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.

Ears, Trotters and Trimmings; a Perfectly Porky Pie

My ongoing quest to find traditional British food has lead me to a 14th century pork pie recipe in Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England; 

‘Flea Pyg and cut him in pieces, season with pepper and salt, and nutmeg , and large mace and lay in your coffin good store of raisins and currans, and fill with sweet butter and close it and serve hot or cold’.

After consulting a few more recent recipes, I decided to give it a go. I made my ‘coffin’ out of hot-water pastry moulded around a jam jar. The filling is pork trimmings and smoked bacon from my local butcher. The jelly is made from trotters and ears boiled with carrot, celery, onion, peppercorns and sea salt. This concoction is boiled for three hours and then cooled overnight. The fat is skimmed off the top and it is boiled again, before being poured into the pie through a hole in the pastry lid.

Over the last few days the kitchen has filled with a catalogue of porky smells; from the foul steam pouring off a pan of simmering ears and trotters to the delightful aroma of hot-water pastry baked in a hot oven.

The famous Melton Mowbray pork pie is made using a pastry case that has been ‘raised up’ around a pie mould or jam jar, filled with seasoned pork and topped with a pastry lid. Like Westcountry Farmhouse Cheddar and Jersey Royal potatoes, The Melton Mowbray pie has had a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) since 1993. Other pies make use of a band to prevent the bowing of the sides, or a pie tin with a removable bottom; some pies use minced, cured pork and different spices, but none of these pies can be called Melton Mowbray pies by European Law.

The jelly ingredients

The Jelly ingredients

Jam jar and pastry dough

Jam jar and a ball of pastry dough

The pastry raised around the jar

The pastry raised around the jar

Out comes the jar, in goes the pie filling

Out comes the jar, in goes the pie filling

The lid crimped, the foil belt fastened

The lid is crimped, the foil belt fastened

The finished pies

The finished pies

After cooling on a rack, the pies are refrigerated to allow the jelly to set. They should be eaten at room temperature with chutney or piccalilli.

I find it Ironic that many of today’s meat eaters shun cuts like offal and trotters while scoffing processed meat products by the kilo. This is an unsustainable way of eating meat. Using the whole animal is the best way to respect a creature that has been sacrificed for our tables and cooking from scratch is the only way to respect our own bodies. I have decided recently to eat less meat, and when I do to seek out the most weird and wonderful cuts on offer in my local butcher. If I’m going to dine on pigs ears I at least want the bragging rights of knowingly doing so.

The lesson we need to learn from the horse meat scandal is not to tighten up regulations and increase spot checks, but to stop eating processed meat all together.

Valentines’ recipes

The sous-chef and I have got together and decided on some recipes for Thursday, so with no more gilding of the lily, and absolutely no further ado, here is what we went for:

Artichoke Starter

This green and purple thistle is one of Annabel’s favourite things. In Rome they eat them cooked in butter, garlic and wild mint, but seeing as they are not in season I’ll pick up some preserved artichoke hearts from Amaretto, Norwich’s best delicatessen. We are going to combine them with prosciutto and griddled sourdough bread to make a simple bruschetta starter. This will go well with a glass of cold bubbly!

Tunisian fish Stew

I promised Annabel no fish heads this time, so we are compromising with a few shell-on prawns. I’m basically going to use a Boulliabase recipe that I’ve made before and integrate Tunisian spices; coriander, cumin and saffron. I’ll fry coriander, cumin and fennel seeds in hot oil, then add an onion, a finely chopped bulb of fennel, garlic, and fresh tomatoes; added just in time for their juice to prevent the spices from burning on the bottom of the pan. Into this fragrant bubbling concoction I’ll add fish stock and a good pinch of saffron – making sure the soup doesn’t heat beyond a simmer. As soon as the fennel starts to become tender I’ll add a tot of Pernod, then in go the mussels, shell-on prawns, a big handful of white fish chunks and salt and pepper to season.

Each bowl of soup will get a handful of crunchy sourdough croutons, some fresh parsley and a dollop of char-grilled red pepper and chilli rouille made with plenty of garlic and extra virgin olive oil.

