CREAM OF THE CROP
At Fen Farm Dairy in Bungay, Suffolk, Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore are using an innovative approach to revive the market town’s centuries-old butter-making heritage
A family dairy farm is helping to revive the centuries-old buttermaking heritage of the market town of Bungay
On warm spring days, Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore make a picnic of bread, butter and cheese, and climb the steep grassy bank that overlooks their dairy farm on the edge of Bungay in rural Suffolk. With their two small children, Arthur and Ottilie, in tow, they beat a path to the top and take in the view of the farm and the flat marshland below, where the River Waveney undulates through lush paddocks, home to their 270-strong herd of mostly pure-bred red-and-white Montbeliardes.
Also visible in the farmyard is the tiny cow-print shed, where Fen Farm Dairy’s raw, artisanal products are sold, breathing life into a local dairy tradition that dates back hundreds of years. “Suffolk used to be famous for its butter,” says Jonny, whose family has been farming on the same spot for three generations, “but it had died out, and no one was even making it in East Anglia.” A tangible reminder of Bungay’s past status as the butter-making capital of England is a 17th-century, lead-domed butter cross in the centre of the market town, under which farmers used to trade their prime dairy produce. So great was its reputation, the butter was sold in London and shipped as far as the West Indies. It’s a story now echoed in Jonny and Dulcie’s own success, as their Bungay Raw Butter – which is sold in wooden containers stamped with a butter cross insignia – is available in Neal’s Yard Dairy and Fortnum & Mason as well as online and through retailers across the UK.
Keen to provide a product that requires as few steps as possible between field and table, Jonny and Dulcie opted to create theirs using milk in its ‘raw’ form, meaning that it has not been heattreated to kill the micro-organisms it contains. It’s an innovative approach, which has been gaining popularity among those who feel it leads to milk, cream, cheese and butter with greater depth of flavour, increased nutritional value – as vitamins aren’t destroyed in the heating process – and that the enzymes it contains can make it easier to digest. However, there are health concerns about raw milk specifically, as the lack of heat treatment increases the likelihood of the presence of harmful bacteria. “I believe the benefits far outweigh the risks,” Jonny says. “It’s important for anyone selling raw milk to know all the potential dangers and how you combat them. But we’ve been selling it for five years and have only ever had good comments.”
The produce that Johnny and Dulcie now sell is the culmination of a diversification process that began back in 2011. At that point, Jonny, who had been working full-time alongside his father Graham, had become disillusioned. “I wasn’t enjoying the style of farming we were doing; we had a high-yielding Holstein herd, and they were in sheds most of the year – because they produce so much milk, grass is not enough to feed them.” Furthermore, Jonny was inspired by a local chicken farmer who was selling his free-range eggs, using an honesty box, for twice as much as the big companies were paying. “I said to Dulcie: ‘Why on earth don’t we do the same with our milk?’”
This led to their innovative raw-milk vending machine, installed by Jonny and Dulcie in their little farm shop, and, before long, customers were flocking to fill up their own retro-style glass bottles of Fen Farm Dairy milk. The Crickmores were soon retailing up to 100 litres a day, a success that inspired them to expand their range.
In keeping with their desire for a less intensive style of farming, the family sold off some Holstein cattle and replaced them with 72 pure-bred Montbeliarde cows, sourced by Jonny from the Jura region of France, known for its Comté cheese. Dulcie, meanwhile, who has a background in costume making for film and theatre, put her mind towards their online presence and branding – working in collaboration with artist and designer friends to devise their distinctive packaging.
The Montbeliarde’s milk is ideal for butter and cheese making, as it is naturally higher in proteins and butterfat, resulting in a
They are keen to provide a product with the fewest steps between field and table
Jonny puts the public’s enthusiasm down to the milk’s superior taste
richer flavour. The breed is also happiest being fed on grass, and so grazes outside in the paddocks for most of the year. Fen Farm butter is made traditionally using soured cream, as opposed to whey – a waste product of cheese making – which is commonly used by other farmhouse brands. Once the butter has been churned, Jonny will sprinkle over Maldon Sea Salt, which lends the finished product a subtle yet satisfying crunch. Finally, they use Scotch hands, rather like wooden spatulas, to tap out any remaining moisture. Then the butter is ready to be shaped, wrapped and boxed for sale.
Raw milk can only be bought direct from suppliers in the UK for health and safety reasons, and is banned in Scotland (the rules for butter and cheese are more liberal due to the different processes involved). With this in mind, as well as adding beneficial lactic bacteria – “They get the upper hand quickly, which means that other, potentially harmful, bacteria don’t have the chance to get established” – the Crickmores are rigorous about animal health, along with cleanliness in the milking parlour, and cooling their milk quickly to the right temperature to prevent bacterial growth during its shelf life. “We’re always thinking of ways to have a betterquality product with a healthier, happier animal,” Jonny says.
Following the rapturous response to their milk vending machine, Jonny and Dulcie began selling the devices themselves – and so far 34 have been bought by farmers all over England, part of the engine of a newly resurgent market for raw milk. “Some sell 200-300 litres a day,” Jonny says. He puts the public’s growing enthusiasm for the unadulterated white stuff down to two things – its superior taste and an increasing interest in provenance: “Bit by bit, we’re realising that if we don’t support local businesses, our high streets are all going to be full of the same shops.”
Of course, being the driving force behind a pioneering dairy business doesn’t leave a huge amount of leisure time: “We have a few hours off on a Saturday or Sunday, when we might go to the coast for a walk,” says Dulcie, who mostly works from home to fit in with the children. Happily, Arthur and Ottilie, aged five and three, are equally delighted to get involved in life on the farm – particularly when it comes to joining in rides on the tractor or helping to care for the animals. But it’s clear the job satisfaction that comes from being in charge of the whole cycle of production and inspiring other raw milk producers to follow suit – while also restoring Bungay’s reputation as a dairy product destination – is well worth the effort. “I can’t believe what we’ve managed to do in the past year,” Jonny says, citing their cheese being served at Ascot and Wimbledon as a highlight. “I love our little town – I’ve lived here all my life and feel proud I’m doing my bit to raise its profile.”
Dulcie and Ottilie climb the Suffolk fields that provide organic feed for their herds and increase the quality of their products