The Producers: Plaw Hatch Farm

PUBLISHED: 02:08 05 May 2012 | UPDATED: 21:22 20 February 2013

The Producers: Plaw Hatch Farm

The Producers: Plaw Hatch Farm

Plaw Hatch Farm is a 200-acre biodynamic dairy farm in Sharpthorne. Kate Eastman went along to meet Tali Eichner, who runs the creamery

Plaw Hatch Farm
West Sussex RH19 4JL
Tel: 01342 810201

Plaw Hatch Farm is a 200-acre farm on the edge of Ashdown Forest, near Sharpthorne. It has been biodynamic for over 30 years and Tali Eichner runs the creamery where they produce raw, unpasteurised milk, cream, kefir and a variety of yoghurts and cheeses.

I learnt to make cheese simply by doing it, explains Tali, which is really the only way to learn. The beauty of small artisanal cheesemaking is that its so specific to the cheesemaker. Each person will do things slightly differently, so the final product is distinct. There is generally a co-operative relationship between cheesemakers and I have been able to share techniques and gain advice from many others.

Tali and her assistant, Ionela, do the bulk of the cheesemaking and at the moment they have 51 cows which supply all of the milk for all the products they make.

Being a biodynamic farm, we strive to make the farm a self-sustaining organism. The animals provide the compost and prepare the ground for planting fruit, vegetables and arable crops, which provide the animals feed. The pigs and chickens thrive on farm-produced grains and whey, a by-product of cheese making. We also make natural preparations for the compost and to spray on the fields, which act like medicines for the land, says Tali. Plaw Hatch Farm is organic, with no pesticides, artificial fertilisers or harmful chemicals being used, but more than that, we do things to contribute to the health of the land and animals. We respect the nature of the animal, an example of this being that the horns are an integral part of a cow and so we dont follow the standard practice of cutting them off. A cows horn is full of nerves and blood vessels, and impacts their digestive system. All of this contributes to giving good quality milk full of vitality which makes for cheese with a depth of flavour and nutritional complexity.

Today, Plaw Hatch produced cheddar (mild, mature, vintage and smoked), halloumi, Dutchman (a unique cheese developed by a Dutch cheesemaker at Plaw Hatch, also flavoured with peppercorns, cumin or chilli), Plaw Hatch Crumbly (a kind of mild cheshire type) and a soft, spreadable cheese.

We only use milk from our own herd so the amount of milk we have for cheesemaking varies seasonally. In winter the pace in the creamery slows a little, but as soon as the cows go out to pasture in the spring we get into full swing and weekends off quickly become a distant memory, explains Tali. Throughout the summer we usually make three batches of cheese a week in addition to bottling milk, making cream, kefir and a range of yoghurts. Last year we made about 4.5 tonnes of cheese altogether. Cheddar is the type we sell most of, being the British staple cheese, although our halloumi has developed a dedicated following and I dont seem to be able to make enough of it!

Cheddar is physically quite a demanding cheese to make. It also requires adapting to conditions, which could affect the final flavour and body. Because our cheddar is aged up to two years it also takes a significant amount of care while maturing. Halloumi can also be quite a lot of work because it is pressed for a short time, cut up into small pieces and then in all of the stages that follow each piece must be handled individually. This means I can only make halloumi in small batches; otherwise I wouldnt be able to keep up with the development of the cheese.

Recently Plaw Hatch started rearing calves for their sister farm, Tablehurst. We have just weaned 10 calves, which have been left with their mothers for five months, the time when their horns start to grow and their digestive systems develop to be better able to process plant matter, describes Tali. As it is almost unheard of in dairy farming to start rearing our own calves, we had no idea how much milk they would drink! As the calves grew our milk yields dropped to just over half and we had a couple of months where we only had enough milk to make fresh products. However, we hope to continue rearing calves with their mothers, after seeing the joy it brings to the herd.

Tali recently tried making kefir cheese, which was a winner, explains Tali. If we can overcome some production limitations Id like to start selling that in the future. Im also developing my methods for making ricotta so hopefully we may see that on the shelves soon.

The whole range can be found at their farm shop on Plaw Hatch Lane in between Forest Row and Sharpthorne. They also have a stall at the Brighton Farm Market every Saturday and the Michael Hall Market in Forest Row on the second Saturday of each month.
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