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From the farm gate- a visit to Holden Farm Dairy

Andrew Lowkes takes over our blog with a series of posts about his recent trips to Holden Farm Dairy, where Hafod is made. Andrew is part of our wholesale team, and looks after restaurant accounts. In this final post he looks at the bypoducts of cheese production and how they can be put to meaningful use in the food chain. 

The production of many of our most commonly consumed household foods often necessarily generates a less easily marketable, less valuable food as a byproduct. So that the butcher may have sirloins and fillets in their counter, they must also find routes to market for the offal, the marrow bones and the braising joints. Among the summer’s crop of first class, true-to-type fruits and vegetables, no doubt there will be a certain proportion that are too small, too big, too wide, too short. And in order to be profitable, the producer must find a customer (and a commercial value) for the whole spectrum of production. This is especially true in farmhouse cheesemaking.

One of the most obvious byproducts of cheesemaking is liquid whey. From 1000L of milk, perhaps only 10% of that overall volume will be curd proteins and fats that can be separated, shaped and aged on as a value added cheese. The other 90% has little commercial value.

Some of our producers find uses for this “byproduct” on the farm – such as feeding to pigs, spreading it back on the land, or in some cases (like the Appleby’s at Abbey Farm) separating the whey’s residual cream and churning it to make whey butter. This is an old English tradition and a great way (pun intended) to maximise the value of one’s raw resource. More recently we have actually found markets for lactic whey from our friends at Blackwood’s Cheese Company. After having formed their curd, Dave and Tim bottle the liquid in 2L containers and we wholesale it to chefs all over London. But beyond whey, what other so-called byproducts are involved in making cheese? And how can they work together, as part of the same farming system, to maximise the commercial value of both?

Extending this idea further, there are indeed cheeses whose marketing draws on precisely this practice of bringing two products from the same farm/region together, so as to maximise resource and more lyrically evoke a sense of place. The circumstances of the production of Epoisse cheese are now the stuff of legend. It is often claimed – particularly by French cheesemongers – that Epoisse was historically produced in monasteries. And that its unique smell can be attributed to the monks’ habit of washing their cheeses in their own Marc de Bourgogne – which is itself a secondary product of winemaking, using the pressed seeds and skins.

At Holden Farm Dairy, where Hafod is made, Patrick, Becky and their team work towards a system where the farm is wholly able to support their cheesemaking business – and vice-versa. Almost 100% of the herd’s diet is grown on the farm’s own land, from strip-grazed pasture in the summer months to dried haylage for the winter. Their buffer feed – a milled blend of dried oats and peas – is also harvested from the farm’s own pasture. The stalks are used as straw for indoor bedding. Even the water used to chill the milk down in the bulk tanker is recycled into their water troughs – “and cows love nothing more than warm water” Nick assures me.

Perhaps the most overlooked, and potentially most valuable, byproduct of any dairy farm is meat. For several years now the farm has reared on its male calves to one year and sent them to slaughter for processing by Charcutier Ltd., a local independent business with customers all over the UK. I asked founder Illtud about his relationship with the Holden herd,

“We initially bought rose veal from Marcross Farm in the Vale of Glamorgan, utilising the balance of their meat production from their direct sales and box scheme. We soon realised there was sufficient demand for us to be taking regular whole carcasses and we wanted to work with a producer who had ready access to a waste food co-product. Holden Farm Dairy inhabit the same artisan food community that we do here in Mid and West Wales. It made perfect sense for us to work together. We utilised the same system that we have for the production of pigs – looking at the actual cost of production and then paying a guaranteed premium. It guarantees us our supplychain and our farmers a livelihood.”

Just as perceptions of veal meat have changed among UK consumers, there are a growing number of London restaurants that have taken a similarly keen interest in old, retired dairy cows too. There are precedents here. In parts of Galicia for example retired dairy cows may be slaughtered as old as 14-18 years and their dry aged meat is prized for the extent of its marbling and depth of flavour.

As an extension of the farm’s project with Charcutier Ltd., herdsman Nick recently organised to have an old cow, who had only half a working udder, and persistent issues with her feet, slaughtered and delivered to The Butchery in Bermondsey, owned and managed by Nathan Mills. There the carcass was hung for a month, butchered and distributed to London restaurants including Magdalen, SE1 and Lyle’s, Shoreditch. A fitting and fine end to a cow who had produced around 2.5 tonnes of Hafod and four calves. By finding direct routes to market for all the farm’s products, they engage a broader community of wholesalers, butchers and chefs in the whole process of producing cheese right back at the farming level where the system is rooted.

As Illtud from Charcutier Ltd.  told me, rather wryly, “I often comment that we’re a waste management business rather than a meat processor.”