Dough balls in Parthenay

Due to my brother Henry’s interest in history and archeology, we always look for sites of historic interest when we go on holiday en famille. While in France this year, we wandered through the cobbled streets of Parthenay, a small, fortified town in the West of the country. After exploring the town centre and climbing the castle walls, we came across a novel French food experience.

Not far from the steep stone walls of the medieval keep, we found a little eatery called Aut’ Foueé, its doors invitingly open and a period decor visible through its large windows. Set into one wall is a wood-fired oven with glowing embers of hardwood at the back. The ceiling is supported by large black beams, under which worn wooden tables are laid with smart slate place settings and flanked by vintage cutlery. The jolly, pink-faced proprietor welcomes us inside, her medieval costume and warm, smiley face completing the scene.

Before the French revolution in France there was no such thing as a restaurant. In a restaurant you can sit at a table and choose from a list of different starters, main courses and deserts. You can even select which drink you fancy from a usually large selection of chilled beers and white wines, room temperature red wines and a number of soft drinks. Before the turn of the nineteenth century, someone who wasn’t of noble birth paying a chef to cook something that they themselves had selected was an alien concept. Instead, the inns and food halls all over Europe would serve one big pot of some stew or soup – the ‘plat du jour’.

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Which is why the food served at Aut’ Foueé adheres perfectly to the Medieval theme established by the traditional cooking methods and the period décor. We are served the one option on offer accompanied by a regional red wine or a cool local apple juice, served from terracotta jugs. Small flat breads are filled with an assortment of blood sausage, pork rillette, soft geo-rind goat cheese and home-made jams; all of which are brought to the table in kilner jars so that you can help yourself.

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While our host prepared the dough balls, she explained that in the past these morsels would be thrown into the oven to test the temperature, before the real business of baking bread could commence. Though less precise than the laser thermometer used at mum and dad’s bakery, this would be essential to prevent burning or undercooking the bread.

20140718_112552Quirky hand sink in the toilets

With full bellys and the last few flat-breads filled for the road, we were ready for the next drive; down to Ile de Ré on the West coast. As a new business in Parthenay, Aut’ Foueé is setting out on a brave venture. It is challenging people to sit down and eat without the customary element of choice. With the delicious home-made food they are serving and the fun novelty factor, I hope they achieve every success.

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.

From pasture to pantry; the journey of a Great British cheese

My Introduction to the world of cheese came unexpectedly one summers evening five years ago. I was at the local cricket pitch on a thursday evening when I met Will Atkinson who, with his wife Caroline, had just moved from London to establish a herd of milking goats. At the time I needed money to go travelling and Tom to supplement his student loan. We began working at Hill Farm that summer; mucking out barns, helping to inoculate the herd  and trimming hooves among other farm maintenance jobs.

After a while I got to know the goats quite well. The herd is made up of British Toggenburgs, British Saanans and Anglo Nubians; the first two for their good milk yield and the latter for the high butterfat and protein levels in their milk. They like eating fresh hay and the bark and leaves of deciduous trees. They will gobble up nettles that have just been cut but they won’t bite into one that is growing. they don’t like drinking out of dirty water troughs, nor do they much enjoy the rain. They enjoy head-butting  and climbing on pretty much anything they can get their hooves on; especially if it happens to be a fencing rail you are trying to hammer to a post, or the truck that you are trying to load.

Goat

While in London Caroline had worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy, and from the start of their cheese-making careers, she and Will had the support of what is widely known as “London’s foremost cheese Store” (Dana Bowen, The New York Times). According to Neal’s Yard Dairy’s website their ethos involves keeping ‘in close contact with the cheese-makers’, and in my experience this cooperation is the keystone of the company’s success. It was during one of these visits that Tom and I sat down to lunch with Will, Caroline and David Lockwood, Neal’s Yard’s Managing Director.  We shared some excellent Stawley Cheese and a loaf of Dad’s white sourdough. At the end of the meal David offered me and Tom Christmas temp work in Neal’s Yard’s Borough Market shop.

Stawley Cheese

Stawley Cheese

The following three Christmasses I spent the ten days leading up to Christmas Eve plying my trade as a cheesemonger. Following the cheese’s journey from the rich green pasture of Somerset to the cobbled streets of Borough Market, I trod the path that millions have trod before me for over eight hundred years; bringing the abundance of the countryside to feed the people living and working in the metropolis.

We have are over 700 varieties of cheese in these isles now (more than the French), and Neal’s Yard Dairy is a showcase for some of the best of them. It is always a pleasure to work alongside like-minded people, and the queue out the door and down the street is a challenge I relished. Whether you’re after a whole Colston Bassett Stilton or few 100g pieces, the dairy staff will ensure you taste plenty of different cheeses to find the right one for you. The fact that Hill Farm’s Stawley happened to be the right cheese for many of my customers is purely coincidental!