Recently, a group of La Fromagerie cheesemongers visited cheesemaker Jonny Crickmore at Fen Farm Dairy in the Waveney River Valley, which marks the border between Norfolk and Suffolk in the eastern-most part of England. The Crickmores purchased the dairy farm in the 1940s. Jonny suspects cheese was made there at some point, though it probably was not very good.
According to Jonny, Suffolk rose to fame centuries ago due to its butter, which was sent to London and then shipped abroad. However, the high demand for cream for the butter left only skimmed milk for the cheesemakers. The resulting Suffolk “Bang” cheese was not great…and in some cases, laughably bad. Dogs barked at it. A poem was written about it.
Eventually, the government ordered cheesemakers to halt production due to the bad reputation this cheese gave to British cheesemaking. Even today, Suffolk is not an region known for its cheese. That’s beginning to change in large part thanks to the Crickmores and their team.
However, Jonny didn’t initially set out to make cheese. In 2011, frustrated by the increasingly low price they were paid for their milk, Jonny convinced his parents to sell directly to the farm. In order to draw enough customers to make the venture worthwhile, Jonny knew the milk needed to be unpasteurized. The Crickmores then installed a raw milk vending machine, the first in the UK.
After Jonny’s parents saw this success, he convinced them to start making cheese to get even more value. Converting milk to cheese lengthens its shelf-life, as well as diversifying the farm’s offerings.
While high-quality milk is the foundation of high-quality cheese, making cheese requires a different skillset to dairy farming. Jonny realized he needed help to get started. A French cheese consultant insisted he add Montbéliarde cows to his herd of Holsteins. Jonny’s family had invested in Holsteins several years prior due to their high milk yield. However, the cows became ill more and more frequently, and Jonny credits mounting vet bills for the closure of many dairies in the UK.
Montbéliarde cows, a distinct breed with their red coloring and mop-top of curly hair, originate from the Franche-Comté region in eastern France. Although they yield less milk than Holsteins, Montbéliardes have better longevity and fertility rates, and their milk has higher levels of the BB variant of kappa casein (a protein that improves milk coagulation).
As the winds picked up, we moved from the pastures to the dairy in time to see the curds from the morning’s milk being ladled into molds. A cheesemaker invited us to taste the curds. They were smooth and silky, with an intensely sweet and creamy flavour. In my hand, they felt like loose homemade tofu, or the lightest panna cotta, and were much larger than the curds of harder cheeses.
The farm’s well-known Baron Bigod is a brie-style cheese with a melting pate, so less processed curds are desired. As we took turns ladling curds into the molds, we saw how difficult it was to work quickly but delicately, careful not to damage the curds in the process.
It’s been about seven years since Fen Farm started producing Baron Bigod, and it’s amazing to think what a classic British cheese this has become in such a short time. More recently, Jonny started making Bangay Butter. Made on the farm using traditional methods (cultured, churned, and hand-paddled), it is the closest thing to the original Suffolk butter.
Jonny’s tenacity and willingness to try something new has driven his family’s farm forward, and has helped restore Suffolk’s dairy traditions. Unable to sit still, Jonny always seems to be working on something new. Whatever it is, we can’t wait to see it.