Farming feature: No hard cheese
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Bungay dairy farmer JONATHAN CRICKMORE, hit by milk price cuts, describes how he went about creating a Suffolk rival to the French Brie-de-Meaux cheese.
It was 2010 and the latest series of milk price cuts were being passed around to all the dairy farmers in the UK.
I remember going home to my wife Dulcie and saying all the profit we had planned for investment in the business during the coming year had now been taken away.
It was from this point that we decided enough was enough. We should be in charge of our business and the price at which we sell our product, not the supermarket, or the middle-man at the processing company.
We decided to diversify and cheesemaking seemed to make sense, as it would be a way of using all of our milk without needing to separate the cream as you would for many dairy products. We decided we’d better get some advice from some experienced cheese makers, so we looked up some of the best cheese makers in the UK and asked if we could pay them a visit and make some cheese with them.
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To our surprise, everyone we asked was very welcoming and more than happy to show us around and share their wisdom. It was great seeing all the different cheeses being made and deciding which type of cheese would best suit our farm.
We narrowed it down to either a blue cheese or a bloomy white rind cheese. One of the dairies we visited was Stichelton Dairy, a collaboration between Randolph Hodgson, owner of Neals Yard Dairy in London and Joe Schneider, renowned cheesemaker. We watched Joe carefully making his delicious Stichelton and afterwards, Randolph was kind enough to give us his time.
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We quizzed him until his ears must have been sore but his was some of the best advice we have received. The main point he got across to us was just to concentrate on making our cheese. If we could make an exceptional cheese, the sales would look after themselves.
On Randolph’s recommendation, we enrolled on a professional cheesemaking course at the School of Artisan Food at Welbeck in Nottinghamshire. The course was run by French cheesemaking consultant, Ivan Larcher. It was the most complex and challenging thing we have ever done to our poor brains but was absolutely brilliant.
Suddenly new avenues of understanding were opened to us and we started to see how we could learn to understand the subtleties of our own cows milk and create our own cheese, unique to our farm, rather than trying to emulate others.
Soon we made a trip down to London to visit Bronwen Percival, cheese buyer for Neals Yard Dairy. We had a wonderful morning at the NYD headquarters beneath the railway arches, exploring the ageing rooms, chatting with the affineurs and tasting the cheeses. It was a really great British brie, Bronwen told us, that was missing from their shop counters.
The British make some sublime cheeses but few to rival the French Brie-de Meaux. And so it was decided. We were going to make the most difficult but also one of the most sought-after cheeses.
We went to meet Ivan Larcher with our intentions and asked him to help us design our new cheesemaking facilities. We formed a great working relationship with Ivan. We would feed him Sticky pork belly ribs and in return he would help us design the perfect cheese making building and field all of our many silly questions and worries.
Ivan agreed to work with us on two conditions: the milk had to be raw, straight from the cow and our traditional Holstein cows had to be replaced with a breed more suitable for cheese making. This is how we ended up with our beautiful herd of Montbeliardes from the Alpine region between France and Switzerland.
We found ourselves clambering through picturesque mountain pastures, picking our small herd of French cows one by one. The new cows struggled with the Suffolk accent at first but soon learned their way to juiciest grass!
With huge help from the Waveney Valley Grant funding we got our cheese making building up and completed earlier this year. In May, we made our very first batch of Baron Bigod cheese (pron. Bygod), named after the infamous Baron Hugh Bigod of Bungay, whose castle overlooks our farmland.
Ivan flew over from France and helped us through the first couple of days and with the huge amount of research behind us, things started coming together nicely. If we have learned one important thing about cheesemaking, it is this: in order to make exceptional cheese, you needed exceptional milk and this requires two things. Firstly, you need your cows to produce exquisitely clean, good quality milk and secondly, it needs to enter your cheese making room pristine and undamaged.
As a result we appear to be the only UK dairy farmer making an unpasteurised Brie straight from the warm morning’s milk, gently gravity fed into our cheese vats without passing through damaging pumps or plate coolers.
We are lucky enough to have complete control over our product, from the grass grazed by the cows, to the hygiene in the milking parlour, to the maturing of the cheese. Sales have grown amazingly well, mostly due to word-of-mouth and within the space of three months we have been able to treble production. At this rate we may have to make another trip to the mountains for a few more Montys!