As Archers fans amongst you will know, Montbéliarde cows are bovine royalty when it comes to cheese making. The high protein content of their milk is ideal for making beautiful cheese in terms of both taste and texture. Indeed nine renowned French cheeses with AOC or PDO status specify Montbéliarde milk as part of their requirements, including Comté, Morbier and Vacherin Mont D'Or.
Montbéliarde cows are red and white in appearance, and hardy in nature having originated from the French mountains of the Franché-Comte region where mountain pastures and a continental climate of hot summers and cold winters make for difficult conditions. The breed was officially registered in 1889.
Whilst there are no mountains in Suffolk, Jonny Crickmore's herd of Montys look very much at home grazing the lush fenland pastures of his family farm just outside Bungay. On a recent visit to Fen Farm, Team Slate took a walk through the herd as they munched spring grass, enjoying space and fresh air after winter months undercover. The cows were docile and inquisitive, nudging us gently for a stroke. They quickly surrounded us to get a closer look, their large size and heavy-set frames a little intimidating but never threatening. Although however gentle, some of us were not so keen to have them that close!
In 2012, Jonny brought his first Montbéliardes over from the Jura in western France to join the farm's existing herd of Holstein-Friesian cows. Their arrival was key to his plans for diversification on the family farm taking the business into selling raw milk at the farm gate and making cheese. Fen Farm has been in Jonny's family since the 1940s when it was bought by his great-uncle. Passed down to Jonny's father, Jonny has helped with the cows since school days. He talked to us passionately about their welfare and whilst we walked around showed true connection to the animals at the heart of Fen Farm. Jonny talked at length about milk yields and the strain placed on cows when pushed to produce too much milk on a daily basis. He prioritises relaxed, happy cows who live a longer life.
Jonny is also passionate about the farm's cheese: Baron Bigod, Britain's only raw milk Brie-de-Meaux style cheese. With sales blooming in recent years, much like the cheeses' rind, in January of this year the farm's cheese-making operations moved into a new purpose-built facility. After a few months of settling in, the cheese making team are enjoying this extra space.
We arrived in the cheese room to find all hands on deck ladling the morning's make. The morning's milk had spent several hours peacefully acidifying and setting. It was now ready to go into moulds. The room was a hive of activity with whey splashing to the floor as the curds were quickly scooped into plastic moulds laid out on metal trays. Festooned in blue hairnets, Team Slate got stuck in and hands on with the ladling!
With the moulds filled, activities levels settled to the gentle rattling of washing up. Jonny continued our tour with a visit to the maturing rooms. Happening upon an abandoned speaker, we discovered the secret of a beautifully ripe Baron Bigod is the music played to the cheeses as they age! Laid out on wire racks, it was fascinating to see the development of the white bloomy rind over the couple of weeks the cheeses live "naked" before wrapping and maturing on for sale. Jonny rounded off our visit with an intriguing taster of Baron Black. This marmite tasting wheel, aged for over a year, certainly packed a punch with a strength of flavour to keep our taste buds zinging all the way back to Aldeburgh.