Women in Cheese: a profile of cheesemaker Mary Holbrook

In the first in our series of posts about women in the cheese industry Melanie Krober, assistant manager at our Borough Shop, reflects on her time working on Mary Holbrook's Sleight Farm. Mary sadly passed away in 2019, but her style and ethos of cheesemaking continues to resonate throughout the British cheese community.

The drive up to Mary Holbrook’s Sleight Farm in Somerset was a life-changing experience for me. It was a few years back in freezing early February. Mary picked me up from the train station in Bath. We drove up the hill and when her impressive old farmhouse appeared at the end of the road my jaw dropped open, “THIS is where you live?”. I was excited to think that this was going to be my home for the coming weeks. She shrugged her shoulders with a brief and unimpressed, “yes, it is”.

For several weeks I spent hours staring at the breathtaking view over the Somerset Levels while making cheese. I was not the only one who admired the gem of Sleight Farm. Mary Holbrook took over her husband’s family farm in the late seventies. Since then, countless people have come through her farmgate just off the village of Tymsbury. People who wanted to learn how to make cheese, just like me. Cheesemakers from all over the world wanted to meet the woman who started making cheese from goat’s milk, a rarity in the UK back then. Journalist after journalist arrived and breathlessly followed her speedy steps in oversized wellies from the cheese room to the pig shed, through to the muddy fields and back into the milking parlour.

When Neal’s Yard Dairy’s vans are on their run to pick up cheese in the South West of England, Mary’s farm is one of the driver’s favourite stops. Mary always offers them a hot drink in her rustic farm kitchen. Estate agents still knock on her door with vain attempts of making her an offer for her pristine, wild and untouched land. But what is it about Mary Holbrook that makes people look up to her in awe? What makes people call Mary Holbrook 'the godmother of British goat’s cheese' (a title she brushes off with an unimpressed laugh as she does the countless awards she has won for her cheeses)?

First of all her cheeses are outstanding quality. There are variations from season to season, often unpredictable (a challenge which she embraces), but the cheeses are always interesting, packed with layers of flavour that become more complex the more you taste them. If you are one of the loyal customers who’ve been enjoying Tymsboro, Sleightlett, Cardo or Old Ford for decades now, you’ll probably be able to taste the time of year. Early spring cheeses taste different to the ones made in the summer and in late autumn. Mary Holbrook’s cheeses can be moody and challenging - they can be wild, but never uninteresting. With a high seasonal turnover of staff (almost every year she has a new assistant cheesemaker) one would think the cheese’s quality would be all over the place. But it is not. With 40 years of farm and cheesemaking experience, Mary Holbrook knows what she wants and how to do it well. Successful learning from her means careful listening, asking questions and following a strong work ethic.

Mary Holbrook is not only one of the most experienced goat’s cheese makers in the UK but also an experienced farmer. Her approach to farming is unique. On my last visit this summer I walked with Mary through one of her fields and within minutes I picked at least 15 species of wild flowers and grasses. The smell is something else. Aromatic, fragrant and pure; reminiscent of her cheeses in their final stages. Cattle and goats graze happily and freely in a habitat that is second to none. It amazes me that this woman runs this 150 hectare farm alone with the help of only one milker, one cheesemaking assistant and two young farm staff. There is no luxury of days off, let alone holidays. At this year’s Cheese, a Cheese festival led by the Slow Food Movement in Bra, Italy, Mary Holbrook worked along with her cheesemonger colleagues from Neal’s Yard Dairy, selling cheese for four days with a stamina that is, at her age, certainly admirable.

As a former archaeologist who travelled the world and is now living alone on the most remote farm amongst 100 goats, Mary Holbrook makes sure to “get off the farm” regularly. Once a week she drives down to London to work with us at Neal’s Yard Dairy. On a Wednesday she joins the maturation team to look after her own cheeses but also to teach staff how to treat, for example, her Cardo, a cheese that is washed weekly with a brine solution. And for the rest of the day she does what she enjoys the most: namely going to classical concerts, having a good meal and exploring the hidden architectural gems of old London. A welcome contrast to the sometimes solitary life on a farm.

And this leads to my final thought. Considering pre-industrialisation practices dictated that only women were responsible for milking the cows and making cheese and butter (which nowadays is a male-dominated job) how can farm life become attractive again for women? Does the work-life balance à la Mary Holbrook suggest a new model for women who aspire to work on farms? It must do, alongside strong willpower and elbow grease!