Former NYD cheesemonger Katie Quinn had the unique opportunity to spend time making cheese on Sleight Farm in Somerset in the months after cheesemaker Mary Holbrook passed away. With no clear successor the team at the farm worked hard to continue producing her renowned goat’s cheeses to the best of their ability, but sadly, cheesemaking operations at Sleight Farm ceased later that year.
In her new book “Cheese, Wine, and Bread,” Katie beautifully captures the team's memories of Mary and the special atmosphere of the farm at this moment of transition, and she has kindly shared several excerpts of her writing below. To read more about her time in cheese in the UK, purchase her book here.
I rode the train to Bath, two hours southwest of London, then hailed a cab and rode twenty minutes into the countryside to a Somerset property called Sleight Farm. I rose out of the car to open the entrance gate, stepped over nettles as I walked from the gate to the side of the driveway, and peered at the gravel path leading up a green and rather daunting hill, then curving out of sight.
I motioned the cab through and walked the gate shut and latched it behind me. I pulled up my sunglasses and craned my neck to see the top of the hill. Nothing. A half dozen cows staring at me, their lower jaws working diligently on the grass they munched. (I could’ve sworn a few of them stopped chewing entirely and gawked at me with their jaws flopped open, like, What’s this city slicker doing out here? But I may have been mistaken.) I returned the sunglasses to my nose and ducked back into the car, hiding from the curious bovines like a celebrity evading the paparazzi.
Half a mile up the hill, a stately old stone home came into view, perched regally atop the plateau. I couldn’t take my eyes off this quintessentially English countryside abode, with its white trim and four powerful stone chimneys. As I stepped out of the car, I turned to take in the view from the home: we were in the clouds above Somerset. I could have leaned from a hot-air balloon and caught the same frame—the pastures, with animals leisurely wandering; the narrow road of the local high street; and the couplets of trees that dotted the landscape. (Now I was the one standing slack-jawed. Sorry for picking on you, cows.)
As I turned and made my way to the house, I was confronted by my reason for being here: two young goats ran past me, then doubled around, ricocheting off the side of the barn next door as they frolicked about and caused a ruckus. (Teenagers are all the same, regardless of their species.) Oh yeah . . . I’m here because of the goats!
I would stay in that regal stone house for the next couple of weeks, and I’d be in that barn every morning by seven moving buckets of goat’s milk, to make goat’s-milk cheese.
Just inside the front door of the big stone farmhouse, through a little mudroom filled with sodden boots and mismatched slippers, was the kitchen. Catherine Ochiltree ushered me in; she had recently taken over the farm from the late Mary Holbrook (the “reluctant guru of goat’s cheese,” per the Guardian), and was in touch with Bronwen Percival, who had called on me to help during the dairy’s transition of ownership.
There had been a lot of transition at the farm before my arrival. No one could fill the big shoes left by Mary Holbrook, a titan in England’s farmhouse cheesemaking scene who had built a loyal following for her handmade goat’s-milk cheeses. She had passed away rather suddenly a few months prior, in February, as the goats were swelling with life, about to give birth to the first kids of the year.
Everyone was trying desperately to occupy the gaping void. Each person on the team had deeply admired Mary, and everyone wanted to continue her legacy. She had been a one-woman operation, keeping her genius in her head and training her helpers only enough to get the job done, not teaching them her craft. This secrecy, whether purposeful or not, made continuing her work an uphill battle.
One similarity among all the women cheesemakers and cheesemongers I’ve met is that they all seem to have found the path to cheese via an entirely unique and unexpected course.
Mary Holbrook was no exception. She had a PhD in ancient history and archaeology, and she traveled around the world, working on projects like cataloging early scientific instruments in Frankfurt, Germany. Hardly the typical life of a farmhouse spouse. (Her husband, John, was also an academic—a biochemistry professor.)
She started experimenting with cheesemaking later in life, when she and John moved to his family farm, Sleight Farm, in 1967. In the 1970s Mary bought some goats and, uninspired by her role as a museum curator in nearby Bath, began making cheese. Next, she put on her business hat and scaled up.
