Cheesemonger turns cheesemaker at Kirkham's Lancashire

This week's blog comes from cheesemonger Caitrin, who usually works in our Covent Garden Shop. Prior to becoming a cheesemonger, Caitrin managed artist studios and organised exhibitions and has just completed a masters in Art History at UCL. Since moving to France 9 years ago she has been fascinated with the diversity and nuances in cheese – read on to catch a glimpse of her cheesemaking trip to Kirkham’s Lancashire!  

A few weeks ago, fellow cheesemonger Olga and I had the pleasure and privilege of spending two days making Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese with Graham Kirkham and his wonderful team. In addition to demonstrating the incredible amount of physical and organisational work that goes into the production of a handmade farmhouse cheese, our time at the farm was a powerful reminder of how a beautiful, high quality product can be built from a combination of passion and simple, good ingredients. It was an eye-opening experience.

Whilst working for Neal’s Yard Dairy, everyone hears the history behind Lancashire cheese and its roots in the family rhythm of a traditional farmhouse. Making the cheese was traditionally a woman’s role, whose time in the dairy had to fit around children, school, and mealtimes. While Graham now heads the cheesemaking instead of his mother, Mrs. Kirkham, our visit made it clear to us that the cheesemaking process still very much revolves around family life.

Their day begins at 6am after the morning milking, bringing the fresh milk up to temperature before adding the rennet and cultures. The resting time it takes for these enzymes to slowly work their magic coincides with the morning school run around 8:30 am, where Graham and another cheesemaker, Angela, leave to see their children off. Lunch is a family affair including all the cheesemakers and three Kirkham generations. Mr. Kirkham made the Lancashire hotpot, Mrs. Kirkham (herself!) baked the scones, Graham’s daughter schooled us in life hack videos on YouTube, and his son proudly showed off his new toy trucks. The make provides another nicely timed break around 3pm that allows Angela to manage the afternoon school run and set her kids up with a snack before returning to finish the afternoon’s work. It all flows.

We felt this sense of care and attention that made the dairy a warm and friendly place to work extending through the entire production process, from the way they care for their cows right through to the final maturation of the cheeses. The milk is treated with great respect from the beginning of the make, stirred carefully and slowly like a liquid zen garden. The “buttery crumble” for which Kirkham’s Lancashire is known does not come about by chance, it is the result of a long, arduous process of gently cutting, stacking, and draining the curds in a particular way that does not squash them into a solid block. The formed cheeses themselves are treated like royalty; carefully dressed and laced into their cloth garments before receiving a luxurious final butter massage. Lucky little cheeses.

We were thrilled that Graham and his team set us to work at every step of this intricate process, patiently explaining the how and why of each action. And as an unexpected bonus, our visit briefly overlapped with Neal's Yard Dairy's Managing Director David Lockwood’s selection visit, which allowed us to taste through several cheeses with him as he chose our batches for the Christmas season. It was particularly interesting to understand the taste profile that we seek from Lancashire cheese, and how that compares with what other retailers choose. Even though the cheeses we tasted were very young, we could already begin to pick out ones that are creamy, tangy and bright – qualities that make a Lancashire fly off our counters.

As much as I already loved this cheese before our visit, my appreciation for and knowledge of this product now extends beyond simply taste. It now encompasses my affection for the team that lies behind the cheese, and a tangible awareness of the livelihoods and traditions that rest upon our championing of British farmhouse cheese.