Lactic Goats Milk Cheeses in the Golden Valley, England
At the end of June, I spent the best part of a week at Neal's Yard Creamery in Herefordshire learning and making cheese, crème fraiche and yoghurts with them. In the past I’ve made lots of social visits to Herefordshire in general and Neal’s Yard Creamery in particular so it was great to be back and to catch up with Charlie, Grainne, Conan, Holly, Finn and Rags the dog.
Although initially Neal’s Yard Creamery and Neal's Yard Dairy were one and the same, the two parted ways after a few years when Charlie Westhead, until then an employee at Neal’s Yard Dairy working in the shop and driving around the country buying and selecting cheese, moved into cheesemaking and developed Neal’s Yard Creamery as a separate and sister company. At first they were situated out at Ide Hill, nr Sevenoaks in Kent but in 1996, Charlie moved the business to their own premises overlooking the Golden Valley in a particularly beautiful part of Herefordshire, near the border with Wales.
Quite apart from their cheeses, yoghurts and crème fraiche, Neal’s Yard Creamery is one of the few places I know that has invested in renewable energy. A windmill and a series of solar panels provide power and contribute to hot water. Their boiler is wood powered and so effective that not only Charlie but also his longstanding head cheesemaker Haydn Roberts sing its praises. If you make the amount of cheese, yoghurt and crème fraiche that these guys do, you really appreciate hot water for your washing up not to mention heating up all the milk and keeping the whole Creamery warm.
Day 1 dawned and, bright and early, I headed into the dairy. Charlie starts the day checking over the previous days cheeses and doing odd jobs: checking the acidity of the renneted buckets of curd from yesterday, ascertaining when to cut or ladle them, casting an experienced eye over already draining cheeses and levelling out where necessary. I gave him a quarter of an hour to get going without someone (me) asking a million questions (‘but why are you doing that? Where’s the such and such… ‘ etc) and then headed in. Charlie was at work checking pH and ladling an experiment cheese he’s playing with. Shortly afterwards, the next shift started and with the arrival of Ellen and (a little later) Haydn, ladling began in earnest.
All of Neal’s Yard Creamery’s goats cheeses are what’s called lactic cheeses. This means that they acidify slowly and over a long period of time but ultimately to a high level. On Monday morning, the cheeses to be ladled were Dorstone, the milk for which had been collected the day before. Haydn had been in the dairy, added starter, left the milk to acidify and then at the magic pH point (I could tell you but I’d have to kill you) had added rennet and left the buckets of curd overnight to set and continue acidification. The following morning we were ready to ladle.
Dorstone curd is pre-drained, which means that before it makes it into the actual moulds that will give it shape, some of the moisture is removed by draining the whole lot of it first. This used to be done in giant sacks that look for all the world like big curdy pillowcases and this is still done for Neal’s Yard Creamery’s goats curd, but Haydn is experimenting when it comes to drainage and the Dorstone. The drainage table was lined with plastic matting, curd ladled out onto and initial drainage commenced. A few hours later, the drained curd will have salt mixed into it and will be transferred into cheese moulds which will then be turned out the following morning.
Meanwhile, in a corner of the room, Perroche curd was also being ladled. Perroche curd is unusual for a lactic cheese because it is cut. It’s very gently cut and in large squares but a few cuts are made and help get the moisture out. These cheeses are only ever destined to remain fresh and rind less or in the case of the herb perroche, dusted with chopped dill, tarragon or rosemary. Simple, but oh how effective. My particular favourite, since you asked, is dill. Sadly (for me) the sales of Perroche were good this week and there were none left after orders had been packed. This meant none for me to buy. Not in fact that I was allowed to buy any of the cheese I took home in the end, but I did try!
Mid-morning, Tim arrived with a fresh tankful of goats milk which was duly given a dose of starter and destined to be ladled out as Ragstones or Perroche logs the following day. Meanwhile, Haydn was busy preparing more starter for the rest of the week and heating up cream for the crème fraiche (but more of that anon). It is genuinely a hive of activity at Neal’s Yard Creamery, but one in which each person has their own area and responsibilities and works efficiently away at them. While all the cheese was being looked after and the crème fraiche being prepared, in a quiet, out of the way corner, Strained Greek Yoghurt was being poured into pots and maturing cheeses from the cold rooms were being turned.
The Ragstone milk is given its dose of starter as the Dorstone milk was. In the afternoon, rennet’s added and the following morning it is time for acidity checking and ladling. So the routine continues. Later in the week, it’s the turn of cows milk: Neal’s Yard Creamery’s lactic double cream Finn and their Greek Style Yoghurt. But that, is a tale for another day.