Given her exceptionally low public profile, I was intrigued and excited to visit local East Anglian cheese maker Jane Murray at her home in Deopham just outside Norwich. For nearly twenty years Jane has been making her range of ewe's milk cheeses.
Since attending agricultural college she has had a soft spot for sheep, for many years keeping her own herd of sixty British Frieslands grazing on North Norfolk fen pastures. She got her first sheep in 1986 and initially sold fresh ewe's milk and yoghurt. After lots of experimentation and self-teaching, in 1999 Jane began to make her first cheese, Norfolk White Lady. This is a soft brie-style cheese, mould-ripened with a bloomy white rind and a delicate taste, tangier than a traditional cow's milk Brie de Meaux.
Since moving to Deopham ten years ago without the space for as many animals (a few sheep and pigs, a horse and a couple of dogs still keep her company on her small holding), Jane makes her cheese using high quality ewe's milk sourced from a dairy sheep herd in Preston. She receives a weekly delivery of 1000 litres that is immediately decanted into buckets and refrigerated. During quiet times of the year, any surplus milk is frozen for cheese making in peak periods.
Two days of each week Jane makes her flagship cheese Norfolk White Lady and on a third day alternates between Deopham Blewe, a mild blue cheese creamier and less salty than Roquefort, and Wissington, a hard cheese similar to Manchego.
In her cheese room she has two small vats. With only a little help on the washing up front, Jane personally hand makes all her cheese in small batches. Striving to find some work life balance, Jane fills one or other of the vats with milk the night before cheese-making and wraps it with chiller blankets to keep the milk cool overnight. In the early hours an automatic timer is set to start pasteurising the milk. Jane explained to me that ewe's milk has a more delicate structure than cow's milk and suits low temperature long time pasteurisation rather than the more typical high temperature short time treatment. After heating, Jane adds starter cultures and rennet to the milk. Again, the nature of ewe's milk means that less rennet is needed than for cheeses made with cow's milk. Jane uses a plant extract, vegetarian, rennet.
After cutting and draining the curd, Jane hand-ladles it into moulds. The whey is run off into buckets and fed to her pigs. Out of the moulds, the cheeses are hand salted. Norfolk White Lady is first "dried" overnight at 30 degrees. Each cheese in the range has its own maturing room to avoid any cross-contamination of moulds and individual cheeses are turned daily.
Deopham Blewe cheeses are hand pierced twice, on days 3 and 7. This piercing requires use of a thicker needle than cow's milk blue cheeses as the dense curd of ewe's milk cheese has a tendency to seal up again, preventing oxygen from entering the cheese and activating the Penicillin Roqueforti moulds.
After just one week the cheeses are wrapped and another week later they leave via local wholesalers. Extremely popular in Norfolk and Suffolk, local demand means that Jane's artisan cheeses rarely make it beyond East Anglia. In years gone by Jane supplied a number of local Waitrose stores, however when they wanted to stock her range nationwide she declined the opportunity, preferring to keep production on an artisan, hand-made scale.
I visited Jane at a particularly busy time of year. Having squeezed in a short holiday to enjoy some late summer sun, she is now gearing up for the busy Christmas period. Luckily autumn is the natural drying off time for ewes and accordingly their milk becomes richer in fats and proteins. This increases Jane's yield from each batch of milk and helps with filling the fridges!