The Search for Milk: Part 2, producers situated on site

“It sounds arrogant. It’s not meant to be – but when you start looking for farms with good milk for cheesemaking, you will find most farmers don’t know what that means, let alone how to do that. And why should they?” asks Joe Schneider, who learned this lesson the hard way when he set out to find a permanent home for his cheese, Stichelton. Gone are the days when Britain was home to hundreds of small-scale farmers, producing their own cheeses. “For most farmers, the milk is just pasteurised and pooled together with milk from dozens of other farms by a large cooperative. All that matters is that it is cow’s milk, liquid and white.”

Making raw-milk cheese safely requires a level of control that is difficult to attain when farmers are not producing the milk specifically for cheesemaking. Milk must be scrupulously free of pathogens, which can multiply during the course of cheesemaking if they are present in the raw milk. Other consideration such as the ratio of protein to fat, the size of the fat molecules, the diet of the cows day-to-day – these are not questions milk cooperatives ask when they turn up with their tankers. So, when an aspiring cheesemaker like Joe rocks up at a farm asking if they would consider improving the quality of their milk so they can make cheese with it, they aren’t always welcomed. “The first conversation you have with a farmer is to emphasise that when their milk is turned into something you eat, everything that is in it will be expressed: the good and the bad – but I’ve never met a dairy farmer who doesn’t think their milk is of the highest quality. The complexity of producing quality raw milk for cheese isn’t something they typically know about.”

Therein lies both the challenge and the opportunity for a cheesemaker who decides to commit themselves to working with a single farm to source their milk – right up to the point of physically locating their dairy there. It was the decision Joe made when he embarked on his Stichelton journey; and it is the decision the Trethowan brothers made when they decided to relocate their dairy from Wales to Somerset, and with it their beloved Gorwydd Caerphilly. Indeed, they are in good company. Cheesemakers who have located their facilities on the farms where they source their milk now make up about 12% of the producers we buy from at Neal’s Yard Dairy. Other such cheesemakers include David Jowett of King Stone Dairy (Rollright and Evenlode), Julie Cheyney of White Wood Dairy (St Jude and St Cera) and David Holton of Blackwoods Cheese Company (Graceburn and Edmund Tew).

On the one hand, it takes months – years, even – to find a farmer both willing and able to supply milk of sufficient quality and be up for improving it still further; and once committed, invested, in a way you’re stuck there. On the other, what results is a profoundly interconnected relationship which, when it works, will yield dividends for both the cheese and the farm.

“It’s like a marriage,” chuckles Joe. “It’s a long-term project which you work on by putting the effort in and communicating with each other. There have been tough times, but you can’t go off and find a younger dairy farmer, as it were; you’re in it for the long haul.” Finding the right farm – Puxton Park, near Cheddar – took the Trethowans over 18 months, and involved applying four tests to the milk: a basic ‘how does it taste’ test; a microbiological test to confirm the absence of pathogenic bacteria; the souring test (“we put the milk near the Aga for a few days and if it’s clean, it will taste like liquid yoghurt when it sours. Most milks…don’t”) explains Todd Trethowan – and making cheese with it. That was before they got to the rest of their ‘new dairy Wishlist’, which included daily communication with the herdsperson and – for environmental reasons – an organic farm.

“Most people just go with the microbiological test – which is good, but there are other things to consider,” Maugan Trethowan continues. Setting off for pastures new after over a decade of making Gorwydd Caerphilly in Wales, the Trethowans knew what they wanted, and were prepared to hold out for it. Puxton Park is organic, owned by a family who care deeply about the quality of their milk, and could accommodate the Trethowan’s new dairy on site – so the milk could be gravity fed into the dairy rather than moved using damaging pumps. “This prevents ‘shearing’, where the structure of the milk can be damaged if forced through pipes under pressure. For some cheeses this won’t matter, but for Caerphilly it does, as the texture is always on the edge – and if you pump the milk under pressure, it will be too crumbly.”

If you’ve gone out of your way to procure the highest quality milk, the last thing you want to do is to ruin it via transportation, agrees Joe, whose cheese would also be susceptible to shearing. Yet for him, as for the Trethowans, the decision to locate on site was as much interpersonal as it was technical. “By planting ourselves there, we made ourselves part of the fabric of the farm. I knew I’d have to have a good relationship with the herd manager and have conversations with them every day: about the cows, the milk, the cheese or just to chitchat,” he continues. “I need them to be behind us. They are the ones on the ground.”

Convincing a farmer and a herdsperson you can work together to make something better takes time and patience, even if you are on their doorstep. “There is a lot of learning to be done on both sides,” says Joe – but where there is learning, there is reward. “The herdsman who was here when we first arrived was Mick. He’d been milking cows for 30 years – then the farmer said, we are doing this project, and suddenly there we were saying: it is not the right fat, not the right protein, you need to change the feed, you need to change the process. He must have thought we were a pain in the arse!” he laughs. Fast forward 15 years, however, and Mick has seen his milk create a cheese that is lauded and enjoyed all over the world.

“He’s seen Stichelton in Neal’s Yard Dairy, then in other cheese shops here and abroad. He’d suffered 30 years of indifference, and then suddenly what he did gave huge amounts of pleasure. When that happens, you start to think about your job very differently,” Joe continues. Needless to say, the Trethowans and Joe feel the milk they are working with today is the best it has ever been – and that is translating into sales.

“The most important part of cheesemaking is the milk,” says Todd simply. “The better the milk, the more the cheese sells – and our sales of Gorwydd have gone up massively in recent years.” The success cuts both ways, says Joe. “The milk the farm we’re at, Collingthwaite Farm, is now producing is so much better than it was 15 years ago – and we’re selling more cheese, so we pay them a huge amount more.” When I tell Todd and Maugan about Joe’s marriage analogy, they laugh in recognition. “It is a leap of faith, because once you’re there you’re locked in. So, you need to do your research first, and you can’t be complacent” Todd agrees. “But I’d say it’s a good thing to do overall.”