Panpepato

I know this is a bit of a cheat, but I’m going to follow a recipe seeing as I have never done it before. The benefit of this dessert is that it can be made the day before to take the pressure off. Here it is, lifted off the Waitrose website;

Ingredients

  • Rice paper
  • 100g walnut pieces
  • 100g whole blanched hazelnuts
  • 100g blanched almonds
  • 200g mixed peel or candied citrus peel, chopped
  • 50g plain flour
  • 4 tbsp cocoa powder
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 225g runny honey
  • 25g unsalted butter
  • Icing sugar, for dredging

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas mark 4. Lightly butter an 18cm-square loose-bottomed tin and line the base and sides with rice paper. Bake the nuts on a tray for 12-15 minutes till golden brown. Cool, then roughly chop and transfer into a bowl with the peel and sift in the flour, cocoa and spices. Turn the oven down to 150°C, gas mark 2.
  2. Put the sugar, honey, and butter in a saucepan and gently heat, stirring till dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil until it reaches the ‘soft ball’ stage (113°C-118°C on a sugar thermometer). To test this, you can also scoop some out on a spoon and drop into a jug of water: it should go into a soft ball. Stir in the nut mixture, pour into the tin and smooth the surface with an oiled potato masher. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to firm up in the tin on a cooling rack. Remove the tin, trim the paper, sieve over some icing sugar and cut into slices or cubes.

Annabel has promised to combine the roles of Sous-chef and photographer on thursday, so expect some cracking photos this time next week!

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!

Bread barons on the way out

The big British ‘bakers’ such as Hovis and Kingsmill are cutting our bread with crap. I use the term ‘bakers’ loosely because the practice is more like alchemy; in factories across the UK, Hovis mixes flour improvers, preservatives and other E numbers into their dough with little or no regard to the ramifications on the health of the British public. According to the Real Bread Campaign, any ingredient other than flour, water, yeast and salt is ‘by definition, unnecessary’. The Food Standards Agency rules that churned milk and salt are the only ingredients allowed in butter; add anything that doesn’t come from a cow’s udder to a carton of milk and it can no longer legally be called milk. These staples are as pure now as they always have been, so where did British bread go so wrong?

From the customer’s perspective, there is an increasing distance between the way our brains process the food on offer and the way our bodies then process that food. The human body functions best when it receives a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, pulses, grains and lean meant and fish, but the influx of salt, sugar and fat (the fast food trio) into our diet on a daily basis has devastatingly altered our ability to identify what we should be putting into our bodies. Our eating culture has arrived at the point where we are forced to trust the dietary information on the side of a packet instead of trusting our bodies to tell us what they need.

Wholemeal Sourdough Bread

Wholemeal Sourdough Bread

As for where that food is coming from, never has a manufacturer so literally had its fingers in all the pies as Premier Foods, Britain’s biggest food producer. As well as Hovis, brands such as Sharwoods, Oxo and Mr Kipling are owned by this industrial food giant. How is it possible to truly care about the quality of the food you are responsible for when your day is spent in a boardroom desperately trying to manage twenty three different brands and running at a £1Bn deficit all the while? As the recession continues to wrap it’s coils around the country, Premier Foods is showing signs of decline. Michael Clarke, Premier Foods CEO, recently closed two Hovis factories, cutting 900 jobs due to rising wheat prices and falling demand for a product that is increasingly recognised as floppy, tasteless and indigestible.

Sliced bread

Sliced bread made using the Chorleywood process

The deficit that Clarke is trying to reduce indicates that big corporations might not hold the answers to the future success of the British food industry. If half of those 900 newly unemployed bakers find work in small independent bakeries; or even better go on to set up their own bread businesses, it would be a step in the right direction. Small bakeries offer far greater variety than Hovis and, if the principles of the Real Bread Campaign are followed, produce a more nutritional, tastier loaf.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Chorlewood process, an innovation that was developed to make a softer loaf that would keep for longer. The process uses twice the yeast of traditional bread and facilitates the production of huge quantities of identical sandwich loaves. This is what the people wanted in the post war years, but now we are demanding both more and fewer from our bread, that is, more quality and fewer ingredients. Chorleywood bread has had its day, the renaisance of artisan bread is at hand.

