Reinventing the Wheel: an excerpt on Kirkham's Lancashire

Reinventing the Wheel is written by Neal's Yard Dairy's Technical Director Bronwen Percival and her husband Francis. Their book charts the history of dairying and cheesemaking and how it affects what is made today. Below is an excerpt from the chapter 'Families and Factories' which describes a visit Bronwen and Francis made to Graham Kirkham who makes Kirkham's Lancashire. During their visit, they muse on the distinction between artisan and factory and look to Lancashire's industrial past to understand how its cheese has evolved and why the Lancashire that Graham makes is so unique.

It is getting dark as we pull into the gravel drive at Beesley Farm. A cold November rain pours down as we stumble towards the dairy; we are thoroughly soaked by the time we get inside. It is wet here, up in the northwest of England. Preston, just down the road, is the wettest city in the country. The Pennines, the mountainous backbone of England, rise a few kilometres away at Beacon Fell, but to the west it is flat all the way to the sea. Standing there in our sodden clothes, it feels like we have been lashed by the North Atlantic.

Seeing us at the door, Graham Kirkham flashes a smile and welcomes us in. We are here to taste his Lancashire cheese. Within the county of Lancashire, the Kirkham family stands proudly alone. In 1939, there were 202 farms making cheese here, but now the Kirkhams run the only farm making raw-milk cheese in Lancashire. Graham is an amiable personification of their enthusiasm. A sturdily built man in his early 40s, he pads around with surprising delicacy while we hang up our wet coats and don aprons and white wellies. He searches around for his cheese iron, the long bayonet-like knife that allows him to remove thin core samples of cheese for us to taste. He calls it ‘the stabby thing’.

Finding the iron, Graham draws the first sample and we begin to taste. The cheeses are astonishing: they are unlike any other cheese being made today. Even many of the locals have forgotten the taste of this kind of Lancashire. Francis is the child of two Lancastrians –indeed, his parents’ wedding reception was in a pub not 2 kilometres from the Kirkhams’ farm –but they are perplexed when they encounter Graham’s cheese: ‘It’s not crumbly; is it really Lancashire?’ When Graham tastes finished cheeses, he looks for a combination of mellow creaminess and weightlessness. He slides in the long sampling iron, twists it with exaggerated care and then back slowly at an angle to make sure that he reveals a fluffy collection of curds. This is the reward for his time, a texture that is on the verge of complete extinction, sacrificed to the demands of speed and efficiency. The texture has a special name that perfectly captures its balance between richness and lightness: a ‘buttery crumble’. For Graham, the best cheeses are ‘fluffy monsters’.


Graham Kirkham irons a wheel of Lancashire

The flavours too are delicate and nuanced. Kirkham’s Lancashire was the only cheese we served at our own wedding, a decision that was met with some surprise from Bronwen’s family: ‘Is that really your favourite cheese? I was expecting something, well, stronger.’ Bronwen can understand this reaction; when she started work as a cheesemonger, she too gravitated towards oozing washed rinds and piquant blues. When we tell him this story, Graham chuckles and recounts his experience at a local food show. Some people were going from stand to stand, looking to gorge themselves on as many free samples as possible. They scarfed down the samples of his Lancashire cheese and walked away. ‘It wasn’t until they had taken about ten steps that they suddenly turned around; I could see that they had really tasted the cheese,’ he says. ‘That’s what Lancashire is like. It’s a slow release that gradually builds up layers of flavour.’

‘Slow ’is the key word here. In its taste and texture, no cheese better illustrates how, before sophisticated biotechnology, before even mechanisation, the first great epochal shift in the world of dairy was the attempt to control cheesemaking in terms of the clock. This was not a change that came through great technical innovation. It did not require new machines or even immense facilities. No, for cheese, ‘industrial’ was a mentality more than anything else. And with its gentle succulence –achieved through techniques that directly contradict the logic of factory production – Kirkham’s Lancashire is a vestige of another age. In that, Graham, so unassuming as he potters around his cheese store, is a great subversive. Confronted by the modern world, he is an inadvertent cosmologist, an accidental philosopher of time.

Graham working with curd that will soon be Kirkham's Lancashire