Producer Profile: Katie Cordle of Long Lane Dairy

We recently caught up with one of our newest suppliers, Katie Cordle. Katie makes Herefordshire Frier, Ricotta, Sheep’s Curd and Sheep’s milk yoghurt in Long Lane Dairy in Herefordshire.  

Katie, one of the first things we must talk about is your long-standing relationship with Neal’s Yard Dairy. It’s a unique story, there have been so many points in your career in which we’ve worked together. Can you share a bit more about that?

It’s weird, even though I never actually worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy, in a way I always felt I did! Our working relationship goes back over 20 years to when I was working for a company called Fresh and Wild. I had been tasked with introducing cheese - proper cheese. I remember one of my chats with Jason (Neal's Yard Dairy Sales Director) then. “Why should I pay more to Neal’s Yard Dairy when I could go to another wholesaler and get cheese for less?” Of course, he had a good answer. That conversation really got me interested in learning about cheese and what Neal’s Yard Dairy (NYD) was about. I was totally bitten by the bug, a fascination and love of cheese. Plus, I can't deny the fact that everyone I came across who was part of NYD, be it the cheesemakers or the cheesemongers, were such genuine and authentic people. It follows, if you're going to make something which is as real and earthy as a proper cheese, it's not just about being commercial and marketing. It's about being really honourable to the milk, and to the animals behind it, respecting the land, which was something I felt very strongly about. I come from Herefordshire where I was acutely aware of what it was to farm well and what animal husbandry was about. Needless to say, Fresh and Wild became a Neal’s Yard Dairy wholesale customer.

Whilst I was with Fresh and Wild it was bought by Whole Foods Market (WFM). With them I went on numerous trips with NYD. There were so many Americans coming over who were thrilled to be introduced to this world of British cheesemaking. We would be touring all the great cheesemakers of England, seeing what they were doing, seeing the farms, hearing what they were up to. It built that fascination for me, and I developed an incredible group of friends, too. When the time came to move on from WFM, my relationships in the cheese community had been well rooted.

You continued to work in the dairy industry, from making Duckett’s Caerphilly to your time heading up the Cowdray Farm shop. What was the catalyst for setting up your own business?

As you say I was running the Cowdray Farm Shop and when it got to the point where it was going well, I started to question where I was going myself. I decided to leave Cowdray, and I went to Somerset where I could breathe for a while. I lived on a community farm and I was the resident beekeeper.  It was a lovely year of letting go, no emails piling into your inbox. After a year, I decided it was time to go back to Herefordshire.

My plan was to start a dairy with some friends, not far from where I live. I was going to pasteurize their delicious milk, make some yogurt, make some crème fraiche, do all kinds of fresh dairy things. I took this quite far but as it went on, I realized it was going to be more expensive than I imagined. It was just too much.

One day, Charlie Westhead from Neal’s Yard Creamery (the Creamery) phoned me and asked, “I don't suppose you'd come and do a day a week or something here?”  I thought it would be a part-time and temporary job. Then maybe four weeks after starting there I found out I had breast cancer. I explained to Charlie, “if you want to find someone else, I totally understand.” I didn't know how it was going to go or how I was going to feel. I had a treatment plan laid out of the operation, chemo, radiotherapy...but Charlie said, “Let's take it day by day.” It was the most wonderful thing to do, it gave me a real continuity throughout my treatment. It's such a lovely place to work.

It was quite soon after I finished treatment when covid kicked off. Because I'd had cancer, I kept getting letters saying that I was extremely vulnerable, and I should self-isolate. I tried to ignore them until one day Charlie asked me “Are you extremely vulnerable?” I had to confess, “yeah, I do get those letters.” He put me straight on furlough, which seemed the craziest thing in the world to me, but obviously, it was the weirdest time for everybody.

Was it whilst you were on furlough that the plan for setting up Long Lane Dairy took hold?

It was more organic than that. My neighbour makes sheep's milk ice cream. I was talking to her one day and said I'd never drunk sheep's milk. I'd had sheep’s cheeses, but I’d never become familiar with what sheep's milk is like. All I knew was it’s very rich. I asked my neighbour if I could get 10 litres from her. I honestly don't think I've ever bought a piece of halloumi in my entire life. It's not a cheese that's been on my radar. In fact, I would have turned my nose up a few years ago and said it's not real cheese. I was the Speciality Buyer at WFM. Halloumi would have fallen into the Grocery category - not mine! However, it was the one thing I could make in a saucepan in my kitchen, so I did and made ricotta from the whey as well. I thought, it's actually quite nice, isn't it? I went on making it. In all honesty, it never felt like a big deal.

