“When the curds have drained, sprinkle fine salt on, and spread with a feather. Place on a dry shelf, turning them daily. When a fine white mould has covered them they are fit to eat. Bath cheese will demonstrate its ripeness by spreading on bread as butter does with the aid of a knife.” John Prince, Agriculturalist, 1908.
The Padfield family have been farming at Park Farm in Kelston, between Bath and Bristol, for one hundred years. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Edward Earnest Padfield and his wife Lillian made cheese from the leftovers of the milk from their dairy herd way back when cheese was made with a bucket for mixing, a willow basket for moulding and a cloth for wrapping. Now his great-grandson Hugh Padfield and his parents Graham and Gabrielle are carrying on the family tradition, although the technology has moved onwards since then.
They recently organised an open day for press, suppliers, buyers and friends, and it was interesting to see how the family have managed to create a very local and distinctive set of renowned, vernacular cheeses, tied to the land and its history, that have nevertheless garnered such a wide following with buyers across the London Farmers’ Markets network and cheesemongers in the capital and abroad.
The story begins with the soil, of course, and the 600 acres in and around Park Farm has been farmed organically for the last 15 years. As a result, clover has been used to fix nitrogen in the soil, and much of the grass is filled with wildflowers and nettles. The visitors were taken round part of the farm to see the Friesian dairy herd out in the pastures. In the winter barns we saw how they are kept on straw and fed hay for when the grass does not grow or the external conditions are too wet and cold to allow the herd outdoors.
This breed of cow is well known for its capacity to produce anywhere between 40 and a staggering 140 pints of milk per day, which is anywhere between 22 and 80 litres of milk per day. Milking is normally done at 4am and at 2pm, in shifts between the herdsman employed by the Padfield family. The raw milk is sucked out of the udders by suckers that emulate the mouth of a calf suckling its mother. The milk is then pumped into a steel tank where it is cooled down from body temperature to 10 degrees Celsius, before being transferred by pipe into the dairy, a purpose-built outhouse which was set up in 1993, where it is pasteurised at a temperature of 63 degrees Celsius in a tank that holds 1450 litres of milk. The milk is then cooled to 33 degrees Celsius.
The conversion rate is such that from 350 000 litres of milk, 35 000 kilograms of cheese can be made per annum. Hugh explained how, when demand increases suddenly, it is hard to satisfy that with cheeses that take a year or more to ripen. He told us that he has been drinking raw milk all of his life, straight from the cooling vat with a jug.
Back in the dairy, Graham explained how only a very small amount of starter culture is added to the milk followed by a small amount of vegetable rennet, in the case of Wife of Bath cheese (named after a character in Chaucer’s 15th Century Canterbury Tales) and animal rennet to make Bath Soft Cheese and Bath Blue Cheese. The bacteria in the starter culture convert the sugars in the milk to acid and it is acid which helps to preserve the cheese. The rennet seprates the water from the solids in the milk and increases the shelf life of the milk by making it dry. In the first stage after adding rennet the proteins bond in the mixture.
After the coagulation period, when the curds are left to set, the curds are separated from the whey, and placed in moulds, a square one for Bath Soft Cheese and in a round, colander shaped mould for the Wife of Bath cheese.
The Bath Soft Cheeses are left to mature in the cold room, at 14 degrees Celsius, for just four to five days. The square shape is wrapped in wax paper and labelled with very distinctive paper and printing whose font was designed by Felix Padfield, Hugh’s younger brother, who studied at St.Martin’s School of Art.
This square cheese is soft and runny with a white bloomy rind. The flavour is earthy, mushroomy and fragrant with a trace of citrus and a note of grass. It is quite similar to a very soft brie, although much less chalky and fresher on the palate. It is excellent for spreading on toast, canapés, on bruschetta, in pasta, melted in risotto at the end of the mantecatura and also in polenta. I have also served it with rucola, Prosciutto di Parma, Jamon Iberico and Coppa di Collo with great success. Bath Soft Cheese has a shelf life around 4-5 weeks and 30 000 of them are made every single year.
The recipe for Bath Soft Cheese dates back to the time of Admiral Lord Nelson who, in 1801, was sent some by his father as a gift. It was recorded that Nelson’s sweet heart was ‘gratified’ by the flavour of this cheese.
We stood and watched as the whey drained out of the dairy through a cut channel in the floor in front of our feet. It is then collected to be sprayed over the fields. The cheesemakers spread the curds across a stainless steel frame with holes. The curds fell into the square plastic moulds underneath.
We were shown the pierced round moulds that are used to make the Bath Blue cheese, created from small pieces of curds with air pockets trapped between them, so that the cheese ripens with bacteria creating blue veins inside the centre. When the cheese is removed from the mould, it is then pierced with needles to allow air to enter. It is ripened over a five week period.
The various stages of both white mould (bloom) formation and blue mould formation were discussed. We also felt the different stages of maturation of the Wife of Bath Cheese, with its hard, orange rind, which is created naturally. All the cheeses are dated with a stamp, and left to ferment on either wooden or stainless steel racks. The maturation rooms need to resemble a cave or cellar, so there is a low temperature and quite a high level of humidity, although the rooms are spotlessly clean and there is no mould on the walls or the floors.
