Brother David meet Sister Mary
Last April I moved from a life in the bustling capital of the UK, London, to a windswept and rain-lashed hilltop just outside Ulverston in the Southern Lake District in England’s North West. I now make cheese with Martin Gott and Nicola Robinson at Holker Farm, just outside the village of Cartmel. They have a flock of Lacaune sheep and a few Dairy Shorthorn cows, with what must be the only cow/sheep milking parlour in the country.
At this time of year, it’s the end of the sheeps milk season. They started to give milk shortly after lambing as early as February and as more and more of the flock gave birth, the milk quantity increased until it reached its peak in June. Since then, they began to give less milk as the ones that had lambed early started to slow down on the milk production and the others followed suit. Right now there’s very little sheeps milk at all as there’s probably only about 10 or so sheep hanging on in there. They are all inside now (winter weather and rain is setting in here in Cumbria) and are looking forward to more lambs after Christmas whereupon the cycle will start up again. Normally around this time of year, it becomes impractical to make cheese with the tiny amounts of milk left so Nicola dries them off by stopping milking them. However there was a change this year. Martin and Nicola bought cows. They only have a few, but as they’ve been running the milking parlour for the cows, it’s made more sense to keep milking the sheep a little longer and as a result they’ve probably had a month more of sheeps milk than usual. Up until the beginning of November it was worth making 2 cheeses side by side: St James (the sheeps milk cheese) and Brother David (the new cows milk cheese). However sooner or later it got to the time when there was so little milk that they decided to mix the milks together and make an as yet unnamed sheep/cow’s milk cheese, named (as a joke that may stick unfortunately) Sister Mary.
At this point I should explain the whole St James, Brother David business. It’s not that Martin is a particularly devout and religious cheesemaker, in fact probably the reverse, I’d say. St James is named after James Aldridge who was a cheese affineur in the UK who fell foul of the health authorities, was crucified in the press and who the specialist cheese industry has subsequently canonised after his death from cancer in 2001 in an attempt to reverse his unfair treatment. James Aldridge who Martin knew and made cheese with as a boy, made a cheese called Brother David, taking rings cut from a Kirkham’s Lancashire and washing the rinds of them until they became soft washed rind cheeses. Why Brother David? Apparently because his partner Pat’s brother, David liked them. As Martin’s cheeses both sheep and cow are based on a traditional Lancashire curd before they are washed, the name Brother David seemed appropriate for his new cows milk cheese. A phone call to Pat Robinson confirmed that the cheese wasn’t being made in James’s name by anyone else and that he could use the name. Thus the new cheese was christened.
Making cheese with cows milk and with sheeps milk side by side has been a lesson. At the end of the season the sheeps milk fats and proteins go up dramatically. It’s probably natures way of getting a final dose of nutrition into the lambs before they move onto solely grazing. Unfortunately for nature, we’ve nabbed the milk and we’re turning it into cheese. However the cows milk was testing at about 3% each for fats and slightly less for proteins, the sheeps milk by comparison was at 10% fat and protein around 6 or 7%. The two substances make cheese in very different ways and in particular the challenge is to get them to drain properly after the curds has been cut and the cut curd transferred to cloth-lined moulds on a draining table. The challenge with the Brother Davids was that there is so much more liquid to drain out of a cows milk cheese because the milk has lower solids (fats and proteins). The challenge with the St James is that fat content of the milk interferes with drainage and the curd doesn’t drain freely all that well. You need to really work those cloth liners to the moulds, tightening them forcefully around the curd mass to get that moisture out.
If drainage is that difficult, why is it important? Well in our case, because we’re making a soft cheese we want to drain out enough moisture before the acidity caused by the starter cultures really kicks off. Too much moisture at this stage and it carries on acidifying too much and then the more acidic centre never truly breaks down. It always stays at a stage that looks semi-ripe with a chalky centre or in the worst case can barely break down at all.
What we had been finding with the Brother Davids was that cloth tightening was still important but had to be done with much more subtlety as the cows curd was a more fragile jelly than the sheeps curd but that they would drain naturally quite well. However adding the extremely high fat sheeps milk into the mix changed everything. The curd was not so robust that you could or should work the cloths forcefully, but yet it drained less naturally and needed attention. Various solutions were proposed, the most useful of which has been to lay a layer of draining cloths over the cut curd in the vat and allow it to rest for 20 to 30 minutes so that we can ladle off a good few litres of whey before we begin to ladle the curds into our moulds. This means less to drain out in the moulds so less pressure at this stage in the day.
Sadly the cheesemakers eternal dilemma is that you don’t really know whether you’re doing the right thing until the cheeses ripen. The (working title) Sister Mary cheeses seem to have a better texture for ladling a drier curd but it’s going to be at least 4 weeks until we get an idea if they’re doing what they’re supposed to and probably up to 9 weeks until they are finally ready. Luckily for me, I’m heading to London next week to fulfil my promise to former employers Neals Yard Dairy that I’d come back and help them over their Christmas rush. I’ll be working next door to the railway arches that house their cheese maturing rooms. Plenty of opportunity to stop by and get a look at some of our earlier cheeses and see how they get on.