It was such a natural evolution. It got to the point where I was making a bit more. I’ve got two lurchers, so I thought I can go into my rather oversized larder and make halloumi in there in a clean space, away from them. Then I started making yoghurt. My neighbour made me this cupboard to incubate my yoghurt in.

There I was still in isolation, on furlough and I thought, okay, where's it going next? I sent some samples up to London to NYD. I hoped it would be that kind of surreal thing...maybe NYD would be interested in buying it. When you were it was so amazing.

Once you started selling to Neal’s Yard Dairy did you have to make changes to the way you worked?

I knew I couldn't go on making it in my larder. With or without the dogs, it was untenable! I found a grant, the business growth grant from Birmingham Council. I got £10,000 pounds, which you as the business owner then have to match. I converted my shed into a clean space. Everything about it is still what Jason describes as primitive. In a way it is, I work over an open flame with a giant pot. There's nothing high tech about it. For any of the videos I've watched about Cypriots making halloumi traditionally, you could superimpose me there, sitting on my little stool with my arm in the curd. It's so basic, but that's what I love, it's stripped back. Making this cheese is such a beautiful way of preserving this incredibly rich milk, it doesn't need lots of intervention.

Your dairy is what is described as a micro-dairy. It’s been said that your shed is so small that you can touch the walls when you stand in the middle of the room, is that an exaggeration? Can you give our readers an idea of the scale you are working at?

It is tiny. I mean, it's about three meters wide, you couldn't quite touch the walls! It was built as a garage for a Land Rover but you'd barely have been able to open the doors to get in and out. I'm quite a small person. If I were a little bit overweight, I'd find it impossible to work in! It makes me focus on being incredibly efficient. I’m constantly looking at how I can modify what I do to make it more streamlined, which I find deeply satisfying. There's no space to spread out and work chaotically in such a restricted area.

I make Sunday, Monday, and I drain my curd on Tuesday morning, then the rest of Tuesday is my packing up day. This week, for instance, I'm processing 240 liters. That's almost where I want to be.

Neal’s Yard Dairy buy most of what I make. When people walk up past my house and see me in my little dairy inevitably, they ask, “where do you sell your stuff?” I’d feel a bit embarrassed to say, “I've sent it all to London.” I sell to six or eight local customers too, within a relatively small radius.

Can you tell us a little about your milk supply? Is your neighbour who makes ice cream your supplier?

No. Their business started because they milked sheep, but they decided to focus on production. There are few sheep dairies in the UK and even fewer who don’t process all their own milk. Shepherd’s have been so helpful in allowing me to piggy back on to their milk purchasing from a farm near Stratford upon Avon. It’s a family run farm and they’ve been milking for several years. They’re brilliant to work with but they are quite a distance. 

Longer term I’d like to find someone more local to me, who I could work closely with. I have been talking to a couple who started milking sheep just a couple of months ago, who are in Monmouth, about 50 minutes from where I live. Come next spring, I hope to get some of my milk from them. They've got a tiny flock of lovely Frieslands, all out at grass. Next year, they'll be milking 40 sheep.

They will only milk seasonally so come the winter I won’t have any milk from them. It does pose an interesting question. It’s a conversation I really want to have with Carrie Rimes who makes Brefu Bach, about managing seasonal milking from a business point of view. You choose the milk source that feels most right from the heart, but suddenly the season changes and you've got no income. No milk - no products. It's such a tricky one, because my whole being believes it's right to milk seasonally. Obviously it’s not a challenge unique to me and NYD are really supportive in helping me make the right decision.

How did you find the new milk supplier, finding good milk for cheese can be really challenging can’t it?

It’s interesting. There’s this marvellous guy from Farming Connect in Wales, Geraint Hughes, he's really encouraging farmers to look at sheep dairying. Carrie Rimes has been working with him on this. A couple of months ago, they had this “milk production for cheese making” get together up in North Wales. I didn’t actually go, but it was through that link that I found out about the couple who I’ve been talking to. 

