With snowdrifts clinging to the verges and a biting easterly wind, Clare and John headed to north Norfolk to visit Mrs Temple and her cheeses. Catherine Temple is a well-established East Anglian cheese-maker who makes a range of eight cheeses designed to offer a complete Norfolk cheeseboard.
Catherine is based on the family dairy farm that has been in her husband Stephen's family since the 1950s. Her cheeses are all handmade with fresh milk from their herd of one hundred Brown Swiss cows. She makes thirty-four tonnes of cheese each year, typically using a third of the farm's daily milk yield.
Showing us round the farm, Stephen explained that in recent years he has moved the herd from Holstein Friesian cows to the Brown Swiss as they are more fertile and less susceptible to infections. The milk yield is a little lower but the cows much happier and healthier. Calves are born all year round and on our visit we met the six newest members of the herd, gorgeous calves just a few days old. Both Catherine and Stephen are deeply committed to high standards of animal welfare. Cows on the farm have plenty of freedom to move around, interact and play with each other. The Temples enjoy many happy hours watching them from their farmhouse kitchen window.
Catherine and Stephen run the farm and cheese-making operations sustainably. On-site they have installed a "bio cow". This is an anaerobic digestor that uses cow manure, cheese-making whey and other farm waste to generate sufficient electricity to run the farm, cheese rooms, staff houses and several other homes via the grid. Even the family cars proudly announce themselves to be "cow poo powered"!
Arriving mid-morning on a busy Monday, we were quickly dressed in overalls and blue hairnets to get hands on with the cheese. Catherine and her team Paul, Gary and Maggie, had been working since 6.30am that morning when two thousand litres of milk arrived from the farm's milking parlour and went through pasteurising equipment in the corner of the cheese room. Four cheeses were on the menu for the day's make: Walsingham, Binham Blue, Copys Cloud and Wighton.
Catherine and the team are meticulous in their food safety procedures. Catherine's profession as a pharmacist stands her in good stead for the hygiene requirements of cheese-making and the frequent pH testing of the cheese through the production process. All Mrs Temple's cheeses are made from pasteurised milk to meet requirements of the District Council.
As we entered, the cheese room was full of the pungent aroma of lactic acid and the sound of dripping whey, pattering on the floor as it drained out of the Wighton batch, freshly put into its moulds.
The vat of Copys Cloud, Catherine's Camembert style cheese, was ready for cutting, having been set with starter culture and animal rennet. Catherine sliced through the curd with a multi-blade tool, releasing whey as it was cut into blocks a couple of centimetres in size. Shortly afterwards it was ready for hand-ladling into plastic moulds. Clare helped out "hoovering" up the excess whey as the team ladled at speed, getting over sixty cheeses from the vat.
Over the other side of the room John was on the job of stirring and cutting a batch of Walsingham, Catherine's hard cheese that is heated to a higher temperature and pressed. In the largest vat of one thousand litres of milk this was a strenuous job as the curd had set unexpectedly firmly.
Before leaving for a tour of the maturing rooms, we watched Catherine add the spores of Roquefort that put the "blue" into Binham Blue. The characteristic blue veins develop through the cheese during the six weeks it spends in the "blue" maturing room where it is kept well away from the other maturing cheeses to avoid cross-contamination.
The making of Mrs Temple's cheeses is a truly artisan process. High quality milk, careful management of microbes and temperatures, and a lot of hard work stirring and ladling make modest quantities of her delicious cheeses. These are not for supermarket shelves but for those of us who love the texture and flavour of handcrafted British cheese.
Huge thanks to Catherine and her team for welcoming us so warmly to watch and learn about their cheese-making. It was a fabulous hands-on experience and sharing it with the team back at Slate brings to life the range of Mrs Temple's cheeses we have in our counter.