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.

Eating Organic Fruit and Veg for my Health, my Local Economy and my Genes

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Contents of my organic fruit and veg box (there was another apple and another orange but I ate them already). It comes to £12.30.

When the omnivore’s dilemma strikes there’s no shortage of conflicting advice on what we should and shouldn’t be eating. Yet in the supermarkets the decision often boils down to “do I eat healthily, or do I eat cheaply?” The abundance of processed ready meals in our supermarkets is a testament to our habit of choosing the latter. We are forgetting  how to prepare food from scratch and as a result we are getting fatter; “61.3% of adults and 30% of children aged between 2 and 15” are overweight (Gov.uk).  

Food decisions boil down to trust – whether you are trusting money-hungry corporations like Premier Foods to process your food or whether you process it yourself, trusting a local supplier and your own hands. For me a weekly organic veg box is invaluable to achieving this end; providing me with a variety of produce grown in local fields and polytunnels that changes week by week and season by season. I see this as a weekly investment in my health because once I have the produce, I want to use it all up. Furthermore I don’t have to trudge around the supermarket after work because it is delivered to my door. The soil association’s Organic Market Report shows that I am not the only one feeling this way; “Organic box scheme sales grew by 4.4% last year, while supermarket own-label (organic) sales dropped by 11.2%”. I like to know that these fruits and vegetables are free from artificial fertilisers and pesticides and its reassuring that my grandmother would recognise them, and her grandmother and so on.

In her book Deep Nutrition, Catherine Shanahan explores the benefits of eating the same foods as our ancestors. The diets of tribes like the San, Maasai, Himba, Kombai and Mongolian Nomad “still connect them to a healthy living environment whose beauty, in a very real sense, expresses itself through their bodies”. Shanahan’s research indicates that  we can ameliorate our genes within our lifetime by eating a healthy diet. I’m under no illusion that my diet will stop my hair migrating from my head to my toes (and everywhere in-between), but I know that I feel better in my skin for eating healthily.

It seems obvious that we should be eating the same roots, grains, fruits and vegetables that our ancestors ate, but its taken a geezer from Essex to remind us to pay more respect to our food and consequently to our bodies. Unlike the Massai and the Himba we are loosing the habit of respecting our elders and learning their skills and knowledge. Even now most extended families have parents and grandparents who remember the days before ready meals and the fast food boom; for whom cooking from scratch was the only option. 

You don’t have to be a hippy to make a connection with the land you inhabit. Why not give an organic veg box a go? The first two of these companies give money off your first box for an added incentive!

http://www.arthursorganics.co.uk/ (The company I use).

http://www.broadlandvegboxes.co.uk/

http://www.riverford.co.uk/

Ever got lost in Norwich Market?

Norwich Market Place by David Hodgson, 1855Norwich Market Place by David Hodgson, 1855

I am an experimental cook and I often need one of Norwich Market retailers’ specialist products, but the thought of venturing into the market maze puts me off. Its fine if you have time to mosey around, but a pain if you’re in a rush; there isn’t even a decent map of the stalls. Tom Loudon of Folland’s Organics agrees that this is a real issue for the market; “people get lost and have to ask for directions because the signs are put up so high people don’t clock it”.  When asked how he would improve the market he said “more symbiosis between the stalls”. Why not have one zone for food, one for clothes, one for toys and another for books? Folland’s current neighbours’ underwear stall hardly drives the customers their way!

Though the market remains in the same central location as it has for the last 700 years, its significance to the lives of the people of Norwich has dwindled. The Market no longer feeds the city because the stall-holders can’t compete with supermarket prices. As a result they either evolve to sell specialist goods, or they disappear; to be replaced by stalls selling orange plastic guns and novelty clothing. The market’s 34 vacant stalls are a testament to how difficult this task can be. Folland’s Organics is one stall that has found its niche. Stall-owner Rob Folland and Tom Louden have sold organic fruit, vegetables and sundries for three years. Tom puts Folland’s success down to their customer base, in that people who buy organic tend to have an aversion to supermarket shopping.

In 2005 Norwich City Council invested more than £5 million on the refurbishment of the market. The aim was to renovate the old market while retaining its character. A birds-eye view of the colourful new design suggests that they succeeded, but the view from the inside is quite different. When the stalls are locked up the market’s aisles look identically bleak, making it even harder to navigate. The Times described the new market as “an anaemic shopping mall for health and safety inspectors: straight lines, wipe-clean boxy cubicles, all life and love drained out.” The 2005 refurbishment was the perfect opportunity for the council to regroup the stalls into accessible zones and grant Tom Loudon his wish. Instead they instigated survival of the fittest; the desirable outward-facing stalls went to whichever stallholders could pay the higher rent.

Walking around Norwich city centre I can feel the city’s rich history. You could wander down Elm Hill, with its cobbled street and distinctive Tudor houses. Or you might walk the other way through the Norwich Lanes towards the Market. Overlooked by the Norman Castle from the east and flanked on the south and west by St Peter Mancroft and City Hall respectively, the market’s colourful striped roofs and awnings seem to complete the picture postcard. But is the market living up to its historical roots and its current potential?

If it were up to me I would accept the five million spent in 2005 as being a bad investment and turn the market into an open square. This space could be used for gigs and performances as well as fetes, fairs and farmers’ markets. I would lose the stalls selling tat and instead focus on local produce; I would put real food back into the heart of the city and make it accessible to the people.

