Stacey Hedges opens the door to her modern dairy, tucked away on a side road in a small, rural village near Alton in Hampshire, and hands me my white coat, shower cap and white rubber wellies. Hand washing, hand disinfecting, jewellery removal and visitor book signing done and we have chatted non-stop: I already know I am in for a very interesting few hours. You cannot fail to be enthused by her warm, humorous Australian manner, and the eight years she has spent making her beloved Tunworth cheese means she knows the process so well she could probably do dairy tours in her sleep.
“When I first started making cheese I was just in my kitchen at home,” she told me. "I had previously worked for a mad Hungarian when I lived in Sydney, and he owned a cheese shop filled with 300 different cheeses. He was always making the staff taste this cheese and that cheese, to compare the different flavours and textures, and I suppose I learned a great deal through his enthusiasm.”
Fast forward many years later, and Stacey, now living in England and married to Mark Hedges, the Editor of Country Life magazine, was at home experimenting with curds and whey.
“My third child had gone off to school and so I thought it would be fun to start making fresh curd cheese on my kitchen table. I soon realised I wanted to take the hobby further when I went on a cheese making course. The bug then bit me, and I became hooked!” she laughs out loud.
She began her fledgling business, called Hampshire Cheeses, in a different dairy from the one we are standing in, and she initially did her market research by trying to find out what gap there existed in the British cheese making market which was not being fulfilled by existing cheese makers.
“I went around various places asking the top cheesemongers and cheesemakers about their opinions, where they thought there would be a gap in the market and therefore demand for a new type of cheese. They all said that there wasn't anyone in Britain making a really flavoursome, soft white mould cheese, and so that was how I started.”
Stacey knew back then that she would not be able to compete with the likes of Montgomery and Keene cheddar, nor would she be able to enter the blue cheese market with competitors like Stilton and Stichelton. So she heeded the advice of the experts and the rest is history.
The trajectory of the arc of success from that moment to now is quite unbelievable: within a year or so of producing Tunworth, selling it at farmers' markets, food fairs and festivals, Stacey won “Supreme Champion” at the British Cheese Awards in 2006. That would be the equivalent of winning the Costa Book Award for a debut novel, or winning an Oscar for your first film. It put Hampshire Cheeses and its founder immediately on the cheese lovers and cognoscenti map.
“It was an incredible feeling. It meant the media became very interested in us, and I was introduced to some really helpful and collaborative people in the cheese making industry. The cheese awards are a great way for meeting peers in the industry, and it is a very collaborative and co-operative sector.”
Since then the gongs have kept coming, from local, national and international cheese competitions. To think that in Britain alone there are no fewer than 700 artisanal cheeses, to even be nominated for an award is an honour and a privilege, let alone bringing the top prizes home.
Stacey is quick to recognise those that helped her at the beginning.
“Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy was a very good mentor to me. I would go up to London and take him different cheese samples and he told me whether they needed more salt or whether I needed to tweak something in the method of preparation or whether it would be of benefit for me to go and meet another cheese maker making a similar cheese. I became one of Neal Yard’s suppliers and they would always pay me on time. They like to create a very good working relationship with cheese makers so that specialist artisans produce the very best cheeses for them to sell to their customers in turn and everybody in the chain benefits.”
The aim of the British artisanal cheese makers, obviously, is to create a loyal foodie hub of customers who would rather buy British cheeses than imported European ones. Collaboration and co-operation is paramount between small dairies that need one another’s help and expertise, not just from the social point of view but also out of financial necessity, in a country where food purchases are driven by supermarkets and not small artisanal food markets.
In the last year life has changed considerably, because Stacey, cheese partner Charlotte Spruce and her team (in total 4 full time and 1 part time staff) moved into this brand new purpose built dairy. It is white, clean, spacious, well equipped and ergonomic: exemplary as a small centre of excellence, where apprentices and visitors from other dairies can come and see the legendary Tunworth being made by hand.
