Tim Jones of Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese has an enviable vocabulary for describing his cheeses. From the "wild" flavours of Double Barrel through "gamey" tones to the "candle-wax" texture of a perfect truckle of Poacher, after our visit to Ulceby, Lincolnshire these are the words we will be "poaching" to talk about them back at Slate.
Tim, his brother Simon and their small team have been making cheese for just over twenty years on the family's 800 acre farm which lies within sight of the North Sea, inland from Skegness. Their cheeses, Lincolnshire Poacher and Lincolnshire Red, are made using the raw milk of the farm's own herd of 230 cows. Last year saw the family celebrate their centenary on the farm, with Tim and Simon being the fourth generation to run it. Originally a mixed farm, their father introduced the dairy herd and switched arable production to growing crops such as maize, oats and peas to feed the cows. Simon and Tim have continued to invest in the farm with a focus on efficiency and sustainability. The farm now has a biomass boiler and its own wind turbine making the most of coastal gusts. On the windy day of our visit, the farm was a net exporter of electricity. They have also taken great pride in restoring some of the original barns to create a beautiful office space, retaining original brickwork dating back to the 1800s.
Until recently dropping production down to five days a week, for the last eighteen months every day has seen 6,000 litres of milk made into cheese. To accommodate the daily trolley loaded with around thirty truckles, the maturing warehouse has had a number of extensions bolted on. Whilst this scale of operation is larger than any of the East Anglian cheese makers we have visited previously, the process of hand-making artisan cheese remains the same as does their focus on quality and authenticity of taste.
Evening and morning milk are used to make each batch of cheese and slow acidification means the make generally takes between six and six half hours. We visited the cheese making room as the curd was being milled and hand mixed with salt by head cheese maker Richard and his assistant. The day's make had been a quick one as some of the cows have recently calved, changing the composition of their milk. The team had to work speedily to turn and mix the curd twice over before it began to mesh together. Richard planned to respond to this change in the milk with a little less starter culture the following day but in general the recipe is changed as little as possible as the effects on texture and taste will not be fully known until maturing many months, even years, down the line.
Our tour continued passed the moulds and horizontal presses where each cheese is pressed for up to 36 hours. Once out of the mould, truckles are sealed with liquid silicon to protect the cheese while still allowing it to breath. This glue-like substance over the surface of the cheese makes the rind chewy and inadvisable to eat. Freshly made the cheeses are bright creamy yellow in appearance. Once transferred to the maturing barn the surface immediately begins to develop a beautiful dappling of dark brown and beige moulds, often topped with a sprinkling of fluffy white growth.
Entering the maturing barn is an awesome sight for any cheese lover! Rows and rows of trolleys, with more rows beyond that, piled high with cylinders of cheese sitting peacefully on wooden boards. The atmosphere is kept at 99% humidity with a tonne of water sloshed over the floor each day, and the temperature is around 15 degrees. On entering there is an overwhelming scent of ammonia. Young cheeses are turned weekly and after that once a month. With 18,000 cheeses in the barn, each weighing 18kg, this is an enormous, never ending task for the barn manager and his muscles. So much so, that later this year Tim and Simon plan to install a specially adapted cheese turning machine from Switzerland.
As we walked the aisles in this "church of cheese" Tim treated us to tasters of Lincolnshire Poacher through its ages. Using a cheese iron he extracted a core of cheese to share, before replacing the plug and resealing the rind with a dab of silicon. Side by side tasting of cheeses made just three days apart six months ago highlighted the daily variation in flavours, in particular the sharpness of particular batches. Lincolnshire Poacher is sold at two ages: 12-14 months and over 18 months when it is known as "Vintage". Tim tastes on a weekly rotation looking for the classic flavours of a good Lincolnshire Poacher and identifying those exceptional cheeses to be matured on. He also finds those that have gone a bit "side ways" in flavour. These cheeses, often a little bowed in shape, will be matured between two and three years and are then known as Double Barrel, offering a punch perfect for those who love their cheese strong, almost meaty in flavour. We were also treated to a taste of "Poacher 50" a trolley of experimental cheeses that had been heated (by mistake) to 50 degrees during the make, higher than normal, producing a dryer crumblier cheese, a creamy Parmesan.
Whilst we were overwhelmed by the vast amount of cheese maturing in the barn, Tim knew his batches almost individually like members of a family - their history and their characteristics. In his pocket he carried a little red notebook, a meticulous hand written record of tastings some what incongruous with the scale of the task but also wholly typical of the balance struck at Lincolnshire Poacher between volume and attention to tradition and quality.