The Search for Milk: Part 1, producers who buy milk in

It is one thing to be a cheesemaker who has been born into a farming family and grown up with ready access to fresh milk and pasture. It is quite another to turn to the career after managing a cheese shop in southeast London – yet that is exactly what the former manager of our Borough Market shop, Martin Tkalez, did when he abandoned city life to establish a creamery on the picturesque Pevensey Levels in Sussex. It wasn’t easy – nor quick, with months of preparation and research necessary for Martin and his wife Hazel to affect the transition and locate a source of milk of sufficient quality from a neighbouring dairy farm. Yet what the Tkalezs’ experience shows is that it is possible to establish oneself as a cheesemaker even if you don’t happen to have a herd of ruminants to hand.

Indeed, of the approximately 41 cheesemakers supplying Neal’s Yard Dairy, 14 buy their milk in, including Carrie Rimes, who makes Brefu Bach, Katie Cordle, who makes Herefordshire Frier, and Stacey Hedges and Charlotte Spruce who make Tunworth and Winslade. It is tempting, when one thinks of British cheesemaking, to imagine a dairy farm handed down through generations – and indeed we do have a fair few of those amongst our suppliers. Yet were this the only model, it would be almost impossible for many aspiring cheesemakers to get started, given the amount of capital necessary to rent – let alone buy – a farm. What these cheesemakers show is that with access to good quality milk, anyone with the necessary equipment, skill and determination to make cheese can do so. Yet whilst that circumvents one barrier to entry, it doesn’t make cheesemaking plain sailing. As regular readers of this blog will know, good milk takes some finding in an age where plummeting milk prices have forced many commercial dairy farmers to intensify their production and prioritise low cost over other factors.

In this respect the Tkalez’s were fortunate. Though Hazel’s parents are not dairy farmers, they are farmers – and their farm is situated right next to Court Lodge, an organic farm with a herd of British Friesian and Ayrshire cows. For 200 days a year the herd grazes outside on a drained marshland rich in wildflowers and grasses – one of the key determinants of flavourful milk. Being family friends, they were well placed to ask Court Lodge if they could buy their milk to make cheese. But what do you do if you aren’t lucky enough to be friends with a suitable dairy farmer?

One such cheesemaker was Charlie Westhead, who started off selling cheese in Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden. Whilst Neal’s Yard Dairy had started out making yoghurt in the basement of our then Covent Garden Shop, by 1984/5 production outgrew the space, and Neal’s Yard Creamery established as a separate business. Production moved to the farm in Sevenoaks where the cow’s milk had been sourced. In 1990 Charlie and his partner Grainne took the helm. The Creamery remained there for a further six years, “with the cows grazing outside the creamery window and the milking parlour just a field away – it was all there. That’s how we ended up doing more than yoghurt and making a range of cheeses.” As time passed by, and the business grew, every waking moment was filled with making and selling. The idea of ever having their own herd seemed increasingly far-fetched – especially since they were also buying goat’s milk in from another farmer. “I was snowed under with just trying to make the Creamery work. It wasn’t something I could cope with or wanted,” Charlie recalls. So, when in 1996 a desire for a change in location and lifestyle encouraged him to move the Creamery to the Wye Valley in Herefordshire, the first consideration was where he’d find quality milk.

“It was a big issue” he acknowledges. “If you are buying from a farmer who has a contract with a big company, there is a lot of red tape because invariably that company don’t want the farmer to sell their milk to anyone else. In the past we’ve had ridiculously complicated agreements where we make cheese ‘for the farmer’ and then buy it back off them, which is absurd,” he laughs. After several failed attempts with various farms – “as a result of quality, or because we were paying so much for the milk that to add incentives on price for good [microbiological test] results would mean a business-wrecking price increase” – they chose to source their cow’s milk from a small farm in the foothills of the Black Mountains in Herefordshire, which “is not organic, but for me it ticks all the boxes” – the boxes being “high animal welfare, spotlessly clean, pasture fed and a pleasure to work with,” as well as being nearby.

Key to Charlie’s success as a producer without a farm has been his pragmatism, his commitment to animal welfare and working closely with the farmers. “The organic farm we sourced our cow's milk from previously grew hugely. They were milking around 800 cows by the time we left, and I think it’s impossible to milk that many cows and pick up on every issue. It’s impossible to care for every cow.” Much as he would love to have the Soil Association label on his products – “it’s an honourable aim, and I believe in it,” he says – he would far rather source his milk from the farm he currently sources from, where there are just 45 cows tended to by husband-and-wife team Stephen and Sarah Fletcher – “but they do a really excellent job and look after every aspect of animal health.”

The same principles applied to the goat farm he sources his milk for making Dorstone, Ragstone, Hay-on-Wye and his Goat’s Curd from, chosen for its proximity, cleanliness and commitment to animal welfare. “In an ideal world we’d have an organic farm, we’d ask the farmers to work with us to look at x, y and z to tailor the milk to be the absolute best for cheese; but we wanted a local farm, and there were only two nearby.” What they have now is “quality milk from healthy animals – and that’s what everyone wants,” he continues, whether you are a cheesemaker, farmer or customer. “We test the raw milk every month, so we know what we’re buying in. We know there are high levels of protein and butterfat [which is good for cheesemaking] and we know the goats are well looked after.”

The proximity of the farm means Neal’s Yard Creamery “are in a position where we can collect milk each morning. We’re not getting it off a tanker; we’re showing up in the morning, chatting to the farmer.” The benefits of this are inestimable, he continues. “We chat about the weather; we give them some cheese. It keeps us informed on how the animals are, and it keeps them focused on where their milk is going.” Though there is a limit to how prescriptive he can be, he is paying a premium for the milk he buys, and he can “pass on knowledge and experience about how the cheese behaves” in the hope that they take it on board. “A lot of the quality markers we look at as cheesemakers who buy milk in are also indicators of animal health – which they most certainly are interested in sorting out – in this regard they appreciate the feedback on test results.”

Of course, being “a Neal’s Yard Dairy man since the day I walked into the shop in 1987” Charlie is sorry not to be using raw milk as he once did. 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, particularly for soft cheeses, must be scrupulously free of pathogens, which can multiply during the course of cheesemaking if they are present in the raw milk. Pasteurisation, which heats milk directly before cheesemaking to a temperature sufficient to kill the potentially dangerous bacteria, prevents this risk. “Discontinuing the use of raw milk felt like a badge of honour I had to take off, and there’s no doubt that when everything is singing with raw milk you have the finest cheese you can have,” he acknowledges. Yet at the same time, making the sort of cheese he makes – soft cheese – with raw milk “is bloody hard work, harder than with any other cheese style. You’re in a constant battle with different factors, so whilst you don’t get the symphonies you might have got with raw milk before, our cheese quality is generally of a higher level now than it was.” It makes for an easier life – and that is no small consideration, says Charlie – but it also makes for a more consistent cheese.

Besides, quality milk still counts. “Pasteurising isn’t so fierce that it removes all traces of the character of the milk – and certainly not its constituent parts, just most of the bacteria,” he continues. “We introduce our amazing starter and cultures after pasteurising, which add flavour.” The moral of the story, for Charlie, has been that whilst changing milk supplier until you find the right fit will change your cheese, “it doesn’t mean you won’t get to grip with those changes, so long as you concentrate on making the best possible cheese you can.”