Where do new cheeses come from? It’s a question that’s rarely asked – in part because Britain’s best-known cheeses are mostly historical. The origins of such eponymous cheeses as Cheddar, Cheshire and Red Leicester are (or seem, but that’s a story for another day) self-explanatory. Yet the past 25 years have seen the emergence of a flurry of farmhouse cheeses, many of which are made by people who had never even worked on a farm before, let alone made cheese.
The role played by Neal’s Yard Dairy in selling and promoting these cheeses has been well documented, not least in these articles. What is perhaps less well known is the level of support it offers to new and aspiring cheesemakers. Though her official title within the Dairy is Buying and Technical Manager, Bronwen Percival’s involvement in a new cheese begins long before it is ready for retail: from suggesting cheesemaking courses, to connecting aspiring cheesemakers with helpful people in the community, to advising them on what cheeses are missing at Neal’s Yard Dairy and from the UK scene more broadly.
Most fundamental, however, is the expertise Bronwen and the rest of the team bring to the development of the cheese itself, as makers travel the bumpy road from an idea to a cheese worthy of the Dairy's counter, and of the restaurants and retailers it supplies.
Of course, the extent of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s role in the conception and birth of a new cheese varies enormously from maker to maker. One of the best examples – both technically and in terms of sales – of Bronwen being actively involved in a cheese’s creation is that of Baron Bigod, which is produced by Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore of Fen Farm Dairy. “While they were thinking about making cheese, Jonny and Dulcie visited a fair few producers and suppliers, so by the time they felt ready to approach us I had actually already heard of them,” recalls Bronwen. She knew they were a couple from a dairy farming family keen to diversify into cheese, having found how little money there is in milk. What she did not yet know was the strength of their ambition.
“We met at the arches, I took them on a tour of our archives, and we discussed their aspirations for their business,” she says of that first meeting. “I talked to them about what we were short on at Neal’s Yard Dairy.” The Crickmores were initially thinking of a soft blue cheese, “which we needed, but what we needed even more was a British Brie-style cheese,” she continues. At the time, French Brie was one of only a handful of cheeses imported by the Dairy, on account of the team having never found a British equivalent of sufficient quality.
The question was whether the Crickmores were up to the challenge: the main reason there wasn’t already a high-quality Brie-like cheese in the UK was the difficulty of mastering the style. “I explained to them that they would have to be up to the task of making a very sophisticated cheese, technically speaking, and they decided to have a go.”
The Crickmores started off in the kitchen, making a couple of batches for Bronwen to give feedback on – and it was here that Neal’s Yard Dairy’s network of contacts came into its own. “I suggested they get in touch with a French consultant cheesemaker we’ve worked with before, Ivan Larcher. He has helped many British cheesemakers improve their technical control. They got in touch, but he refused to work with them if they continued to work with Holstein cows.” It sounds harsh – but it was fair, says Bronwen. “Holsteins are optimised for milk production. The quality of milk wasn’t strong enough for a cheese like brie, so he didn’t want to waste his time.” Jonny and Dulcie were undaunted. “They went and bought a herd of Montbéliarde cows from alpine farms in France, brought them back to Suffolk. Ivan then helped them design their cheese rooms and got them going.”
What followed was many months of hard work and experimentation. Here again, Bronwen and the Dairy’s support proved vital. “They would come and stay with us once a month, and we would sample their batches and troubleshoot them.” It was at this point that the strength of Jonny’s determination became evident: “He was interested. He wanted to understand. At no point did he say, this is too hard, even though it was quite an uphill struggle to get to a state where the Baron Bigod was an acceptable cheese.”
Neal’s Yard Dairy’s more openminded customers also deserve credit, she continues. “They bought the cheese even when it wasn’t at its best, which supported them financially while they ironed out the kinks in the process. Some of them also offered feedback.” Yet it was a chance meeting in Normandy, on a research trip with her husband Francis, that led Bronwen to the real breakthrough for the Crickmore’s cheese.
“Normandy is the home of Camembert, which is a similar style of cheese to Brie. We visited a cheese training institute in Saint-Malo, and met a teacher called Thierry Lerendu, who was very knowledgeable” – even more so than Ivan who was more of a specialist in lactic cheeses than he was in bloomy rind cheeses like Camembert and Brie.
The stars aligned a few months later, when Thierry wrote to Bronwen to ask if he knew of anyone he could stay with in England to practice his English in return for imparting some of his cheesemaking knowledge. She directed him to the Crickmores and the rest is cheesemaking history: “The cheese they were making before Thierry was good – but this was next level,” Bronwen recalls, laughing. Baron Bigod was, finally, born.
Of course, this is just one out of hundreds of cheesemaking stories in which Neal’s Yard Dairy has played a role over the years; but it touches on many of the ways in which the business helps encourage, enable and establish new cheesemakers. What’s more, the creation of Baron Bigod also gave birth to Cow Club: an annual field trip organised by the Dairy on behalf of established cheesemakers whose farming practices or cheeses would benefit from visiting farmers or makers further afield.
Today, the Crickmores sell around 100 tonnes of Baron Bigod, of which Neal’s Yard Dairy buys 16, “so they’ve really established themselves on the wider British scene since,” says Bronwen. Yet for her, the best indicator of just how successful they’d become was when Neal’s Yard Dairy stopped importing Brie de Meaux, on the basis that the Baron Bigod is, finally, as good as anything they could find in France.
An experimental cheese from the workshop presenting a challenging pinkish/grey tone to the rind.
Cheesemaker Jonny asseses an experimental cheese made with fellow cheesemakers and cheesemongers at our Cow Club Brie/Camembert workshop.
Rounding up the Cow Club Brie/Camembert workshop at Fen Farm with a picnic supper.
Cheesemakers appreciating the pasture biodiversity in the high-mountain grazing of the Ferme du Bois Joli, on a Cow Club trip to the Auvergne.