On a sunny May afternoon Clare made a visit to Fen Farm Dairy, makers of the renowned Baron Bigod cheese, to learn more about what makes it special.
HERE CLARE TELLS US ABOUT HER VISIT TO FEN FARM DAIRY
All good cheese begins with good milk but when I arrived at Fen Farm there was not a cow in sight. Just an empty milking parlour and a whiff of farmyard in the air. But by mid-afternoon, the traffic on the road beside the farm drew to a halt as over 150 cattle were gently ushered back for the afternoon milking, having spent the day grazing the lush water meadows of the Waveney Valley. Cars and lorries for once did not rule the road, these gentle brown, black and white beasts would make the journey in their own time and everyone else would have to wait.
All work stopped in the cheesemaking room, as it does most days apparently, for the small team to watch the beautiful and docile cows wend their way home, udders laden with the rich milk that gives so much to the flavour and texture of both Baron Bigod and St Jude. The fact that these are cheeses made from the same milk, in the same dairy, yet turn out so differently demonstrates just how many elements are at play in the cheesemaking process.
The Crickmore family have been farming at Fen Farm for over 80 years and today it is the third generation of the family, Jonathan and Dulcie Crickmore, who are guardians of the farm. In 2009 they took a brave step into cheesemaking with an ambition to create the first unpasteurised Brie de Meaux style cheese in the UK. Their cheese, Bigod Bigod, named after the twelfth century Earl of Norfolk, who owned the land on which the farm sits, has been widely recognised as one of the best new farmhouse cheeses to be produced in the UK.
The Crickmore’s herd is now primarily made up of Montbeliardes cattle, the first of which Jonathan bought in France. Montbeliardes are prized for their protein-rich milk which is excellent for cheesemaking and traditionally used in Alpine cheeses like Vacherin and Comté. It is not only the breed but also the Crickmore’s approach to low intensity farming that produces high quality milk. The animals graze outdoors as much of the year as possible and during the short time they are indoors they are bedded on straw with lots of space and air.
The Crickmores believe that the best cheese comes from milk that has had as little intervention as possible. The milk is not pasteurised and gradually cools during the day; there is no machinery and the cheesemaking is all done by hand.
The milk goes straight from the milking parlour into holding tanks where lactic bacteria moulds and yeast are added to start the acidification process. After about three hours the milk travels via a gravity feed (no pump) to the cheese making room where the cheesemakers wait patiently for it to reach the right level of acidity before adding rennet to set the cheese. When set the curd is cut into squares with a long sword and the whey starts to separate. The curds are then gently ladled by hand into the moulds - just as Brie de Meaux is traditionally made.
When I arrive in the cheese room in the early afternoon, the morning’s cheeses are resting in their moulds. The atmosphere is humid and there is a quiet drip drip of the whey running off. We meet Jonathan’s head cheesemaker Mark Mitchell who joined Fen Farm little over a year ago to manage the production process. He has an assistant from Finland who has joined full time after an internship last year, and a new apprentice. Jonathan’s wife, Dulcie comes to apologise that with the rain forecast for the next day, Jonathan has had to rush off to get the silage in before it is too late - such is the unpredictable life of a farmer.
Mark and his apprentice are busy turning the heavy racks of cheeses made that morning. During the afternoon they regularly check the acidity and turn them to encourage more whey to run off. Next morning the cheese will be taken out of its moulds and moved to the warm and humid room they call the ‘hastner’. Here the cheese starts to grow its distinctive white mould and the last of the whey drains out and is painstakingly turned and salted. Salt helps to preserve the cheese as well as adding flavour. After five days in the hastener, the cheeses are moved to an ageing room for one week. In here the cooler, more cave-like environment allows the moulds to develop fully. Finally, the cheeses have a brief stint in the drying room before being wrapped, boxed and finally kept in the chill room to allow the cheese to mature and the flavours develop completely.
We finish our tour of the cheese making room by tasting a couple of different batches of Baron Bigod. It is interesting to notice that the younger one is stronger and softer than one a week older, which just goes to show that there are many variables at play in cheesemaking, not just the length of maturation.
Removing our unflattering hairnets and white coats we step outside into the farm yard in time to see the milking. The cows are lined up, calmly, filing in eight at a time down each side of the parlour. They seem to know exactly what to do, but then they do this twice a day, every day. We also go and look at a huge open barn with ten or fifteen calves of different ages, boys and girls. The girls will go into the milking herd to grow the Crickmore’s stock of Montbeliardes.
It is only a few years since Baron Bigod arrived on the British cheese scene as the first raw (unpasteurised) British brie-style cheese, and it remains the only one. It was a great privilege to visit the farm and dairy and to find out more about what makes it special.