Meet the ar­ti­san

Award win­ning cheese maker Julie Cheyney

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

AS I leave the cheese room at White Wood Dairy, Julie Cheyney hands me a lit­tle A5 card. I thank her and slip it into my note­book. I’m too busy hand­ing back clogs, hair­net, coat, and rum­mag­ing around for odd bits of re­moved jew­ellery, to take much no­tice.

Later, I look prop­erly. There’s a lovely pic­ture of Julie lean­ing on a black ta­ble, arm out­stretched, one fin­ger touch­ing a roundel of St Jude cheese bal­anced on its edge, as if she’s rolling it like a wheel. She’s fo­cused on the cheese not the cam­era, and the im­age sug­gests pride, a bit of play­ful­ness and – with­out go­ing over the top be­cause this is a piece of cheese af­ter all – love. It’s as if the pho­tog­ra­pher has cap­tured a mo­ment of in­ti­macy be­tween cheese and cheese­maker.

Julie is clearly busy when we meet on a Fri­day morn­ing, one of the two days a week that the cheese room at Fen Farm Dairy on the edge of Bun­gay (it’s nor­mally home to Baron Bigod brie, raw but­ter and un­pas­teurised milk) be­comes White Wood Dairy, and the place that Julie makes her fresh, St Mar­cellintype cheese from the raw milk of the Fen Farm Mont­béliarde cat­tle. She is pro­fes­sional, pre­cise, ex­pert, her lan­guage – she talks just enough – is dom­i­nated by words end­ing in ‘um’ or ‘ion’ – geotrichum can­didum, peni­cil­lium, acid­i­fi­ca­tion, co­ag­u­la­tion, lac­ta­tion – or ref­er­ences to en­zymes, bac­te­ria, mi­crobes, cul­tures, amino acids and pH lev­els. It’s not the fluffy lingo you as­so­ciate with or­di­nary food. This is se­ri­ous stuff, be­cause mak­ing cheese is a se­ri­ous, sci­en­tific process

with, as Julie ad­mits, “a lit­tle bit of witch­craft” thrown into the mix.

Milk ar­rives into the dairy through an in­con­gru­ously low-tech hole in the wall, how­ever, grav­ity-fed through pipes from the par­lour across the yard. It pours into giant plas­tic tubs.

“I was here at 5am yes­ter­day morn­ing to re­ceive 510 litres straight from the cat­tle,” says Julie, “and I start the process im­me­di­ately.” She adds cul­tures to trig­ger the alchemy, a starter to acid­ify the milk and give flavour, mould to help form the rind, yeasts to break down the pro­tein, ren­net which causes the liq­uid whey to sep­a­rate from the solid curds. The con­coc­tion is left to set for 24 hours dur­ing which time Julie checks the pH metic­u­lously. Once the cor­rect level is reached, she la­dles the curds into moulds from which they drip whey, in their own good time but roughly over a 12-hour pe­riod, into ground-level grates. From there, the ju­ve­nile cheeses are taken out of their moulds and placed on racks where they are turned and salted dur­ing a fur­ther 12-hour pe­riod.

“This lot is go­ing to Neal’s Yard on Mon­day. They’ll con­tinue to ripen there for about 14 days be­fore go­ing on sale,” she ex­plains. Other batches will find their way to high-end re­tail­ers around the UK, and closer to home to del­i­catessens such as Ear­sham Street Deli, just two miles from the farm, Law­sons in Alde­burgh, Bai­leys in Bec­cles, lo­cal farm­ers’ mar­kets, and the Suf­folk Food Hall.

“I’ve made 650 St Judes from that milk,” Julie ex­plains. “For every 10 litres, I get 12.5-13 cheeses. The yield de­pends on what stage of lac­ta­tion the cows are at.

“In August when they are coming to the end of lac­ta­tion, the milk is very dif­fer­ent from ear­lier in the year, but I’m al­ways talking with Shaun the herds­man so that I know what to ex­pect. He’s been here for years and re­ally un­der­stands the cows.” The cows’ diet, of course, also af­fects the milk. When we meet in June the cat­tle are 100% grass-fed, re­sult­ing in milk with dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics from that pro­duced a few weeks ear­lier, when a cold snap meant the cows had been fed some silage too.

“It changes the taste and the tex­ture of the cheese,” Julie ex­plains. “St Jude is a sea­sonal cheese and is sold young, so what you buy in early sum­mer will be dif­fer­ent from the cheese you pick up in Septem­ber.”

