The Search for Milk: Part 3, producers who become farmers

When we catch up with Martin Gott of St James’ Cheese, he has been four days without heat and power, courtesy of Storm Arwen. The issue of power he has solved, thanks to a frantically sourced generator, but “there’s still no source of heat in the cheese room, so no means of making.” It is, he continues, laughing in spite of it all, probably not the best time for him to be proclaiming the merits of farming one’s own milk to make cheese.

Nevertheless, this is the reality of the approach he and his partner Nicola have taken – an approach that is, more than any other, as much a complete way of life as a vocation. This is no doubt part of the reason why only two of the producers we work with have taken this approach, the others being Fraser Norton and Rachel Yarrow of Norton and Yarrow Cheese, who make goat's cheeses Sinodun Hill and Brightwell Ash.

Where cheesemakers buying milk in could have simply shut down for a few days until power and heat were restored, Nicola and Martin are both producer and buyer. “We still need to tend to the sheep and to milk the goats, even though we can’t make cheese.”

This means events which halt the production of cheese – the pandemic being another prime example – cost them twice over. “We’ve the cost of milk being produced and not used, as well as the cost of not making,” sighs Martin. Yet it also makes for a “unique understanding of milk and cheese production, that has more basis in the land, the animals and the rhythm of the seasons than it does commercial reality.” The more steps you are from the source of milk, the further removed you are from that sense of connection with the animals, pastures and traditions which are – or should be – at the heart of cheesemaking. What Martin and Nicola have lost in the way of commerce, scalability and sleep, they have “gained in being able to do certain things, which create the nuances that make St James’ what it is.”

“We make our own rules, and they are fairly strict ones,” he says. “We never cool the milk; it goes straight into the cheese vat, still warm from milking. We don’t pump it; it’s fed in. We make our own starter cultures.” The latter in particular would have been “a very difficult process to go through if we hadn’t had our own milk.” Martin cultivates his starter with the milk from “the best sheep” – and the reason he knows which sheep are ‘best’ is because he and Nicola tend them and milk them each day.

Martin and Nicola may never have searched for milk, as such, but they did have a long and arduous search for sheep and land: first in Somerset, where they farmed with Mary Holbrook, then in Cumbria. Efforts to find a suitable tenancy, or gain finance to buy land had been met with one setback after another, until a chance meeting came to their rescue. “We were at a farmer’s market, and I was selling cheese to Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the Two Fat Ladies. I mentioned that we were looking for land to farm, and she said ‘I’m friends with the Cavendish family who own Holker Estate. I’ll talk to them.’ We secured a long-term tenancy, and that was that.” The sheep too proved hard to come by. The first flock they bought in Hampshire turned out to have long term health issues and had to be culled – so they went to the south of France where they found that the breed behind the local Roquefort cheese was “hardier, and more accustomed to being milked in large numbers. We imported 20 females and four males of the Lacaune breed and grew our flock from there.”

Martin and Nicola struck lucky with Clarissa Dickson Wright. Of all the hurdles facing cheesemakers who want their own milk, it’s access to land which is the hardest and highest, says Martin. “Most rural land in England is owned by large landowners or very wealthy people. Unless you already have land, or a family farm, it’s difficult.” Even once you have secured some land to farm, you’ll always need more to grow your business, unless you’re willing to compromise on animal welfare and feed quality. Farmstead cheese – the word he prefers to farmhouse, with its “unrealistic connotations of 16th century stone houses and land rovers” – means the scale of production is entirely inflexible – both a blessing and a curse for the business, which can “only grow very incrementally. If you’re buying milk in and you want to increase the scale, you just buy more milk and get a bigger vat. If you’re using your own milk, then you need more sheep, more land, more buildings – a whole wave of things.”

The upside, of course, is that there is no risk of their expanding too fast, at the expense of quality. “What we’ve had is consistency and control, where other producers we know who buy milk have had to compromise, or suddenly change supplier because the milk has changed, or their relationship has broken down.” Changing milk supplier can “transform cheese overnight – so they have to go through that whole process again,” Martin continues. It’s taken time, effort and experimentation for he and Nicola to get their milk right – “we’ve changed number and breed of sheep, their diet and grazing patterns – all sorts of things over the years,” he continues “but it has always been our milk.”

Would he take this path again, were he to start over? He’s not sure. “When we set out, about 15 years ago now, there weren’t really many examples of good cheesemakers getting milk from other farmers.” Their main role models – the late, great Mary Holbrook, and Graham Kirkham of Kirkham’s Lancashire, with whom Martin worked and trained – had their own milk supply. “The organic movement hadn’t really developed to the point where there were sizeable, scalable organic farms selling milk, in the way there is now. All we found was dyed-in-the-wool conventional dairy farmers, to whom explaining the nuances of milk production for cheese simply didn’t seem feasible. I think maybe I’d do things differently if starting from scratch.”

He’d certainly work more with other cheesemakers before setting out on his own – or as he dryly calls it, “learning and making mistakes with other people’s money. The idea of a pastoral life is fantastic, but when it comes to it it’s a complete and challenging way of life,” he continues. “To commit to it without experiencing it is foolish and naïve. The best thing I did was work for 18 months with the Kirkham’s and 18 months with Mary Holbrook– but on reflection, I should have done another three years with other dairies and learned some more. You don’t know what you don’t know until you’ve been doing it for a long time – but we were impatient to do things our way.” Nevertheless, he and Nicola remain proudly passionate about what they’ve created with their own flock and their own meticulous approach to cheesemaking – and that, after days without heat and power, is quite something.