“I was helped in the design of the dairy by Ivan Larcher, who also works at The School of Artisan Food in Welbeck, Nottinghamshire. It is laid out specially with the fact that it is run by, mainly, lady cheese makers in mind. The vats, bought from France, are made of plastic and are smaller than the great steel vats you normally find. They are lighter and easier to work with and clean by hand.”
Stacey shows me the pristine, shiny pipe work from where the milk arrives. Charlotte comes to the dairy at 7am, before taking her children to school. Approximately 2500 litres of unpasteurised milk are used every day to make around 800 cheeses. The milk is sourced from a local Holstein herd and the taste of Tunworth changes according to what the cows have been eating across the seasons, in addition to the different weather fluctuations and air humidity.
“In the winter, when the cows are fed indoors, you get a far wetter cheese because of the high fat content. In late summer, when the grass is very dry due to lack of rain the flavour and fat content changes again, but the changes occur very fast, literally even from one day to the next.”
The milk is heated to a temperature of around 34 degrees Celsius, just under the temperature of human blood, and the starter culture and animal rennet are added so that the curds set slowly. Charlotte and Neil, a dairy assistant who has been working with the team for two and a half years, are gently testing the curds to see whether they are set to the right consistency. Charlotte handles them delicately between her fingers, and she crumbles them apart to feel their consistency, thinking out loud.
“They are nearly there,” she says, as small squares of solid milk glisten between her wet fingers. The timing is crucial: the curds need to be at absolutely the right point of solidity. Suddenly the pace of work speeds up: with steel cutters Charlotte and Neil wade into the golden milk to ensure that all the curds are cut and broken up into squares, then with small white trays used as paddles the curds and whey are separated. The yellow, oozing whey runs like streams into channels at the sides of the large frames on which the curds are poured, falling into their plastic moulds with the aid of jugs and buckets. The curds settle into the white moulds, and are gently pushed in to make sure that each mould has exactly the same amount of curds.
Charlotte and Neil are now concentrating and shouting numbers at one another, to compare how many moulds each is able to fill from one vat. The radio is playing in the background, Neil is whistling, the momentum gathers and within half an hour all the curds are set in place.
“It’s like Niagara Falls over here!” exclaims Neil, as Charlotte tops up each mould with a bit more curds here and there. Cheese making is a very, very wet business, there is whey flowing on the floor and out of every frame.
The curds settle and from a height of around 15 cm they will eventually fall down to a final 3 cm height as set round cheeses of 11cm diameter, weighing just 250 grams. Big cheese wheel making is a man’s job and if you are a lady cheese maker it is obvious that you might want to make a smaller cheese.
“There is a great deal more work in terms of individual turning, packaging and labelling as well of course, if there are more smaller cheeses to deal with, but they are far less heavy,” Stacey explained.
After twenty minutes or so the curds are turned, with a large steel base frame used to heave the plastic moulds upside down. The cheeses are stacked into a drying room, on stainless steel racks, where the moisture evaporates from the cheeses and a crackled, mouldy exterior rind starts to form.
In the maturing room you can see cheeses that are around 10 days old and the rind is much more defined in thickness, although still very much part of the edible section of the cheese. Their ivory, crinkly whiteness and tidy formation are quite startling to behold, almost otherworldly.
“I felt that I wanted to create a cheese where the rind was part of the cheese, so that you did not just cut the rind away,” Stacey told me. “There is good flavour in the rind.”
The team have thought of diversifying into making other types of cheeses as well, but in the end, owning a dairy that runs at 80% capacity is enough of a challenge.
"When you are making a cheese that is lovingly nurtured, carefully prepared and intensively looked after, you cannot stint on quality and therefore if we started making another cheese it would be hard to deliver the same level of attention," Stacey confessed. There are only so many hours in the day, and every working mother knows that.
All the team in the dairy tell me how much they love their job, how passionate they are about making a high-end, specialist, artisan cheese and how proud they are that some of the very best cheese shops and delicatessens in the land, including Selfridges, The Fine Cheese Company, La Fromagerie and Paxton and Whitfield, have chosen to stock their cheese, as well as Neal’s Yard.