Julie is metic­u­lous about every stage of the long, care­ful mak­ing process, over­see­ing de­tail with the help of an enthusiastic young

Julie’s Suf­folk “I’ve only lived in Suf­folk for three years, but I love it. The Waveney Val­ley here round Bec­cles is stun­ning, and Cove­hithe and Or­ford have be­come favourite spots on the coast. I love the North Sea. It has at­ti­tude, makes the So­lent look soft!

“I do miss the South Downs, but walking through the reedbeds on the coast here is won­der­ful, ab­so­lutely beau­ti­ful!”

“Eat­ing out? I love Pea Por­ridge in Bury St Ed­munds. When I saw sweet­breads on the menu, I was sold. Life is too short to eat poorly, isn’t it.”

ap­pren­tice, Isis. The air in the cheese room is damp, smells tangy, alive al­most – it is in­deed throng­ing with mil­lions of bac­te­ria – and a fan whirs in the cor­ner to keep the am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture cor­rect, gen­er­ally around 22C.

“St Jude is a lac­tic-style cheese,” Julie ex­plains. “It takes a long time to acid­ify, longer than a brie-type which uses more ren­net.” She will set aside some of the cheeses to cre­ate St Cera, which starts off life as St Jude be­fore wash­ing the rind in a salt so­lu­tion in­hibits some bac­te­ria and en­cour­ages oth­ers, thus al­low­ing a meatier flavour to de­velop. She de­lib­er­ately makes no health claims about ei­ther of her raw-milk cheeses and, of course, safety is para­mount.

“The milk is tested, the cheese is tested, I go over and above what’s re­quired by food safety stan­dards. I be­lieve peo­ple should have the choice to eat raw-milk cheese if they wish.”

Julie came to cheese-mak­ing hav­ing been brought up around cat­tle. She was milk­ing cows reg­u­larly from the age of 16, and was mar­ried to a Hamp­shire farmer for 28 years. She launched her award-win­ning Camem­bert­style pas­teurised cheese, Tun­worth, in 2005, be­fore work­ing for spe­cial­ist re­tailer, Neal’s Yard, un­til the pull of ac­tu­ally mak­ing cheese be­came too strong.

“I saw a gap in the mar­ket for a lac­tic cow’s milk cheese. I called my cheese St Jude be­cause Jude was my nick­name, and be­cause I came to make it at an un­happy time in my life. St Jude is the pa­tron saint of lost causes.”

Julie moved to Suf­folk three years ago, hav­ing heard Jonny Crick­more, of Fen

Farm Dairy, on the BBC Ra­dio4 Farm­ing To­day pro­gramme. “He was talking about farm di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion, his de­sire to re­tain the fam­ily busi­ness, and how he had bought 80 Mont­béliarde cat­tle to start mak­ing cheese. Mon­tys can be bad-tem­pered (Jonny’s re­cently bought a few Brown Swiss who are more po­lite, very Swiss) but their milk is won­der­ful, a per­fect bal­ance of fat and pro­tein.”

Julie’s be­lief in her cheese – “it re­ally is in my head and my heart – it’s my cheese” – is sup­ported by a slew of awards. One in par­tic­u­lar, the James Aldridge Memo­rial Prize, is her most pre­cious pos­ses­sion.

“That award is judged by a com­mit­tee of in­dus­try peo­ple that I ad­mire. I was the first cheese­maker to win the Best Raw Milk Cheese award twice for two dif­fer­ent cheeses, St Jude and St Cera.”

For all the sci­ence be­hind cheese-mak­ing, it’s the taste that counts. St Jude is grassy, fresh, veg­e­tal, redo­lent of farm­yards, hay, the out­doors. There’s noth­ing in­sipid, plas­tic or man­u­fac­tured about it. Eat it young and the in­side is soft and fluffy, a few days later it runs read­ily, the flavours be­come more com­plex, and the thin, wrinkly coat­ing cre­ated by geotrichum and peni­cil­lium moulds de­vel­ops a more pro­nounced groove.

I turn over the A5 card as I leave, to find a recipe, from Nigel Slater. Halve some to­ma­toes, he sug­gests, driz­zle with oil and roast them, tear over some basil leaves, put St Jude on top and grill to melt­ing. Serve with lightly-toasted sour­dough bread and a glass of chilled Chenin blanc. Now that does sound per­fect.

Julie Cheyney mak­ing her St Jude cheese at Fen Farm Dairy

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