She was a keen entrepreneur, although money didn’t compel her. “She was audited a few times, and they couldn’t see that there was any profit motive for her business,” Bronwen told me, “but it gave her meaning and something to do and care about. I think it kept her young. At the end of the day, she had enough to pay her bills, so she did what made her happy. People were drawn to her, because really, how many people like Mary are out there? So few.”
Although she was an academic, she managed to stop short of overanalysing her cheese. Leen, the cheesemaker at the helm when I first arrived at Sleight Farm, had worked with Mary, and she
remembered, “Mary was instinctive with how she treated the cheese. She paid attention, and it’s all about attention with cheesemaking. That’s what I learned from Mary. It’s like cooking in that way.” As Leen and I sat together at the long dinner table in Mary’s kitchen, she recalled, “Mary followed her own path, which is what you have to do to make good cheese.”
“And ‘her path’ was nonnegotiable?” I asked.
“Oh yes. Mary would never be wrong. But I get it—it’s like being a parent: you need to stick to your values regardless of what your kids do. Where I’m from in Belgium, they are more scientific about cheesemaking. They don’t know what Mary knew—to look closely, to touch and taste and rely on intuition. That’s where the magic is.”
Mary rarely, if ever, offered praise, Leen told me, but observing her was a lesson unto itself. Lucky for me, Leen was happy to dole out kind words for a job well done and was forthcoming with what she knew. When I was ladling the curd, she’d coach me: “It’s important to cut, not scrape, the curd. It’s not ice cream. It’s the flick of the wrist. That’s it!" Great.
Equally kind in the cheese room was Teresa—she had made the hard, aged Old Ford cheese with Mary and stepped up to lead the making of it after Mary’s death. When I was bent over the vat with Teresa, she would ponder the best time to add hot water to the curds, “washing” them, as is done when making a cheese like Gouda. (Ever the curious traveler, Mary was shown this hot-water method of warming the curd on a trip to Sicily, where the Italian cheese Provola dei Nebrodi is made this way.)
“Mary would say, ‘Now is the time,’ but wouldn’t explain why. So this part is a bit of a guessing game,” Teresa said as we looked down at the vat of just-flocculated curd. She had huge admiration for the way Mary made cheese. “This is the stage when many other cheesemakers or cheese operations would use a metal harp or put metal strings through it,” she said as she pushed her T-shirt sleeves up on her shoulder, “but we use our hands, our bare arms.”
She wanted to do Mary’s legacy justice. She wanted to continue the work her cheese guru had begun, even though much of it was a guessing game.
I became confident in my new role, moving with celerity in the cheese room and handling the goats without hesitation.
I prepared the cardoons for Cardo like a chef preparing her signature dish and flipped freshly set Sleightletts, in their small round plastic moulds, with agile fingertips. I hip-checked goats that got in my way when my hands were full. When I wasn’t contemplating milk or getting accustomed to the quirky personalities of the goats (I came to see them like the dogs I grew up with—playful and prone to nuzzle), I was sticking my nose in one of Mary’s old books or wandering the countryside around the town. The mild weather and gorgeous surroundings called me to lace up my hiking boots and set out by foot (also necessary, as I didn’t have a car).
After a couple of years of living in England, I had fallen in love with it—and the tumbling hills and dirt paths that made a web of public walkways through every county were one of my favourite things about it. Connor and I would choose long-weekend getaways knowing we’d spend most of our time rambling these routes.
There was a public path that cut through the farm, so at any time of day, you could look out the cheese room window and see strangers—some tourists, some local folk—wearing cargo shorts and carrying hiking sticks, whistling as they walked through this curious goat farm on a hill, just one sight as they followed the winding path through various fields, farms, village sidewalks, and pub stops. The daily ramblers trekking through the farm provided entertaining people- watching moments sprinkled throughout the day, and were a reminder of life beyond the farm.
The future of the dairy was uncertain while I was there. Everyone working at the farm could make cheese—and make it darn well, considering they followed Mary’s orders for years without knowing necessarily why they did certain things— but questions about the future of the farm hung in the air like a dense fog, and Sleight Farm desperately needed a leader.
Without one, I was sad but not entirely shocked to hear that the farm’s operations closed down later that year. Mary’s legacy as the doyenne of British goat’s-milk cheese lives on, but her cheeses do not. Her wizardry will go down in history as one of the greats of English cheesemaking.
Illustrations by Jessie Kanelos Weiner