David Lockwood makes a monthly trip to visit farms and select cheese north of London, known at Neal's Yard Dairy as the Northern Run. After months of lockdown, David updated the company on how the cheesemakers, farmers and families he’s recently visited are doing.
Every month I travel up north to select cheese. When selecting, I’m thinking about the flavour profiles we want, what we like. This is not the same as saying “it’s the best cheese." It is just what we are looking for. Most of the time the producer knows the cheeses we will want to buy anyway. If this is the case, why do it? To build the relationship. To provide feedback. To get feedback. To learn. To spread information that we’ve learned elsewhere. To remind ourselves that we work with people who are trying really hard to make their cheese better and that it’s our job to help them as best we can.
Usually I’m with our Buyer Bronwen and one or two others. Guests can range from colleagues; our customers from the UK, US and the EU; journalists and even cheesemakers have all been along. This time my family bubble came along, my wife Jenn for three days, doubling as photographer, and my daughter Bis for one day.
This Northern Run was unusual given the number of stops we made and that we hadn’t seen many cheesemakers for months due to Covid-19 so there was lots to catch up on.
30 batches tasted, 8 selected from March
We arrived first thing in the morning to taste with Julie, the head cheesemaker, and George Fletcher, Stephen’s son who now does a tremendous amount with the sheep and the farm. George was also a Neal’s Yard Christmas temp a few years back. Having George tasting was excellent as he directly sees the impact of his farming decisions on the flock and the milk. There was a lot of discussion around blowing (gas formation in the cheese generally caused by certain bacteria) and how to avoid it.
When selecting Berkswell, generally I look for texture first, then flavour. In the past, the more milk that needed processing, the more likely the cheeses would be a bit dry as the curd could not be removed from the whey quickly enough and the trapped moisture would lead to post-production acidification. There was a lot of milk in March, but Julie seems to be on top of making large batches. The cheeses selected had very good texture and flavour. Overall, a good visit. They’ve brought back furloughed staff and everyone was smiling.
14 batches tasted, 10 from May, 3 from June, 1 from July
Cheesemaker Joe Schneider is on good form and really wants to be able to come down to London, sell some cheese and hang out with us. Everyone is back from furlough and they are currently making cheese five days a week. Overall, the Stichelton were looking good; rinds developing nicely and uniform in height.
They’ve been weighing the curd as they mill in order to get more consistent salting. They have been tweaking the process and find that they are now as fast as they were before weighing. Joe thinks they will be coming to us at around 7.6/7.7 kgs, slightly smaller than they were making before lockdown.
We had a long conversation with Graham who manages the farm. They’ve had good results with silage making so far, and he feels that the feed they’ve been growing should set them up well to have a good year for milk.
Total 28 batches tasted made from June through October 2018. 12 new batches selected . 3 selections from previous visit kept. 3 batches of Poacher 50 (the Poacher that most resembles Parmesan) included in total above,1 selected
At Lincolnshire Poacher, we taste with brothers Simon and Tim. Also, for the first part of the selection, we were lucky to have Tim’s son Sam (who’s temped with us several times) join us. For the second half of the selection, Poacher’s head cheesemaker John (a former butcher) and his number two, Ed (former baker) joined. They’ve both been at Poacher for around a year now. Tim and Simon pre-grade their cheeses to ensure that they sell cheeses that will not age out earlier. The cheeses we tasted were very good. More of the Alpine flavour profile than the pineapple/grapefruit profile.
The store was completely different from the last time we visited as they now have installed a robot “Florence the Machine” for turning the cheese. At this point they are not using it to brush the cheese but have this as an option in the future.
On the farm side, Simon has a couple of big changes in the works. Over the next couple of years, he’s planning to cross his cows with Ayrshire stock. He feels that this will benefit the animal’s resilience and health. He’s also looking to try the “no till” method which means there will be minimal disturbance of the land when planting crops on 150 acres of their farmland. The neighbouring estate is moving to this method and he’s interested in seeing how it might work on his land.
13 batches tasted, not available for sale yet
Andrew and Sally Hattan make Stonebeck, an old school Wensleydale cheese, at Low Riggs Farm in Middlesmoor, Yorkshire. The farm is actually about three miles out of the village on a track that requires 4 wheel drive. They are one village over from Masham where one of our supplier Rosebud Preserves is based.
Andrew is passionate about reviving Northern Dairy Shorthorns. They are an unimproved (not bred to be high yield milk producing thoroughbreds) breed of cow that can thrive in areas often considered too rough for modern breeds. They are smaller and lighter and require a less managed diet. They are a breed appropriate to the land and climate of the farm. Andrew is currently milking thirteen cows seasonally, and the milk that they give has been making amazing cheese.
