The Big Cheese
PUBLISHED: 01:16 18 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:08 20 February 2013
Traditional cheesemakers are seeing a resurgence of interest in locally-crafted cheeses
At the High Weald Dairy, near the village of Horsted Keynes, Mark Hardy and his wife Sarah are keeping the old traditions of cheesemaking alive.
The silver prongs revolve slowly in the giant vat of steaming liquid, sending what appear to be small white pebbles swirling to the surface. As I peer down into the pale yellow mixture, I am amazed that in a few months this will be transformed into honey-coloured slices of cheddar.
Im visiting the High Weald Dairy at Tremains Farm which crafts a range of award-winning cheeses near the historic village of Horsted Keynes. Walking me round the hub of the dairy is Mark Hardy, whose family has farmed this part of the High Weald in West Sussex for generations.
Some years ago, the artisan cheese industry in Britain was in a poor state, with independent cheesemakers seemingly a dying breed. But today the industry is thriving once more. And Sussex is no exception, with traditional cheesemakers like the High Weald Dairy seeing a resurgence of interest in locally-crafted cheeses.
The shiny metal vat Im standing next to, and from which a heady milky fragrance is being emitted, is used for the important job of separating the curds (the solid pebbles) from the whey (the liquid). Today it holds 2,500 litres of organic cows milk from the Friesian herds that graze on the 25-acre farm around us. After being pasturised, the milk is heated to 40 degrees and stirred by the prongs or rather knives. This process, Im told by Mark, is called cutting the curd.
The curds swimming in this vat will produce about 220kg of cheddar. And theres no waste the whey will go straight to feed the organic pigs at another farm nearby.
Mark informs me that you cant get much fresher than the milk used at the dairy. I picked this milk up at 7am this morning, he says, scooping a handful of curds from the mixture, deftly avoiding the lethal-looking prongs. The cows had just been milked and the milk was brought straight here, where we started turning it into Sussex Cheddar.
As Im walked around the various processes the Cheddar will go through before its fit for the table, I realize how much is involved in making it - and how passionate Mark and his wife Sarah are to keep the old traditions of cheesemaking alive in Sussex.
Its not as easy as people think, says Mark, as we stop at the different machines that stir, separate, heat, cool, press and wrap the cheese.
Making cheese is still a very physical process and we still use many traditional methods. Youve got to get stuck in when doing things like mixing the salt into the cheese or cutting the blocks.
The Sussex Cheddar, also known as Tremains Organic Cheddar, will need at least five months to mature before its shipped to a variety of specialist shops and wholesalers around the country, as well as directly to customers who order online. The dairy also supplies some cheeses to Sainsburys and Waitrose.
Other cheeses crafted at the dairy include a fresh soft sheeps variety called Sussex Slipcote, which matures faster than the Cheddar.
The beauty of a soft cheese is that if I make it today it can be sold two days later, says Mark. Other cheeses can take six or seven months to mature.
Mark studied cheesemaking in the mid-Eighties at agricultural college in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. And as his parents kept sheep on their farm, the logical step for Mark was to make cheese with milk from sheep rather than from cows.
He met Sarah while she was studying geography at Southampton University, and she eventually left a career in teaching to help him run the dairy.
The dairy now produces about 80-100 tones of cheese per year. The cows are milked about 20 metres from the dairy, while the sheeps milk comes from Dorset and the goats milk from Kent.
The team is encouraged to be inventive with new varieties, and recent additions include Sussex Marble, made with herbs, and Chilli Marble - plus theres a white mould-ripened version of Slipcote in the pipeline.
This creativeness stretches to the names of the cheeses the stock includes Brother Michael, Saint Giles and Sister Sarah. I cant help but wonder about this ecclesiastical theme
We have great fun trying to come up with some of the names for the new cheeses, says Sarah.
Michael is the name of our cheesemaker, hes made cheese all over the world. He loves semi-soft cheeses, so we thought, weve got to have something with his name on it. And thats how Brother Michael was born. I dont actually know where the Brother part came from
Sister Sarah is a goats cheese, and its actually named after me. Mark came up with the name to wind me up!
Saint Giles does have a vague religious connection, however, as its named after the Norman St Giles church in Horsted Keynes. Its a continental style, semi soft creamy cheese similar to the Saint Paulin style and has an edible orange rind thats made with organic carrot.
Other varieties include Duddleswell, a hard cheddar style cheese with a slightly sweet and nutty flavour, plus Ricotta, Halloumi and a Feta style cheese (although theyre not allowed to call it that) all made from sheeps milk.
Many of their cheeses are award winners many times over, including Saint Giles, which scooped a Gold at last years British Cheese Awards and was named Best English Cheese at the 2009 World Cheese Awards.
The dairys reputation also recently won it a famous visitor - Gordon Ramsay. Mark showed the TV chef how to make Halloumi for The F Word, and even earned himself a brief appearance on the show.
Sarah says people seem more interested than ever in locally-produced food.
Provenance is very important to people, she adds. They want to know where their foods come from.
Our products arent cheap but people buy them when they want a treat and they know theyre also supporting a business in their locality.
And if we all want to keep the countryside as it is, we need to try to help preserve the dairy farms.