“You absolutely have to love making cheese or you just would not do this job,” Charlotte says, while they are all scrubbing, wiping, cleaning and putting the equipment away.
“When people come here for an interview I can immediately tell from the attitude if they are going to make it as a cheese maker and whether they are going to fit into our team. It is very hard work, very physical and very demanding. But at the end of the day it is very rewarding: when our customers write in to tell us they have tasted Tunworth and they think it is the best cheese they have ever eaten, it just makes everything so worthwhile. The financial remuneration may not be huge but the personal reward is.”
While they turn cheeses they are not alone, they have each other for company and they chat and gossip, or make “To-Do Lists” inside their heads. Charlotte and Stacey met as mothers at the school gates, so they understand clearly the challenges that simultaneously juggling a business and motherhood bring.
I ask Stacey whether her teenage children, now aged 18, 16 and 12, are proud of their mother’s achievements. At first she laughs.
“Well, I do not really know, in so far as teenage children are not really interested in their parents or what they do. But yes, I think they probably are. I do believe that it is really good for children to have a role model as they grow up: they saw me creating a business from scratch. I deal with the accounting, the profit and the loss, the economics of milk prices, negotiations with buyers, chasing up invoices and so on. I have had to deal with builders, electricians and other tradesmen. I think that the educational side of the business is interesting for my children to learn from, they have seen the complex layers of being a food producer.”
And now, for the taste test. As we stop for a cup of tea Stacey breaks a more mature Tunworth cheese, wrapped in its waxed paper and handsome, branded poplar box and inside there is a crumbly, creamy, rich interior. She recommends a 7-8 week maturing period in total. The taste is a mix between the flavour of spring greens and the light, earthy fragrance of a freshly cut mushroom. Tunworth is quite similar to Camembert, but the rind is much softer and the flavour more subtle and delicate. The Normandy terroir, from where Camembert was created, has very similar weather patterns and soil to parts of Britain, and you will detect similar taste notes, but Tunworth has a younger, fresher quality to it.
My head thinks of thin slithers of Tunworth melting on hot, braised cavolo nero with toasted pine nuts, a meltingly soft butternut squash and cheese flan and a folding, wavy, rich risotto with chestnuts and freshly chopped parsley. A buttery Chardonnay, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or a dry sherry would accompany this cheese beautifully, but I am also happy with my hot tea.
My little, silent recipe reverie is broken because Stacey cannot sit still for long, there is still more cleaning to be done and all around me there is the smell of diluted bleach and green washing up liquid being squirted on every surface. The floors are swept, the industrial dishwasher hisses and spurts clouds of hot steam in the air and each nozzle and pipe is scrubbed till sparkling.
“There is no glamour at all here,” Charlotte explains, her bare hands sliding hot, foamy cloths over walls and buckets. “Cheese making is 90% cleaning. Milk is a very fatty substance and you have to get every single trace of it off. We take regular swabs to check that after the washing, scrubbing, rinsing and disinfection there are no bacteria left. We have to set everything up then for the next day, all the moulds need to be back in place, so that when we re-enter the dairy tomorrow morning everything is spotless for the next 800 cheeses.”
The team try to leave at around 4pm because there are children to be collected. For five days a week the relentless pace of cheese making continues, and at the weekend the staff just come in to check that the cheeses are alright and to see to any more turning that needs to be done.
In a back cold, dark, sealed storage room sit hundreds and hundreds of round Tunworth cheeses, all labelled, checked, documented, stacked and ready to be sent out to the distributor companies that will eventually deliver to cheese shops and food halls all over the country. Through a small glass door the van drivers will enter this little hidden, rural Hampshire sanctuary and take away the boxes to their ultimate retail destination. The end of a journey that started eight years ago on the Hampshire kitchen table of an Australian mother who thought she might just give cheese making a go.
Stacey Hedges and Charlotte Spruce at Hampshire Cheeses: www.hampshirecheeses.co.uk