Dairy Diaries: St James

This year we are celebrating our 40th birthday here at Neal’s Yard Dairy. As part of our celebrations, we are of course celebrating the eclectic group of wonderful cheesemakers and farmers we work with. On reflecting on the past 40 years, we feel so privileged to be part of such an engaged and dedicated community. Our Dairy Diaries blog series brings you a snapshot of what’s happening at some of the farms we work with. 

This cheesemaker blog comes from Martin Gott, who we've known since his boyhood days working in Borough Market. Together with his partner Nicola he now farms sheep and makes St James cheese with their raw milk in the southernmost part of Cumbria’s picturesque Lake District.

The milk

Our farm is focused entirely on cheese production - all the milk is made into cheese every day from February to November each year. From the beginning we set out to create awesome inspiring cheeses. We recognised that to do that, it helps if you have awesome milk. Nicola manages the sheep day to day and along with help from Oswald and Malcolm, I make and oversee the cheese production. As a cheesemaker I feel privileged to also be heavily involved with the farming. Decisions regarding grazing, feeding, housing, milking practices and breeding are always made by Nicola and I jointly. We’re a small family farm and there can be compromises, but ultimately the shared vision is always to produce better cheese.

Hitting the hay

I’m writing this as we’re coming towards the end of lambing our second group of sheep. These are ‘hoggs’ which means they are young sheep, born last year, who are having their first lambs. They’re challenging to say the least. They need training in the milking parlour which is a huge amount of work. It’s nice to think that once we’ve lambed these, lambing is over until 2020. We’re having decent weather so far this year and the sheep have been out grazing for nearly 6 weeks now. They have adapted to their daily routine. They’re still coming in at night to eat hay in the barn, which helps to balance out the pokey and changeable Spring grass. It also means they’re not subject to night-time temperatures which, despite the beautiful sunny days we’ve been having here in Cumbria, are still a chilling 6-8 degrees.

With Spring grass comes Spring milk. Spring is the time of year on every farm synonymous with change. It presents all sorts of challenges for small scale cheesemakers like us. Learning to adapt quickly to these changes is key at this time of year. With so much going on at the farm, we don’t always get it right. The cheese tends to be at its most variable in the Spring, but thanks to that fresh grass it is often at its most flavoursome and interesting too.

Food and Farming Awards

Along with the usual distractions of lambing we also had a new distraction recently with a visit from Angela Hartnett and Sheila Dillon, along with the team from BBC Radio 4 Food Programme. They were here to ‘judge’ us after our recent nomination and shortlisting for best food producer in the prestigious Food and Farming Awards. It was a great honour to be recognised after nearly 15 years of farming and making St James. We had a great time at the awards ceremony last week - it was our first night away from the farm together this year!

We’re in the final stages of completing our dairy refurbishment which started at the end of last season. Along with this we’ve increased our (tiny) flock this year, so it’s been reassuring to hear positive reports from our customers regarding cheese quality. Our efforts to increase quality are constant. Many of the changes made at the farm level take years to show themselves, so it’s great when the results start to come through and get noticed by our customers. I think this has been one of the best starts to the season we’ve had in several years. I only hope the rest of our decisions made on the farm and in the dairy yield equally positive results.

Couldn't do it without ewe

Feedback from our customers is so important when it comes to evaluating the changes we’ve made in our business. As we’re on a remote farm in Cumbria away from any other cheesemakers, our monthly visits and tastings from the team at Neal’s Yard Dairy provide a unique opportunity. The discussions we have allow us to calibrate our processes and better fine tune them, to serve the tastes of the people who actually eat and buy our cheese, wherever in the world they may be. I really feel St James is a great example of what can be achieved when businesses with shared values collaborate well together.