If there was ever an artisanal couple that encapsulated all that The Foodie Bugle magazine tries to draw awareness to and champion, it is Erica and Derek Barton of Preston West Farm, near Lyneham in Wiltshire. They are small, artisanal goats’ cheese producers, and they sell their delicious, round, poplar wood boxed goats’ cheeses at farmers’ markets in Swindon, Cirencester and Stroud.
When you arrive at their dairy farm, you will be immediately mesmerised by the view; a clean, wide sweep stretching across verdant, rolling Wiltshire countryside and the villages of Clevancy, Clyffe Pypard and Bushton in the horizon. You could not conjure a more beautiful, Arcadian scene in which to live and work, yet the pace of life here is far from sheltered.
The Bartons now have a 60 strong herd of white, fluffy Saanen goats, in wide, open barns where they live in straw pens, when they are not out to amble in grassy pastures. Two billy goats are butting their heads against steel gates, trying to eat the strap of my camera case as I lean to photograph them. Goats are herding animals, explains Erica, and so you should never keep just the one, as they will pine. They are sociable, inquisitive, almost mischievous creatures, and yes, if let loose they will eat anything in sight, even the washing. I am completely transfixed by them, as they nuzzle up to smell my hands, cajoling one another and bleating like new born lambs
The herd lives on a diet of peas, corn, maize, lucerne and molasses, all dried into small pellets, and when they are not foraging and browsing through the fields, they munch their way through hundreds of bales of hay every year. They only drink water, unless they are poorly, in which case Erica looks after them as if they were children, bottle fed with milk.
I enquired how this goats' cheese making business began, quite overwhelmed with the amount of unstinting hard labour and constant attention required to manage and milk such feisty animals, all by hand. Now at an age when most people would be considering retiring and putting their feet up, both Erica and Derek have to stand under tarpaulin stalls at regional farmers’ markets, in sub-zero temperatures, wind and gales blowing around them, just to sell a mere 50 small boxes, and some days the end result can be very meagre indeed. When they first started keeping goats it was in order to show them, as a hobby, under the auspices of the British Goat Society. Many medals and rosettes later, they caught the goat keeping bug. They then started breeding them, milking them and that is how the Neustift Dairy venture came into being, named after the Austrian village where Erica’s mother grew up.
The cheese making shed is a cabin resting on breeze blocks, and we stand outside, looking in at the spotless shelves and sink, the smell of bleach permeating the surrounding area. It is here that the unpasteurised milk is turned into a plain goats’ cheese, a lemon and lavender “Bouquet” cheese and an orange and rosemary “Seville” cheese. The tastes are rich, so buttery, aromatic and grassy, with hints of herb and meadow. The texture is very soft and mousse-like, the cheeses crumbling into small, snowflake shards, that spread like cream on warm sourdough bread, or crispy crackers. I have used their goats’ cheese in making fluffy little soufflés in ramekins, and as a mantecatura for vegetable risottos. The result is always outstanding, and I have converted many a goats’ cheese hater.
The harsh realities of vertiginously spiralling food prices and costs of production, the impact of the recession and increasingly high levels of bureaucracy have made life very difficult for small, artisanal food producers all over Great Britain. In Derek and Erica’s case, however, the challenge of opening their distribution to a wider range of shops and delicatessens is made even greater by the fact that they do not own a computer, their quiet dignity harking back to a farming era when sales were made through word of mouth. Three gold medals and three silver medals at the British Cheese Awards have not brought any greater economic security to their door.
One of the aims of The Foodie Bugle online magazine is to reach out to delicatessens, restaurants, fine food shops or food halls, by commending excellent food products and the patient hands that rear, grow, mould and craft them, and try to bring them to a wider audience. If you would like to stock this wonderful cheese, sell it on or serve it in your establishment, get in contact with Derek and Erica. They would be delighted to give you a taste of their skill.
To contact: Erica and Derek Barton, Preston West Farm, Lyneham, Chippenham, Wiltshire SN15 4DX
Mobile Phone number : 07840 600809
Farmers' markets where you can buy the cheese: Stroud, Swindon and Cirencester.