: Nick Butcher

Michael Pollitt meets Suffolk dairy farmer Jonny Crickmore who has successfully launched a cheese-making business within previously redundant buildings on his farm near Bungay.

Dairy farmer Jonny Crickmore has been increasing his weekly cheese production to meet increasing demand.

His unique, creamy brie-style cheese, named Baron Bigod, has been getting even tastier as he has gained more experience of the highly-complicated process.

After visiting New Zealand a couple of years ago to study the dairy industry, he returned determined to improve returns from the family’s Holstein herd at Fen Farm, near Bungay. The first step was to sell raw, unpasteurised milk from the farmgate, which has become a quiet success.

But the next phase was even more radical. And, rather to his surprise, like Topsy, it “just growed.”

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Since the first cheese for commercial sale was made in early May with about 200 litres of the farm’s milk, last week it had increased more than 10-fold. With the strong demand for cheese ahead of Christmas, he made two 1,200 litre batches because it needs time to mature to achieve the best taste. “It gets more flavour if it is left for a little while,” he added.

“Now for some weeks we’ve been making about 1,000 to 1,500 litres a week,” said Mr Crickmore. As production has increased, he has been able to supply other outlets apart as well as his two initial customers, Neal’s Yard Dairy, and the Suffolk-based wholesaler, Hamish Johnston, of Framlingham.

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Mr Crickmore sold his first batch of Bigod in July. But it has been a very steep learning curve since returning from the southern hemisphere. “We met cheese makers and looked at different types. I was advised by Neal’s Yard Dairy in London to think about making an unpasteurised brie-type cheese.”

A cheese consultant from France provided invaluable help, particularly in adapting buildings including the farm’s original milking parlour and the stock bull’s pen, which had become dilapidated. This was a major expense and probably accounted for about half the investment, which fortunately received some grant funding through a Defra’s rural development programme.

At about the same time, he decided to introduce a noted French dual-purpose dairy breed, the Montebeliarde from the mountainous regions of the eastern Comte.

Learning how to make cheese has been rewarding, if not challenging, said Mr Crickmore. It requires a strict discipline at every stage, checking, re-checking and a lot of patience, he told fellow dairy farmers and members of the National Farmers’ Union during a visit earlier this summer.

Milk had to be handled with great care, almost like eggs. “The more you mess with milk, the more it is damaged and it is the fat globules which can be damaged the most. To get a really creamy nice texture fat globules must not damaged, then you’re heading in the right direction,” he added.

The milk has to be very clean and the cows’ teats are cleaned twice. Once milk is in the farm’s two bulk tanks ? one has 500 litre capacity and the other 1,500 litres ? the next process is to draw enough off. The milk then sits at 22C overnight, then gradually acidification starts. At this stage, a secret ingredient, which originated from France, is added. Later, rennet also imported from France is added, which gives his Bigod cheese such a distinctive and authentic flavour.

It is time-consuming and a lengthy process, driven by the need to maintain quality at every stage. Once the cheese has been formed, it is turned regularly and then salted, actually using a shaker from a fish and chip shop, with slightly enlarged holes, once in the morning and then the other side in the afternoon. It is stored at about 85% humidity and 17C for three days before it is moved into the “ageing” room. There, the cheese is turned every three days and when it is about 10 or 11 days old, will be taken into the drying room.

Making every 30kg of hand-finished, natural cheese takes about 200 litres of milk. Obviously, the creamier the milk, the better quality cheese, said Mr Crickmore, who imported the first of his 70 Montebeliarde heifers in June last year and which arrived on the farm in August last year.

“They are better grazers and leave fantastic calves and although they don’t give as much milk as a Holstein, we get a higher yield of cheese from them because the butterfat averages 4.1% and protein between 3.4% and 3.5% protein.

Although the heifers yield about 7,000 litres, they are producing the quality need for the cheese business. And now he has been using a Montbeliarde bull on his Holsteins.

While he relishes the cheese-making challenge, he recognises that he still has much to learn. “Every week is a new challenge. The cheese made in August, which we’re now selling are really good. We’re really pleased,” he added.

And his expanding network of customers including specialist Cleveley’s, of South Elmham, and in Norwich, the Cheese Truckle and also the Cheeseman, on the city’s produce market, are taking ever increasing volumes too.

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