"Slowly and gently" is the mantra by which Julie Cheyney makes her cheese, St Jude. This pace and tone is evident immediately upon entering her cheese room in Bungay, Suffolk. It was a real privilege to be invited for a hands-on visit to get a deeper understanding of what makes this beautiful little cheese so special.
Julie makes cheese at Fen Farm, home of renowned brie-style cheese Baron Bigod, using the same protein-rich raw milk from the farm's herd of Montbeliarde cows. Following recent expansion in its production, the making and maturing of Baron Bigod has moved to new facilities on the farm leaving the former shared cheese room available for Julie and her colleague Blake to enjoy more space and time for making St Jude and its washed rind sister cheese, St Cera.
Janette and Clare arrived to find the day's curd in small plastic vats, acidifying slowly. Julie explained that slow acidification allows greater breaking of protein chains in the milk received directly from the milking parlour before dawn that morning. Shorter protein chains result in more variety and depth of flavour in the final cheese. The importance of this process has led Julie to experiment with her cheese-making in recent weeks, to explore returning St Jude to a longer make time now that she has freer access to the cheese room.
Upon reaching a desired acidity, the curd was ready for cutting and hand ladling into individual moulds. This was our first opportunity to get involved. Using a long metal knife we sliced the curd into small cubes. With a plastic jug we scooped it up and poured it gently into row upon row of small white baskets. At first the whey ran off quickly, draining heavily to the floor. This soon subsided to a regular methodical drip, although not before soaking our clog-clad socks and giving a whole new meaning to cheesy feet!
Whilst the cheeses continued to drain in the late afternoon sunshine, Blake talked to us about their latest venture into providing lightly salted cow curd to local restaurants. A former chef himself, he has lots of delectable recipe ideas for this creamy, fresh tasting product. Julie then took us for a tour of the "hastening" and "maturing" rooms where racks of St Jude and St Cera sat quietly developing their exquisite flavour.
Back to the cheese room for the final job of the afternoon: turning the cheeses. Trickier than it looks, each St Jude must be slid from its mould, turned and returned to the basket without disrupting the curds which were beginning to knit together. So much of cheese making is strict science but every now and then a dash of doing things by feel is added to make the process truly magical. On turning, the "feel" of each cheese must be assessed - its size, weight and density in your palm - and a little curd added or taken away to make sure the final cheese turns out just the right size to fit snuggly into its little wooden box. Julie and Blake rapidly work through the rows of moulds, chatting and flipping the cheeses between their hands with expertise ease. For Janette and I it was all too easy to fumble and end up with the cheese unturned, back in the way it started but we thoroughly enjoyed the challenge and repetition of this simple task. We left the cheeses tucked up in their baskets and the warmth of the cheese room for the night. Julie and Blake would return at 4am the next morning to move them onto racks and start the next batch - the less enviable side of being a cheesemaker.