So often here at Slate we talk about Britain's thriving cheese scene. Recent years have seen an explosion in the number of cheese makers and cheeses being produced in this country, and the arrival of many exciting new cheese-eating opportunities including "Pick & Cheese" which opened this month at Seven Dials Market in London with the awesome concept of a cheese conveyor belt. On a recent trip to the West Country, Clare was delighted to visit one of Britain's newest cheese makers and learn more about his exciting plans to grow his blooming cheese business.
Marcus Fergusson began making his cheese "Renegade Monk" in 2016 after he and his family left London for the beautiful countryside of Somerset. Settling at Feltham's Farm near Wincanton, Marcus and his wife Penelope have fully embraced country life filling their small holding with sheep, chickens, quails and rare breed pigs, all raised according to their organic and sustainable principles.
After a cheese making course at River Cottage, Marcus set about developing his unique hybrid cheese "Renegade Monk": a soft, washed rind cheese with undertones of blue. With its pungent aroma reminiscent of Epoisses and Langres, it is a real "Marmite" cheese - one you will love or hate! Its flavour is milder than its aroma and has a pleasant sweetness particularly around the finish.
New to cheese making Marcus converted a small lean-to building outside his kitchen into his cheese room. In this limited space Marcus has been able to produce just 200 Renegade Monk cheeses each week. Twice-weekly, pasteurised organic milk arrives at Feltham's Farm in metal churns and Marcus starts the two-day make process in his 200-litre vat. Entirely handmade, Renegade Monk is an extremely labour intensive cheese to make with each cheese being hand pierced to activate its blue cultures, then washed in local ale and matured for four weeks.
When developing the recipe, Marcus trialled washing Renegade Monk in both local pale ale and stout from Milk Street Brewery in Frome. Feedback at farmers' markets steered him towards the "Funky Monkey" ale as those who liked the stout version liked both, but not vice versa. Currently Renegade Monk is not certified as an organic cheese because this ale is not organic but Marcus is in dialogue with the Soil Association because he believes very little of the ale remains on the cheese after washing and this would fall within the 5% limit for certified organic ingredients.
Since it was first created Renegade Monk has won a wall of awards including a gold medal at the Global Cheese Awards 2017. This success and its increasing popularity with cheese lovers both locally in Somerset and across the country, means there is growing demand. New packaging is imminent with a brand new logo. Marcus has clearly outgrown his current cheese making facilities so building work is underway on the other side of the farm to create a purpose built hub where he can fulfil his cheese ambitions.
Created by the designer responsible for the new cheese room at Suffolk's Fen Farm Dairy, this eco-friendly wooden clad building is nearing completion and Marcus hopes to move in over the next couple of months just as soon as challenges around installation of pasteurising equipment imported from Spain have been resolved.
Solar panels, rainwater recovery and ground-source heating will provide sustainable resources for cheese making using a larger 1000 litre vat, a separate hastening room and three maturing rooms. The maturing rooms hint at Marcus' plans to create new cheeses. He says he will stick with his hybrid theme, combining traditional recipes to make a hard and a soft cheese alongside higher volumes of Renegade Monk. Soon Marcus will start testing a recipe using artichokes grown on the farm as a vegetarian rennet, similar in concept to the Spanish soft ewe's milk cheese "La Torta".
Increased cheese production will make for some very happy pigs on the farm. Currently twelve rare breed pigs, Oxford Sandy & Blacks, guzzle the flavoursome whey from Renegade Monk. Marcus has plans to expand his pig herd to use the increased supply of whey rather than see it go to waste.
Huge passion for cheese, combined with vision and investment mean Marcus Fergusson is definitely one to watch. Exiting cheeses will undoubtedly emerge from his beautiful new cheese room - unique in concept, recipe and flavour.