Women In Cheese: A Profile of Ruth Kirkham

In this post, our Managing Director David Lockwood tells the story of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s relationship with Ruth Kirkham, of Kirkham’s Lancashire.

When I first met Ruth Kirkham in January 1992, she was making cheese in a small building next to their old barn. The cloth-bound and buttered cheeses she made for Neal’s Yard Dairy were kept down the road in her mother’s warm kitchen on boards where her father would look after turning and rubbing them.

Ruth Kirkham learned to make cheese from her mother Ruth Townley. Mrs. Townley made cheese during the second world war and used lard rather than butter when binding her cheeses. Ruth Kirkham’s older brother milked the cows and she and her sister helped their mother with the cheesemaking. Mrs.Townley stopped making cheese in 1948, but started making it again in 1969, dipping the cheeses in wax rather than leaving them to mature naturally.

Speaking to Ruth recently, she credits her mother for the family ethic that ‘second best isn’t good enough’. She is proud to have passed that to her children.When Mrs.Townley retired in 1978, Ruth began making cheese on Beesley Farm using milk from the forty Freisians her husband John milked. The long, slow and forgiving make meant that she could have the flexibility to make cheese whilst raising three children. A renowned cook, she made meals for everyone, ran the household, and helped out on the farm. She continued making cheese for the next thirty years until she handed over to her son Graham in 2008.

When she began cheesemaking, there were eight local farms still making Lancashire; by 2008, theirs was the only farm still producing. The cheeses she initially made were waxed as that was considered the modern way to finish the cheese.

It was graded first by Bill Lloyd and then by Malcolm Webster for the Milk Marketing Board. She said that ‘when Bill Lloyd would come round if it wasn’t fluffy to the end of the tester he would downgrade me’. For her, the ‘superfine’ top grade was the only acceptable grade. However the qualities of a well-made farmhouse cheese were not accounted for in the Milk Marketing Board’s grading system. The cheeses she was making from their own raw milk were not recognised as superior to cheeses made in factories from pooled milk. They were paid the same price for superfine grade cheese as large factory producers.In 1988 food scares led Ruth and John to believe that they would be required to pasteurise if they wanted to continue making cheese. They decided they would rather pack it in rather than pasteurise.

Randolph Hodgson, James Aldridge and Peter Pugson, all pillars of the cheese community at the time, visited the farm encouraging them to continue making the cheese from their own raw milk. Randolph took it a step further and asked if she would sell Neal’s Yard Dairy cheeses that were buttered the traditional way, rather than waxed.

Ruth took up the challenge and brought her cheese to the next level. She wanted to make cheeses that were light and bouncy, crumbly and buttery as well as warm and this helped her achieve that through better maturing. It was also easier than waxing the rind. Ruth’s willingness to take on the venture of making a natural buttered rind meant the farm could offer a cheese completely different to all the other Lancashire cheeses on the market.

The cheese Ruth made was no longer a commodity and could be sold on flavour rather than price. Since she’s stepped back to let Graham take the lead I’ve had more time to speak with Ruth, often at the breakfast table. Her drop scones are dangerous to anyone prone to overeating and her cheesy eggs are amazing. It’s difficult for her to not jump back in but she knows she needs to let Graham run the make and that she’s taught him never to settle for second best.