Hugh explained to me that although the three different cheeses are made in completely different ways, with no cross contamination taking place during production, to prevent the bacteria in the blue cheese from contaminating the Soft Cheese and the Wife of Bath, there is no problem during the ripening phase and they can be placed near one another on shelves.
The Wife of Bath cheese is far more chewier, nuttier and substantial in flavour, with a texture that evokes platters of lasagne, macaroni, vegetables cooked au gratin and also fondue pots, simmering with wild mushrooms and cracked black pepper. The Bath Blue has a deep, pleasant piquant flavour, it is slightly sticky and has a good caramel colour. I would serve it very simply on Bath Olivers or on toasted sourdough bread with a good Bath Ale, or Compass Brewery’s Symposium, artisanal beer by Mattias Sjoberg from Oxfordshire.
After studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, Hugh embarked upon a career in management consultancy in London. Now married with three young children, he and his wife decided they wanted their children to have a country childhood, so Hugh has come home to the the rolling hills of Kelston, an ancient territory once farmed by both Celts and Romans, to help his parents manage the family business. He told us that they are the last dairy farm left standing in the village, as one by one farmers have given up, faced with too high costs and too little returns
In the beginning, Gabrielle, his mother, helped Graham make the cheeses when they started cheesemaking as a business in 1993.
“We started off really simply, everything was done by hand. Sometimes we used to make a really good batch of cheese, and the cheesemongers from Paxton and Whitfield in Bath said that they wanted to sell it. It just grew from there really. They still stock us today. Now I am busy looking after the grandchildren, which I love doing. Having Hugh come back to live and work on the farm has been a wonderful thing for us, because we never dreamt that he would.”
Now, almost two decades later, as well as Paxton and Whitfield, many other delicatessens and cheesemonger shops who follow the great British Cheese Awards and the Nantwich Cheese Awards, in which the Park Farm cheeses have been awarded prizes, are also stockists. The Fine Cheese Company, Pong Cheese, Abel and Cole, The Cheese Gig and The Cheese Shed are all wholesalers, and the Park Farm team sell at stalls in Borough Market as well as farmers’ markets from Ealing to Pimlico, Twickenham, South Kensington and Swiss Cottage.
There is also a cheese shop on the farm itself, where the public can buy direct. You can just drive straight into the farm courtyard, where you will see a series of renovated barns and outbuildings, and the small shop is clearly signposted. It is very clean and modern, with rows of cheeses lined up ready to take home in a smart paper bag.
During the farm tour, Hugh discussed the various difficulties of organic farming and the challenges they face in getting their herd of 130 cows in calf (through artificial insemination) and managing the 30 or so cows resting and the 50 or so young hefers coming through. All dairy herds produce approximately 50% male calves as offspring, and the latter are fed on 4 litres of milk and grass initially, before being sold for meat, principally veal. The average cow in the herd lives for 4-5 years, although several have lived for more than a decade.
During the summer months, when a good spell of sunshine is forecast, the farm team cut the grass to make hay, which is turned in the fields to dry. Some of the grass is placed in the silage clamp and pressed. Through anaerobic fermentation the bacteria break down the natural sugars and starches into lactic acid. Silage is full of nutrients and will see the herd through even the harshest of winters.
The difficulty with organic agriculture is getting the perfect balance of clover within the grass, because with too much clover growing in the pastures there is the danger that cows will die from bloating. This situation is very sudden and can cause a loss to the herd if not watched carefully. When cows are first let out in the spring in legume pastures, of which family white and red clover are part, they sometimes over-feed, and the carbon dioxide and methane gas produced within their abdomen produces pressure on the diaphragm which means the animal cannot breathe properly and might, if not spotted early enough, die.
Despite the day-to-day challenges that arise running a small, artisanal, family food business present, during the last year the Padfield family has seen a 50% increase in the amount of cheese sales, and Gabrielle tells me that now that Hugh is on board they are preparing for a big sales push. Obviously, Hugh’s strengths lie in the marketing side of the business, and he has been quick to understand the importance of a good website and social media interaction.
He told me also that a small business like this cannot really afford to spend a great deal of money on marketing or PR, so for them it is much better to target the fine cheese lovers directly through the distribution companies and through events such as this one, where buyers and producers are brought together.
It will be very interesting to see the work of fourth and fifth generation of Padfields at Park Farm. The present incumbents have clearly worked hard to bring these excellent artisanal cheeses into the wider cheese buying domain both in Britain and abroad. In Britain there are now around 800 artisanally made cheeses and judging by the number of people who came to the open day at Park Farm and the interest in the cheese tastings, there is no doubt that more and more people enjoy the information and education which comes from seeing artisanal food producers at work.
Many more of Britain’s artisan cheesemakers could take this open day as an example – it is all about sociable networking, educational marketing and information sharing. The future of artisanal production, surely, belongs to those businesses that grasp those three important concepts.
The Bath Soft Cheese Company, Park Farm, Kelston, Bath BA1 9AG
Follow the team on Twitter: @BathCheese and also @BathSoftCheese