Like most people who’ve been lucky enough to spend a few days in France, cheesemaker Simon Jones wanted a memento of his time in Normandy. Unlike most people, Simon’s souvenir of choice was not wine or macarons, but the semen of Normande cattle, one of the area’s heritage breeds. Today, his Lincolnshire farm is home to several Normande-cross cows, and he is excited to see what that will bring to the milk and, ultimately, to Lincolnshire Poacher, his cheese. “It’s always interesting to see what happens when you cross-breed, and what the milk is like,” he explains, three years on from his distinctly un-touristy purchase. “It’s a bit of fun, and it’s an everlasting memory of that trip.”
That trip was the inaugural outing of Cow Club: an annual field trip organised by Neal’s Yard Dairy on behalf of established cheesemakers whose farming practices or cheeses would benefit from visiting farmers and makers at home and abroad. Of course, the pandemic rather stymied foreign travel, but prior to that the club also visited the Auvergne in France, where they learned about some of the traditional methods that inform small-scale cheesemakers there, the merits of ancient breeds, and the way the medicinal benefits of wild herbs can sometimes come through in milk.
Post lockdown last summer, they squeezed in a trip to the north of England, where they visited “a great variety of farms and dairies,” Simon continues. “Farming is changing dramatically, and quite rapidly. We all want to progress things the best way we can environmentally – and of course, in terms of flavour, to create more interesting cheeses.” By getting off their own land – where Simon readily admits farmers can “get stuck in a rut” – and onto another farm or dairy elsewhere in the UK or beyond, they can find inspiration to take back with them.
Not all of this inspiration is as tangible as cow semen. Indeed, for Simon the chief merit of Cow Club is the discussions it generates – with the farms and dairies they visit; with Jennifer Kast and Bronwen Percival, who organise the trips, and among his fellow Cow Club members. “There’s usually around five or six of us who go on every trip, and a couple of others who come if there’s space. We all try to travel in one van and have ‘van chat’ in which all sorts of things come up,” he laughs. While many farmers keep themselves to themselves, Cow Club “feels like a family, in which we’re not shy about sharing what happens on our farms – bad and good.”
One reason for this is, of course, the formative experiences that come from visiting new places together and trying new cheeses. Yet it is also – much like good cheese – the natural product of giving things time to develop. “Spending several days with people rather than just a few hours changes the dynamic and strengthens the relationship between all of us. We now feel very at ease with asking for advice from each other,” he continues, whether that’s to question whether a new piece of milking equipment is worth investing in, ask how a rare breed of cattle is getting on, or weigh up the relative merits of wood wool versus paper towels for udder cleaning.
Jonny Crickmore’s truffled Baron Bigod was born out of van chat, during that first trip to France to visit Normandy’s camembert makers. In fact, it was thanks to the Crickmores, Bronwen and Baron Bigod that Cow Club came about in the first place, when Bronwen realised the value cross-cultural exchange could bring. It was Bronwen who first put the Crickmores in touch with a French consultant cheesemaker at the start of their cheesemaking journey, and it was another contact of Bronwen’s, who she met on a research trip to Normandy, who helped them refine their now famous brie-style cheese.
In Cow Club’s annual outings, Bronwen has the perfect vehicle to connect Neal’s Yard Diary cheesemakers to the many and varied people she meets on her travels. “She is amazing at finding interesting people to bring into our world,” says Simon. That inquisitive nature, reflected in Bronwen and in the Cow Club, is “integral to the culture of Neal’s Yard Dairy”.
“They cultivate that curiosity,” he observes. “It’s beneficial for our businesses, and it’s beneficial for Neal’s Yard Dairy’s business too: not just because they want that knowledge for themselves, but because they can communicate it to their cheesemongers and, via them, their customers.” In the short term, it makes life more interesting for everyone involved. In the long term, it means adding value: to livestock, cheese, and rural communities. “We’ve lost so many dairy herds, so many traditional practices over the years. Better cheese means more interest and diversity for jobs and nature in the countryside,” says Simon, citing as an example fellow Cow Club member Andrew Hattan and the historic Wensleydale he has resurrected with the milk of Northern Dairy Shorthorns. “It’s thanks to the Dairy, and initiatives like Cow Club, that these artisan cheeses can become more available, and find a route to market. What that generates in terms of diversity is fantastic. Absolutely fantastic.”