It was lovely. Geraint sent a huge WhatsApp to all these Welsh farmers saying “Katie Cordle is looking for some sheep's milk.” I had so many people respond - from all over Wales. On it went until I found Scott and Isabel of Monmouth Shepherd. It shows how beautiful the network is.

I think that's so important - the connection between the farmer and the producer. So often, one of the struggles that farmers have is they're so detached from the end consumer, or even the person processing their product. It’s great to see people working to close the link between the producer of the processed product and the producer of the raw material. Then of course, NYD have the role of communication to the greater public. Thank goodness more and more people are seeing through the marketing spiel of the supermarkets and looking for truly good food.

Do you have a sense there are more people sharing that desire for a short chain food system, that people are looking for a connection to their food more so now than before?

I think it's so true. I think that it's not just at the consumer end but for producers too. Lockdown bought this home. The basic connection we have through food to the land and to our community is so valuable. People can be so caught in the rat race of life. Lockdown clearly demonstrated our desire for a more earthy existence. For me, the joy is in finding some producers who love what they do and do it with total authenticity. “Local” has been a buzz word for years and yet the lure of the ever-so-convenient supermarket often shouts the loudest. Over processed over packaged food is doing no-one any good - mentally, physically or environmentally.

In terms of your range, you make three types of cheese – the Herefordshire frier, the sheep’s curd and the ricotta, and then yoghurt too. Do you think that where you'll stay, or do you have plans to expand beyond that?

I’ve been draining my curd in moulds and brining it. I’d say it sits between being similar to a Perroche (from the Creamery) and a feta. I find it really versatile within my own cooking. Currently my curd is used by chefs. I think the average home customer is baffled by what “curd” is and how to use it, so it would be good to make something that is more accessible for them.

When I think about the new products I’d like to make it starts with what I would like to eat. It means that without going through a kind of special tasting ritual, I'm constantly eating what the customers are getting. Every morning on my breakfast without fail, I have yoghurt. Then whether it’s using the curd to ice a carrot cake, or frying up some Frier to have for lunch, invariably I’ll be tasting something else from my range. 

I’d like to make a sheep’s milk Caerphilly. I eat a lot of cheese and always enjoyed Jo Bennett’s goat’s milk Caerphilly, Highfields. Since he stopped producing, I think it leaves quite a gap!  

You’ve told us how you found sheep’s milk products were easier for you to digest as a consumer. As a cheesemaker, do you feel like sheep’s milk behaves very differently from say, the goat's milk that you would have worked with at Neal’s Yard Creamery?

Yes, I think it's more delicate because of the higher fat, especially compared to cow's milk. When I’m making yoghurt I don’t heat it up nearly as high as you would cow's milk. If it overheats a crust will form on top of the yoghurt. It’s like the fats have been damaged and then they rise to the surface. You have to handle sheep’s milk with care. Look at lambs and think how quickly they grow - you understand why! It’s very rich. 

Aside from setting up the building that became your milk room and finding a milk supply, are there other challenges that you have overcome that would be useful for other cheesemakers starting out to be aware of? 

It's interesting you should ask because recently the SCA sent out an email about whey disposal, which is a big challenge for many producers. With my whey, I'm so fortunate because Charlie at the Creamery lets me tip it into his vast tank which gets emptied regularly and taken to a biodigester.

Honestly, Charlie and his wife Grainne have been amazingly supportive. There are dozens of examples of things they’ve helped me with getting going. I buy quite a few things from them which means I don’t have to buy massive quantities. From starter culture to brown tape! It’s great from a cash flow point of view as a start-up business. It means a lot. When I left the Creamery, Charlie could have been feeling a bit annoyed that he’d lost an employee but instead he's been fabulous. The cheese community is such a nice warm community. I get the sense that it would be as supportive to anyone starting out. It really is a good place to be.

Every week, I pinch myself. All the years I've been in the cheese industry, either buying or producing I have longed to have my own business. I would never have imagined it would be making halloumi in my shed. There’s no doubt that the covid pandemic gave me time. It's amazing. I feel I have a totally idyllic existence. I’m in the most beautiful part of Herefordshire, doing something which is so real. That's what I love about food, we need food. To make food for someone is such a beautiful connection from one person to another. The other incredible thing from my point of view is to have this connection to London, selling to Neal’s Yard Dairy and therefore also still having a connection to my cheese community. It's brilliant.