An abridged version of this story appeared in Culture Magazine.
Recently a group of La Fromagerie cheesemongers visited Fen Farm Dairy in the Waveney River Valley that marks the border between Norfolk and Suffolk in the eastern-most part of England. A bridge over the river allows the cows to graze on the Norfolk side of the water as well as on the Suffolk side, where the milking parlour and cheesemaking facilities are located. As Jonny Crickmore showed us the view of the farm from an overlooking nearby hill, he joked that his family had added the bridge to double their ‘local’ market – allowing them to appeal to customers in both counties. All jokes aside, their cheese is one of the most popular British cheeses in our shop, and, judging by the rate that we saw customers stopping in at their self-serve kiosk during our visit, it’s highly sought after in the local area as well.
Fen Farm has been a dairy for sometime – Jonny’s family purchased the farm in the 1940’s and before that there was certainly cheese made there, though Jonny suspects it was not very good. According to Jonny, a few centuries ago, Suffolk became famous for its butter, which was sent to London and exported abroad, however the high demand of cream for buttermaking meant that dairies in Suffolk were left with only the skimmed milk and the resulting Suffolk ‘Bang’ cheese they produced was not great – in some cases, apparently, laughably bad. Dogs barked at it. A poem was written about it. Eventually the government ordered producers to stop making it because it was giving a bad reputation to British cheesemaking. Even today Suffolk is not an area known for its cheese, but that’s beginning to change in large part thanks to the work of the Crickmores and their team.
When we arrived at the farm that morning just after 8 AM, the sky was dark with impending rain. On the way to the grazing pasture, we stopped for a moment to see the rennet and cultures being added to the milk from the morning milking. This is the first step in cheesemaking – rennet acidifies the milk and causes it coagulate, which starts the process of the formation of curds. On Fen Farm, the cheesemaking happens directly adjacent to the milking parlour, so the milk only has to travel a few feet before it starts being transformed to cheese.
As the winds picked up and with the first drops of rain, we moved to the dairy just in time to miss getting soaked, and also in time to see the cut curds being ladled into moulds. The room where the curds are ladled could not be more different from outside – warm and humid, we wore white boots and smocks to keep our feet and clothing dry, and I regretted not removing my jumper beforehand. A cheesemaker invited us to taste the curds: so smooth and silky, with an intensely sweet and creamy flavour. In my hand they felt like a loose homemade silken tofu, or the lightest panna cotta, and were much larger than the curds of harder cheeses, which are milled finely and pressed to reduce the moisture, producing a denser cheese that keeps for a longer time. Baron Bigod, however, is a brie-style cheese with a melting pate, so a larger, less processed curd is desired. As we each took a turn ladling the curds into the moulds, we saw how difficult it was to work quickly but delicately, not wanting to damage the curds in the process. The stacked, perforated moulds allow excess whey to drain out, and I was taken by the vibrant, energy-drink yellow colour of the whey.
After draining overnight, the cheese is unmoulded and salted, and the moved to an adjacent room which is kept at 16 degrees, where it will remain for 3 days, getting flipped every day during this time. After that, the bloomy moulds (Jonny uses a mix of geotrichum and candidum) should be established and the cheese is moved to a colder temperature where is it matured a few weeks until it is the desired consistency. Jonny and his team finish each week tasting the batches of cheeses, making notes and rating the flavours and textures, and logging this alongside the actual data of pH and temperature over time, which is measured during the cheesemaking process. As Jonny points out, there are so many variables from day-to-day, with cow’s diets and milk yields varying (some of the cows are fitted with collars where some of the information about when they last calved and their milk volumes are stored so that the team knows when to rotate them in and out of the milking). Thus they must do everything they can to control as many steps of the process as they can, and they are always testing, always evaluating, always learning.
It’s been about seven years since Fen Farm started producing Baron Bigod, and it’s amazing to think what a classic British cheese this has become, and in such a relatively short amount of time. Since producing Baron Bigod, Jonny has also started making Bungay Raw Butter. Jonny considers it a sort of homage to the region’s former reputation to buttermaking – a reputation lost a couple hundred years ago – and indeed, Fen Farm’s butter is made by hand on the farm in the traditional way, beginning with the warm milk from their Montbéliarde cows, which is cultured, churned and hand-paddled. It is the closest thing to the original Suffolk butter, and it has a beautiful, complex flavour that has become a favourite in our shops.
Jonny’s drive, tenacity and willingness to try something new has driven forward his family’s farm, and has helped restore Suffolk’s tradition of dairying. Unable to sit still, he seems to constantly have something up his sleeve. Whatever he decides to do next, we can’t wait to see it.