The Emperor’s new Bread


Sourdough in the oven

Sourdough in the oven

Over a pint in the Fat Cat on Friday, I was told to ‘get off my high horse’ by a friend who had recently read Bread barons on the way out. It made me think how the rise of factory-made bread has banished the artisan baker to the much scorned realm of the middle class. In defence of the artisan baker, who is busy hand-crafting his or her wares as we are tucked up in bed, I would like to set the record straight.

Society has been fooled into demanding the impossible from our bread through an increasing industrialisation of baking and a corresponding distance between the factory-made bread on our supermarket shelves and the age-old traditions of baking.

Even before the dawn of the Chorleywood process, Britain was fast industrialising its bread production. In Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, she describes the factory baking process of 1957; ‘Baking takes place in a 12-sack travelling plate oven, 75 feet long and 8 feet wide and with a capacity of 2,640 loaves an hour’.

In the bread factories of 1957 dough was proofed for at least two hours before being baked. The proofing process in commercially yeasted bread is where one strand of fast acting yeast converts gluten and other carbohydrates into carbon dioxide gas which makes the dough rise. Though the measuring, kneading, shaping and baking were being done by machines, the principles of bread making were the same as those used in small independent bakeries.

Since the Chorleywood process arrived on the scene in 1961, from the mixing of the dough to the final product leaving the oven takes less than 90 minutes. It uses twice the commercial yeast of the methods used in the factories in 1957. The Chorleywood process uses  a mix of chemicals to bully the ingredients into action. While sourdough takes up to 12 hours of proofing, the Chorleywood method uses a fast mixer to speed up the process.

Sourdough Bread

Sourdough bread

Contrast this to the way we have made bread for hundreds of years. The use of sourdough culture in bread makes the bread rise in the same way as commercial yeast, just more slowly. However, the health benefits of using sourdough culture are twofold: firstly, the culture relies on natural air-bourn yeasts, of which there are many different strains. These yeasts are able to break down more carbohydrates in the flour; making the bread easier to digest. Secondly, the presence of naturally occurring bacteria in the culture also means that the bread contains probiotics, which are proven to be good for the health of the stomach.

Rather like a politician who promises great things during the lead up to the election then turns into a tyrant when in power; the Chorleywood process gave Britain the soft white loaf it craved in the post war years. Since then it has reigned unchecked and sales have increased at the same rate as the indifference of the public to the poor quality of the product. We have been fooled by the bread factories of the quality of the ‘boiled wool’ (David, 1977) that passes as bread. All the while we have fooled ourselves as well; ignoring the testimony of our taste buds and the groans of our digestion.

The Chorleywood process accounts for 80% of bread brought in Britain today, but what about that other 20%? With regards to flavour, texture and nutrition, the Chorleywood process today is all together as useless as the day that it was born. The demands of society created the beast, and I believe that if we keep demanding more from our bread then we can slay it once and for all.

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!

December at Tracebridge Sourdough

This year I spent the four days leading up to Christmas Eve in Somerset working for my parents’ bakery Tracebridge Sourdough. This was the first time that I have properly shadowed Dad throughout a whole baking day; starting at 6am and finishing at 20.30. Through the windows of the bakery, the daylight hours came and went; but the rain never stopped, and as we rolled and whisked and baked the thought of flooded roads and wet market stalls weighed heavier and heavier on our minds.

On my breaks from mixing, stretching and shaping dough with the head baker, I helped mum weighing out the dried fruit for German Stollen bread and rolling out the 100g pieces of marzipan that get carefully rolled into the centre of each loaf. The rich dough that mum makes bears little resemblance to the first Stollen made in 13th Century Saxony from oil, flour, yeast and water. We have Pope Innocent VIII to thank for that; in 1490 he sent what has become known as the ‘butter letter’ to the Saxon Prince allowing the Saxons to use butter during Lent.

Friday is market day for the bakery. Older brother Tom and I were up at 6 and on the road by 8.15 with a van full of bakery goods and a windscreen covered in condensation. The sky looked heavy with rain, but the deluge held off for most of the day. We are always the last stall to arrive at Minehead Farmer’s Market; due to the produce being baked fresh that morning, and due to the 45 minute drive it takes to get there. On arrival it is a matter of setting up the stall as quickly as possible while serving a steady stream of eager customers at the same time. We smashed the previous record takings for a Friday, having sold everything except for one rye loaf and a few cheddar whirls.

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On the way to Minehead

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Panorama of the market along Minehead High Street

(Ours is the stall with the white flags)

Tracebridge Sourdough price list

Tracebridge Sourdough price list

Christmas Stollen

Saturday allowed us a lie in. 6.30 up in the bakery, making the goats cheese muffins mixture and garnishing each one with pine nuts, basil pesto and more goats cheese! Also making our famous Appley Buns as well as some Christmas cranberry and orange variants; and of course glazing more Stollen! This was for the small market that is developing at Moorish in Wiveliscombe on Saturday mornings. There you can find Will and Caroline Atkinson’s delicious Stawley goats cheese and Biz and Nigel Smith’s farmhouse Touchwood Cider.

When the bread baskets emptied and the flow of customers ceased, we shared a meal to celebrate a successful year of food. Baker, chef, cheese maker cider-maker; looking back on a year of food and drink challenges and looking ahead to the new year and more food innovation to come.