Little John

Little John 1

Me (left) and Cam (right) in front of the entrance to the cheese factory

I was delighted to be asked back for a second cheese making session in Brockley yesterday with Cameron Rowan, one of the four founding members of Blackwoods Cheese Company. In January I went along on an afternoon milk run to the Commonwork Organic Farm in Kent. On that day we added cheese culture and rennet to the still-warm milk and called it a day – leaving the curd to set over night. Yesterday however, Cam went on an early morning milk run, so I came at mid-day to see the magic happen. I arrived to find not only a batch of Graceburn on the go, but also a 150 litre vat of Blackwoods’ new washed-rind cheese, Little John.

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Cam checking the curds

Named after a cheese-thief who was banished to Australia for his crimes, the Little John is still in the experimentation phase; a little less culture here, a slight change in temperature there. The acidity level the next morning is the first indication of whether it is a good batch or not – if it hasn’t risen too much, then its time to get excited.

Every five minutes or so, Cam gently lifts and turns over a handful of Little John curd in the vat, leaving a small depression. The whey that gathers there is still slightly cloudy, which means that the curds are not yet ready to cut. It feel like nothing I’ve felt before – under a thin film of cream, it is soft and smooth to the touch; luke-warm and moist with a texture that is at once gelatinous and brittle. The Blackwoods boys rely on their understanding of the look, taste and feel of the curds at this crucial stage. Cutting too early or too late could ruin the batch and waste a morning’s work.

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Checking the pH and temperature pre-cut

The waiting cheese-maker is like a good slips fielder; ready to spring into action when the moment comes. The whey gathers clear in the depression and its time to cut. Fingers spread, we carefully lift and turn first the top layer of curd, then the middle and finally reaching right down to the bottom of the vat. The curd pieces gradually become smaller and smaller as they slip through our fingers. Where some cheese makers would use a harp to cut the curds, Cam prefers to roll his sleeves up and use his hands. The curd pieces should be no bigger than a 1p coin to let the whey drain out evenly when the curds are hooped; lifted out of the whey with a ricotta mould and drained through blue cheese cloth.

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New-born Little Johns

Its amazing how quickly we made a vat of curds and whey into  26 cheeses, packed tightly inside a cheese-cloth lined mould and compressed to squeeze out the remaining whey. The cheeses then get taken back out of the moulds, turned and replaced several times before going to Neal’s Yard Dairy‘s maturing facility in Bermondsey. This morning I got a text saying the acidity had only risen to 5.2 on the pH scale – in Cam’s words, ‘boom, not bad at all!’.

You can get hold of one of Blackwoods Cheese Company’s delicious cheeses directly from Cam, Dave, Rory and Tim at Brockley Market, Herne Hill Market, or Greenwich Market. Alternatively, you can also buy it from their friends at Neal’s Yard Dairy in Borough Market and Covent Garden. Look out for the 4/3/14 batch of Little John, its going to be delicious!

An Afternoon with Blackwoods Cheese Company

Graceburn
As a huge cricket fan, you would assume that spending six days at the Salisbury Christmas Market with an Australian during England’s recent humiliation down under would be unbearable. Luckily though, Cam and I share a love for traditionally crafted artisan cheese as well. After spending a week together in a smelly cheese-filled chalet, I got to learn a bit about Blackwoods Cheese Company. Set up in 2013 by Cam and his three mates Dave, Rory and Tim, the company makes delicious fresh cheese in Brockley, South East London, using raw organic cow’s milk.

Yesterday I went with Cam to Commonwork’s Organic Dairy Farm to collect the milk for a batch of Graceburn – a fantastic creamy feta-like cheese marinated in oil and herbs. We loaded ten empty milk buckets into the company van – a wagon that bears the faded liveries of both Monmouth Coffee Company and Neal’s Yard Dairy on its sides. We headed south east, gradually leaving the city smoke behind and beating our way into rural kent, past muddy field gates and through winter woodlands.

It was imperative that we arrived just as the cows were having their afternoon milk. in the tank room next to the parlour, we filled the buckets with rich warm milk that came gushing from the pipe all frothy and steaming. While Cam filled up, I sprinkled cheese culture into each bucket so that by the time we were back on the road to London, the cheese making process had already begun.

As we got back on the M20, Canary Warf and the Shard loomed big and bright in the distance. When we got back to Blackwoods HQ, I got suited and booted and received delivery of the milk from Cam through a hatch in the inner factory wall. After adding the rennet and with the room temperature a steady 18 degrees centigrade, our work was done – the curds are then given time to form, before being cut, wrapped in cheesecloth and steeped in brine the next day.

We agreed that we should reward our efforts with beers and Chinese food. After a quick bus journey over to Camberwell, we met up with Rory and Dave, two of the other Blackwoods boys. Over pints and the best Chinese food I have ever eaten (at Silk Road), I got a sense of the exciting stage Blackwoods Cheese Company is at. With orders for their first three fresh cheeses picking up and a new washed rind cheese in the pipeline, the lads are really beginning to see their hard work paying off. An Australian raw milk cheese company taking the English market by storm. What better model to pursuade the Australian Food Standards Agency of the value and importance of raw milk cheese?

You can purchase Blackwoods Cheese Company’s cheeses direct from Cam, Dave, Rory and Tim at Brockley Market and Hearne Hill Market, or from their friends at Neal’s Yard Dairy in Borough Market and Covent Garden.