MARY’S DAIRY DIARY - FEBRUARY 2011
Everything has the battered look that comes from sitting in a deep freeze of a winter with several inches of snow sitting on its back. Since then, there’s been weather enough to get growth started - grass, snowdrops, catkins. Then we have frosts to remind us that winter has something else in store. Wild things get bolder as they get hungrier, in the hundred hungry days between Christmas and Easter. Owls fly on fine nights, a barn owl swoops low overhead on a starlit night. We collect the owl pellets for children to discover the delicate tracery of the skeletons of the little creatures the owls eat - death and excrement, enormously interesting to children. Although we are culling wild boar, they are still bold, facing you out if you come across them in the track, sniffing and snorting, eventually lumbering away, oddly nimble despite being so solid.
CROPS - start moving in warmer weather, they’ve enjoyed the soil shattered at depth by the frost. There’s the magical feel of soil and plants and animals uncurling slowly and fitfully from the iron grip of winter. The annual miracle of the earth turning in space, bringing us back to warmth and ease, gives a shared joy felt by all living things. We carefully eke out our stores of silage and straw harvested last year to feed the animals until the grass growth takes off faster than cows eat it at the end of March.
Now, we’ve had cows eat off the frost-damaged grass leaves before their ruins stunted the growth to follow. The grass starts growing as soon as it’s nibbled off - ask the people who work the lawnmowers. Even as early as the first week in February, as long as we haven’t got frost or flood, we’ll have the fresh calved cows graze, some grass stored from the autumn, but some grass grown in the milder weather this year - the best nourishment there is.
COWS - The cows are starting to calve, half the cows calving in a torrent of calves in the first three weeks of February. The calving pens are a feat of organization, getting the cows in the right place at the right time - pre-calving, they chew the cud sociably. Coming up to calving they find a private corner to concentrate, away from the auntie cows who in their own precalving state can claim another’s calf as her own to everyone’s confusion. Then the calving, water bag first, then little black or white front feet, then legs, then a nose, squeeze the shoulders out and a great whoosh of calf and water out, often a slurp of air in. She turns round to see who’s there, gives a lick and a nudge, and the heartstopping moment of the calf’s first indrawn breath. The afterbirth comes, rich colours, and then the cow will often solemnly chew it, membranes hanging from her mouth, giving her valuable nourishment to start off her milking. We leave cow and calf together long enough for the calf to get the colostrum, the first milk, but not so long that they bond, more than eight hours but less than a day.
CALVES - We make the straw pens up in a barn and put ten calves at a time in and teach them to drink milk from a teat on a milk bar for the penfull. Like the cows, they have a day of looking bereft then start playing with their pen-mates and looking forward to the person coming to feed them with noisy blarts.
HEIFERS - Their sisters two years older are do everything for the first time - calving, coming into the milking parlour, just lost sight of their calves - always a time to be patient and gentle. We wipe their teats clean with cloths, hand milk each teat to get the milk flowing, then put on the milking cluster, which after the first surprise, gives them the relief they want. Understandably, some find this challenging, and respond with a sharp kick - your arm, face and chest are in the firing line. We’ve reared them knowing we’ll have this moment, and gentle handling through their lives gives most of them the trust that we mean no harm, and soon, one or two milkings in, the young heifers bustle in, knowing they are to be milked and wanting it.
We can’t make cheese out of the first milk, it doesn’t set, but that goes to feed the calves. After 3 days the milk goes to the cheese dairy to be made into cheese - the fresh calved cows milk a different milk than that of cows calved in the autumn. As the flow builds up it’s less creamy, with a stronger protein, and more complex, especially when the cows go out to graze the early spring grass.
CHEESE - In the cheese dairy, the challenge is to adjust the make to the milk to produce something that is recognizably our cheese every day. We assess how firm the junket sets after we put the rennet in, and cut sooner or later to match. A more fatty milk will need more moisture driving out of it by cutting more finely, but as the protein in the milk increases, we cut the junket less to avoid making too firm a cheese.
I love the challenge of this changing season of making a complex, enduring flavour which doesn’t beat you up, with the right amount of creaminess and acidity in the front of the flavour and the complex brothiness unfolding for several minutes, a warm aroma hitting your nose from your palate.
RIND - It’s very exciting, we have brought our cheese mite down to an almost invisible level with our mite blowing/extracting set up. Now we discover we are getting almost invisible rinds, so you could be eating the rind, barely see it, think the cheese had an off-flavour.
What’s happening? Over the years, as our mite problem built up since losing our fumigant, we have erred on the side of protecting the cheese – plenty enough lard, 3 muslin cloths on the top and bottom of the cheese and used ozone to slow up mite breeding. Now we’ve got no mite to eat the lard and mark the rind, and the ozone cut down the mould growth that helps form the rind (which the mite were doing in their own destructive way).
We’ve eased back on the lard, taken the third cloth off and turned the ozone off. We are starting to get higher levels of mould back, which will help, but the other measures will take a year and more to come through as the cheese we are making now matures. In about a fifth of the cheese, the top and bottom rinds are so invisible that we are cutting them off, just so you don’t get and accidental mouthful of rind – and some people like it, but I don’t.
Please forgive us for this accidental effect of a joyful story, that we have licked the mite. If you know any cheesemaker suffering from mite, let me know, I’d be delighted to share our solution with them, as the ideas that made it were a generous gift to me from handling of Australian iron ore and our Devon Grain farmers’ co-operative.*
RECIPE - I love the comfort food of potatoes, bacon and cheese, with the starchiness of the potatoes balancing the richness of the cheese. It’s an easy supper for a winter evening.
Chop an onion & sweat in Quickes Traditional Butter, when softened add some chopped bacon. Slice some (2lbs) firm potatoes, skins on if you like which I do, (I’ve got some Ratte potatoes I grew in the garden) into the mix and leave to sweat a little (5 mins or so) with a lid on. Put into a greased baking dish, add a little milk or cream if you are going for the full dairy experience (1/2 pint) and Quickes Traditional Mature Cheddar (about 8oz) shredded roughly, season with pepper, add some dried breadcrumbs if you have them. Bake for about 30 minutes at 180°C or until the potatoes are cooked and the top is lightly toasted. Serve with roasted vegetables or a salad if it’s looking a bit warmer.
*Full technical details of the machine are in the Specialist Cheesemaker’s Association Newsletter, December 2010.