During the pandemic, we haven’t been able to send our teams to visit farms as regularly as we would like to. In place of this we have been hosting virtual cheese tastings with cheesemakers, who talk to us about their cheese and field questions from our cheesemongers. It’s not quite the same as visiting a farm but it’s the next best thing and helps build an open relationship between maker, maturer and seller. It supports our teams in engaging with a cheese’s provenance and motivates them to get behind the people and systems that go into creating it. Perhaps most importantly, it builds a sense of community which, for us at Neal's Yard Dairy is one of the joys of working directly with small producers. One recent event was with Sarah and Paul Appleby, who make Appleby's Cheshire. Here, communications manager Lydia shares her notes from the evening.
Appleby's Cheshire is the only remaining traditional farmhouse, raw milk, clothbound Cheshire, despite being one of Britain's most popular cheeses in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
Appleby's Cheshire is best eaten by cutting or breaking off a chunk, not a slice. In Sarah Appleby's words "Cheshire is there to feed hungry people, not waft about in slivers. You have to have a chunk". Have a look at the crumble, feel the giving texture of the curds, take in the milky aromas. Of course, you will want to make sure the cheese is allowed to come up to room temperature before serving too.
The Appleby's are the third generation to have made their Cheshire at Abbey Farm. The way Paul and Sarah work today is influenced by the legacy of Paul's grandparents, Lance and Lucy Appleby. Sarah shared how Grandma Lucy Appleby and her sister Sarah, who came from a line of Cheshire cheesemaking matriarchs, would have gone to college to hone their craft. Sarah and Paul have five school-age children who all get involved in farm life at every opportunity.
Theirs is a truly farmhouse cheese, in the sense that the cheesemaking room is just off their family kitchen. In our latest film we see Dotty, the youngest of the Appleby clan, drawing the kitchen blind to look in to the cheesemaking room. Because of this proximity, the cheesemaking has always been fully integrated into family life. Maintaining this closeness is perhaps a small part of what motivated the Appleby's to continue making cheese when many neighbouring producers were stopping.
Particularly in the last seven years or so, Paul and Sarah have been making big shifts in the way they farm. The farm is undergoing a conversion towards a more regenerative and sustainable way of farming. This has been inspired in part by Sarah's background growing up on an organic farm. They take a holistic view of the farm, looking to live in harmony with it, treating it as a living breathing thing. Examples of changes they have made include moving to a grazing system, minimising their inputs, tree planting, cutting out arable farming, the breeding system they use to ensure their herd is happy and healthy outdoors on grass for much of the year, experimenting with once-a-day milking for low yield cows and autumn block calving outdoors. Both Sarah and Paul were keen to emphasise that this an ongoing process which they'll continue to focus on for years to come.
Paul Appleby took over the cheesemaking this year, after veteran cheesemaker Garry Gray, who learned his craft under Paul's Grandma Lucy, retired. When we caught up, Sarah shared how much she was enjoying hearing Paul's singing as he makes. It was great to hear of the "unbeatable satisfaction" he now gets from cheesemaking.
As lovers of Cheshire will know, Garry made a great cheese. We asked Paul what, if anything he has changed since he stepped into the cheesemaking. He talked about a few new techniques he's been trying, such as cutting the curd with knives by hand (as opposed to using mechanical paddles) and gently increasing the level of salt. In general, Paul shares that he feels that the biggest difference at the moment is how varied his makes are. Every day is different, and he is reactive in his approach, though the cheese is turning out quite similar! He is taking lots of notes and developing a greater understanding of how what he does in the make room affects the cheese when it comes to selection.
One of our Directors, David, who is involved in much of the selection we do with cheesemakers, put forward that he finds the Appleby's some of the most critical tasters Neal's Yard Dairy works with. They aren't afraid to honestly evaluate their cheese. Sarah and Paul agreed that there's never a moment when they think "oh that's it, done now". They said they find there is always something to talk about and discover, and always a challenge or something to improve on.
Conversation turned to what Paul and Sarah look for when they select cheese. They like to see a full, even bore. (The cheese iron is a tool inserted into the whole cheese to test it, and a plug or bore of cheese is pulled out. This gives a representative sample of the cheese, from rind to centre). Paul's grandma taught him to look for a wisp of fat on the back of the cheese iron. The texture should have a giving crumbliness, holding its body. It should neither be tacky, nor sawdusty. They look for mineral flavours, and a heady, grassy, cowy-ness. The flavour should be long lasting (to quote Sarah “it just gives and gives and gives”). It tends to be complex and juicy, maybe withholding something for a bit and then delivering.
Lastly, Sarah and Paul were keen to emphasise what a team effort their business is and how grateful they are for the input of their wonderful colleagues. They are supported by a wonderful farm team, Oliver, Jack and Mark, and Paul is joined by Tom and Corey in the dairy, who also make their delicious whey butter and John who manages the maturation rooms.
As we talked to the Appleby's, we were eating an especially tasty batch of Cheshire made in May. As we have come to select Cheshire for our customers for Christmas, we have gone for batches that are juicy and bright. They tend to have a bigger savoury backbone than in Cheshire's of years gone by. The cheeses we have now carry a little more moisture and whilst they are crumbly, they are a little dense and deliciously buttery.