Currently the Hattans are permitted to sell the cheese within 30 miles of the farm. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks, they will have permission from their EHO so that we too will be permitted to sell Stonebeck. It is delicious.
There was no cheese to taste at Whin Yeats as Neal’s Yard Dairy and the Court Yard Dairy had cleared them out earlier in the week. However, the time speaking with farming and cheesemaking couple Tom and Clare about what’s going on in the make room and on the farm was extremely valuable. There were three big bits of news.
Firstly, they were going to be hooked into mains water within a few days. Over the past few years changing weather patterns have meant that the spring and borehole that they rely on have gone dry for extended periods. When this has happened, they’ve needed to bring tanks of water up from friends in the valley. This will make their lives far easier and less stressful.
Secondly, they will be getting a new cheesemaking vat in the next couple of weeks. The existing 500 litre vat will be replaced by a 1000 litre vat. Clare is aware that she will need to be extra observant as she learns to make cheese in the new vat, and looks forward to the challenge.
Finally, Jack who had been working for them on the farm went to work on his family farm. This has left them short-handed. They are actively looking for a replacement but for now are doing it all themselves.
34 batches of midis made between 9 May and 13 June tasted, 13 selected. 10 dates of large tasted, 5 dates (6 wheels) selected
Lots going on at Kirkham’s with changes in the team and the thriving farm shop that Graham opened during lockdown to supply locals with produce. On the cheese side, Ang, Georgia and Mike have been making good cheese. The store room is emptier than it’s been in years; sales have been strong. Cheeses selected this time are similar to the previous selection. Rich and bright are notes that come up frequently in the grading.
8 batches of St James tasted 16-23 June. 10 batches of Holbrook tasted 11-22 June
Martin and Nicola are on good form. They are focused on the farm and the cheeses. The arrival of the goats from Highfields Dairy (whose milk used to produce Innes Log and Innes Brick) required a barn remodelling to ensure that there was plenty of room for all the goats to have space to feed from. They are also expanding the washing up area to accommodate a washing machine and building a cold room and dispatch area.
Martin has developed a hard goat cheese that he’s named Holbrook after the late great cheesemaker Mary Holbrook. While some batches that we tasted were undersalted, the texture of the cheeses was good. There was a bit of Mucor mould on the rind that he attributes to the maturing room being too cold early on. I have no doubt that this will become an excellent cheese.
We did not taste new cheese Crookwheel this visit.
Most of the St James we tasted were very good. The rinds were orange, the paste mostly broken down and the flavours bright and milky.
6 batches tasted, 15-25 June, 3 selected
The Appleby family seems to be thriving in lockdown. Everyone was in a good mood, the cows were happy, the Cheshire was very good. Some 120 heifers and dry cows were very excited to find an open gate that led to lush fields not meant to be grazed at that time. It was a new experience for me, moving a lot of cows settling into a good graze out of a field.
There is very little cheese still on the farm after reducing their output during Lockdown. Paul ironed the cheeses and brought them outside for us to try in a distanced way.
Over the past few years, the farm has been moving from an intensive system to a far more extensive, grass-based system. The work they have done so far is incredible and one of the reasons that the cheeses have been so good lately. The real time needed to see full results of the changes they are making is more like ten years. The make-up of the herd is evolving, the land changes as the way it is farmed changes. Seeing what is happening with an understanding of this timeframe is inspirational.
28 batches of Sparkenhoe Red Leicester tasted (November through March), 19 selected.10 batches of Sparkenhoe Blue tasted (March through June). 3 batches of Sparkenhoe Shropshire tasted (March through May)
The Sparkenhoe family David, Jo, Will and Annie were just back from a weeklong holiday in Northumberland. Craig and Lewis were working on the Red Leicester, Will and Agnes on the Sparkenhoe Blue.
With the Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, we were hoping to take as much as possible to send to the US for Whole Foods. The February-March cheeses may have been the best run I’ve seen there. Of the 21 batches made in these two months, there were only two I would have left behind. Unfortunately, Sparkenhoe needed six batches to cover their other customers. Looking through the older stock there were four more batches that fit our profile: toothsome, warm and rich. We will still need a lot of cheese from April and May, but this visit has put us in a good place.
The blues were good but not developing quickly. There were two batches that would appear to be developing at a faster pace (14 and 21 April). Will has added slightly more rennet and it’s producing a nicer, more orange, coat.