Ram Hall Farm in Warwickshire holds many memories for me – it was a six week internship here in spring 2010 which confirmed my love affair with farmhouse cheese production.
Less than a year later, I took a second internship at the farm, helping with both the cheese production and the evening milking shifts, as part of the School of Artisan Food diploma course.
Ram Hall is where the famous Berkswell cheese is made, using unpasteurised milk from the farm’s flock of Friesian and Dorset sheep. Sheila and Peter Fletcher own the farm, and their son Stephen runs the milking flock.
Berkswell village sits in the heart of rural England, surrounded by leaf lanes and ancient ridge-and-furrow pasture, and yet it is only seven miles from Coventry city centre. The village has a charming black and white timbered pub, a 12thcentury church, a village green and the impressive Berkswell Hall estate, of which Ram Hall is part. An imposing building in itself, Ram Hall is a solid 16thcentury farmhouse with wide chimneys, the remains of a moat, and tumbledown red brick and timber outbuildings surrounding the farmyard.
For the past twenty years, Linda Dutch has been the cheese maker, having first joined the farm as a relief milker in 1989, when the flock was started. The sheep arrived as a result of falling milk prices from the farm’s milking cows, and Stephen decided to diversify, seeing a gap in the market for sheep’s milk which could be sold at a considerably higher price. Sheila began making cheese in the farmhouse kitchen after going on a cheese making course at Reaseheath College. The first cheeses were made to a Caerphilly recipe, but were of varying quality being made in a domestic kitchen.
The family soon realised that if cheese making were to be a commercial venture, a purpose-build dairy would need to be constructed, and it wasn’t long before Linda had become interested in what was happening to the milk, and took over the cheese making. The recipe for the cheese quickly evolved, and soon took shape of the cheese we know today – much more it the style of Spanish Manchego or Italian Pecorino than Welsh Caerphilly.
Today, Berkswell is one of the most highly regarded hard British sheep’s milk cheese, instantly recognisable by the unique shape the cheese takes from being hand moulded into plastic colanders. After two decades of producing the cheese, Linda has recently taken a back seat, and is concentrating on marketing and PR rather than being so hands on in the dairy. Linda is a kind and gentle lady, who is both humble and rightly proud of her cheese. She has a feel for the milk: an intimate understanding of its character through the seasons and lactation cycles of the sheep, and how to subtly adjust the recipe through the year, to encourage the natural sweetness and characteristics of the milk to express themselves in the cheese. This is a highly refined skill, and can only be learned from experience. Linda has taught and handed on the recipe to Julie Hay, who has been helping with the cheese making for several years now.
Fresh unpasteurised milk is pumped into three 450 litre vats before being gently heated with the addition of starter culture. After an incubation period of forty minutes, during which time the starter culture bacteria rehydrate and begin to acidify the milk, lamb’s rennet is diluted in water and stirred into the milk. Originally the cheese was made using microbial rennet, but Linda changed the recipe to use animal rennet around seven years ago, after numerous taste tests with Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy. Interestingly, and contrary to what Linda suspected, the cheese tends to produce sweeter high notes over savoury flavours when made with lamb’s rennet, yet have both a rich nuttiness and a juicy, full mouth-feel.
Once the milk has coagulated, the curd is cut and scalded to 40ºC, before being left to settle below the whey. Whilst the curds are under the whey, the acidity continues to rise and the curds begin to knit together. Gloved arms slip down into the vat, disappearing in the pale yellow whey to disturb the mass of curd, gently breaking it up and bringing the top to the bottom, the bottom to the top, the sides to the middle and the middle to the sides. Acidity development and firmness of the curd is repeatedly tested, and once at the correct level, the moulding begins. Depending on how full the vats are, between three and five people will help mould each vat – scooping out the curds and whey, and breaking them up, squeezing the curd to help release whey, and pushing into colanders to form the cheese. The process looks like a rather brutal treatment to the curd, but gives Berkswell its dense texture and mellow nature.
At this stage the curds taste delicate and milky, with the unmistakeable richness of sheep’s milk, but after 48 hours, they taste bright and acidic, with an almost yoghurt like flavour. After being rubbed with dry salt, and painted with a thin protective coating, the cheeses will be aged on wooden boards until ready for sale, usually after four to eight months. Whilst ageing, the crust of the cheese plays host to multitude of moulds, yeasts and bacteria – all aiding the ripening and essential to the flavour development of the cheese. There are three main cheese stores, each holding up to 1700 cheeses, with a fourth store used for long-ageing cheeses selected by Neal’s Yard Dairy, who taste each batch monthly. Each store has a subtly different balance of micro-flora which contribute to the flavour profile of the cheeses housed in it, and at certain times of year, Linda will be able to detect which store a cheese has aged in.
Of course, as with any raw milk farmhouse cheese, at the heart of Berkswell cheese, and one of the main dictators of the nature of the cheese, is the high quality of milk, coming from the flock of Friesian and Dorset sheep. Friesians are far and away the most popular milking sheep in northern Europe, being well natured and very productive, but over the past few years Stephan has begun breeding Dorset sheep into the flock. While Dorsets produces far less milk, they will happily lamb in autumn, ensuring there is enough milk for cheese making year round.
Through the course of the year, the flock’s feed is varied and geared toward the nutrition and productivity of the sheep. During the cold winter months the sheep are bedded on straw in airy sheds, and fed a mix of maize silage, and Italian rye and red clover silage, but as the weather gets warmer and drier, the sheep spend more time on pasture where they graze on ancient flower-filled meadows. Flavours, textures and aromas of Berkswell evolve through the year, reflecting the diet of the animals – often being sweetly floral and aromatic, and other times taking on more spiky, fruity and intensely pineapple like flavours. With age comes the loss of juicy succulence, but the gain of a more satisfyingly nutty quality and flaky texture, perfect for finely grating over a light risotto of baby courgettes and peas, or adding to a vibrant pesto.
Berkswell is a magnificent cheese, and a real success story born of enterprising and intelligent farm diversification. The cheese has hit a niche market and become one of the most iconic modern British artisan cheeses. Neal’s Yard Dairy, Paxton and Whitfield, and La Fromagerie have all been loyal supporters of the cheese, and along with a network of wholesalers and distributors, the cheese has not only a national market, but an international following. Berkswell can be found in the cellars of the great Parisian fromageries such as Androuet, and on the counter of American cheese mongers like Murrays, Cowgirl Creamery and Whole Foods.
For dairy farmers who have suffered from falling milk prices and increasing running costs, who may consider farm diversification in the form of cheese making, Ram Hall proves that a small but thriving on-farm business can indeed be sustained.
To buy Berkswell cheese: www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk www.lafromagerie.co.uk www.paxtonandwhitfield.co.uk
David Jowlett’s food blog: www.portraitoftheartisan.blogspot.com
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