Shop locally for good craic

You may as well have the craic with the self-service check out for all the banter you get out of supermarket employees. Unlike your Tesco Express worker, who has never met the CEO Philip Clarke and has no relationship with the suppliers, the shop-keepers that I spoke to today have an intimate relationship with where their food comes from.

Today I cycled around Norwich and had a poke around in five of the city’s best small food shops. I shop regularly in three of them and two of them I visited for the first time today after many recommendations. In all five the shop-keepers were happy to chat about their businesses, their customers, their suppliers and their work.

In no particular order, here are five shops that I highly recommend you visit…

St Benedicts Food Store

St Benedicts Food Store shopfront

Initially I was drawn to this shop for a fortnightly fix of Linghams chili sauce, but I soon realised that the herbs and most of the vegetables are far cheaper than the supermarkets. I recently stopped by and picked up a large courgette, an aubergine, a butternut squash, an onion the size of a football and two bunches of fresh herbs all for £3! The owner, Tom, runs a wholesale business as well, delivering to many of Norwich’s restaurants. This means that, unlike both the greengrocers on the market, you can have as much or as little fresh parsley, thyme or coriander as you like. The shop has an extensive Asian Foods section and there are rumours  that a new Mediterranean section might appear soon.

Fresh fruit and vegetables

Fresh produce in the shop window

Herbs

Tom (owner)

Quinton’s Butcher

Quinton’s is my favourite butcher in Norwich, run by two of the finest gentlemen in the city. In My second and third years of University I was lucky enough to live three doors down. I frequented it for bacon, sausages, black pudding and duck eggs and Mike even let me borrow his allen keys and his wheelbarrow. As well as knowing all of the neighbours, Mike has never told me the same joke twice which is incredible seeing that he tells me two every time I go in there.

Shopfront

Mike (left) and Chris (right)

Dozen Artisan Baker

Dozen Artisan Baker is an award winning bakery that bakes simple, traditional bread using flour, water, yeast (or sourdough starter) and salt. Their bread and cakes are made using organic flour over a long period of time in order to craft a product that is not only tasty, but also much easier for your body to digest. This is the kind of bread that we should be eating. Bread should not return to dough when squeezed.  Bread should have character, crust and a wholesome flavour, none of which are achievable in factory made bread that is produced very quickly and pumped full of artificial additives and flour improvers. Real bread should start to go stale after three or four days and we should find this reassuring; bread that is as soft on day one as it is on day seven is against the laws of nature! If we pay an extra 40p for a loaf in an artisan bakery now and keep demanding real bread, then as the production of real bread increases, the prices will surely come down.

Bread on display behind the counter

Cakes

Baguettes

Yeasted rolls

Amaretto Deli

Amaretto is a deli selling specialist Italian, Spanish and British produce. The shop is popular with the students at Norwich University College of the Arts and when you walk by the big shop windows you can see why; on display are home-made sandwiches, stone baked pizzas, delicious cakes and pastries and a selection of hot lasagnes, cottage pies, stuffed peppers and other savoury delights. The inside of the shop is tastefully decorated, the service impeccable, and when you can get any double-shot coffee for just £1.60 you are on to a winner.

Amaretto shopfront

Olives

Cured meats

Salame

Lunch options in the shop window

Chef Asa (left) and chef/owner Henry (right)

Italian christmas cakes

Ford-Yarham Greengrocer-Fishmonger

Steve and Pam pride themselves on their locally sourced fresh produce and the quality of their service and today both of these were spot on. They gets as much of their produce as possible directly from the farmers, which means that their fruit and vegetables have spent as little time out of the ground as possible. If you want to order rare products like monkfish or purple cauliflower, Steve is your man.

Shopfront

Fresh produce

Local fish and Shellfish.

Shopping locally is not just a transaction involving money and food. Shopping locally is an interaction with the community; it is an engagement in a product made or sourced by someone who more than likely appreciates your custom; and it is an investment in your health.

I truly believe that engaging with where our food comes from is vital to good health and happiness. In the UK we are fortunate to have so many good small shops on our doorsteps and supporting these local businesses is a must.