Capturing the true taste of Norfolk ... in a beer-washed cheese

Ferndale Cheeses launches its beer-washed Norfolk Tawny cheese. Left to right: Dairy farmer William

Ferndale Cheeses launches its beer-washed Norfolk Tawny cheese. Left to right: Dairy farmer William Wales, brewer Mark Riches and cheesemaker Arthur Betts. - Credit: Archant

The quintessential taste of north Norfolk has been captured in a new beer-washed cheese – the result of a partnership between three artisan food and drink businesses.

Norfolk Tawny is a collaboration between Ferndale Cheeses in Little Barningham, near Holt, the dairy herd at Abbey Farm in Binham, and Beeston Brewery, whose beer is used to wash the surface of the cheese as it matures.

The Old Stoatwobbler beer – itself a product of the region's world-renowned malting barley – helps ripen the hand-made cheese, creating a distinctive texture to the rind and adding a subtle ale flavour to the surface.

Traditionally this kind of cheese is often washed in wine in Italy or France. But given the distinct specialisms of their surrounding area, the cheesemakers opted for beer instead.

Arthur Betts of Ferndale Cheeses said: 'Norfolk is not really known for its wine, but it is known for having a huge number of micro-breweries. We tried a few, and Mark's beer was the one which works perfectly for our cheese.

'It is really rich and has a high alcohol content, which stops mould growth on the outside and helps the cheese to ripen. I am aware of one other person in Scotland who uses mead to wash the rind, but I'm not aware of other people using beer.

'The first thing people ask when they try a new product is whether it is local and where it is produced. So to be able to tell people about the beer in Beeston and the cows in Binham is great.'

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Beeston Brewery, based in the village near Dereham, uses barley grown near Wells, and malted at Crisp Maltings at Great Ryburgh.

Brewer Mark Riches said: 'Old Stoatwobbler has a very rich taste so it is robust enough to stand up to the cheese. It is nice that it marries so well with the cheese. You drink beer with cheese, so why not use it in the cheese?

'It is a holistic thing for us. It brings everything together because we have got our own water supply at the brewery and the malt is all grown locally. 'We are using local staff and their skills to make the beer, and they are the people who are drinking it in the pub.'

Mr Betts said the cheese also owed much of its appeal to the unpasteurised milk supplied by William Wales at Abbey Farm, whose cows graze on pastures around Binham Priory.

'We could get milk somewhere else, but so much of the cheese is down to the individual pasture they are grazing, the north Norfolk climate, and the way William keeps his cows,' he said.

For the dairy, the commercial relationship with the cheesemaker is a vital marketing route during a time of depressed milk prices.

Mr Wales said: 'We have been supplying milk to Arthur for seven or eight years now. If it was not for them I would not be in business. I would have sold my cows because we have been in such a bad time with the milking. I have only got 120 cows, and it is not worth milking them if we don't get a bit extra.'

Abbey Farm also sells raw milk directly to the public through a self-service vending machine, installed in November.

'Since we have had this dispenser, there has been a lot of local support,' said Mr Wales. 'I didn't quite realise how much people like to come to a local place to buy their milk. The locals and the holidaymakers love the raw milk'

The Norfolk Tawny cheese will be sold at Larners Food Hall in Holt, and The Cheeseman stall on Norwich Market. It will also be launched at summer events including the Wayland Show, the Aylsham Show and the North Norfolk Food and Drink Festival in Holkham.

Consumers choose British cheese

More consumers are buying British cheese more often, according to industry figures – offering positive signs for a struggling dairy sector.

With a quarter of all milk produced in the UK processed into cheese, the household staple is an important product both for shoppers and for dairy farmers.

AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) figures say cheese exports are rising and imports are falling, but the value of cheese has declined and prices remain far below sustainable levels on farm.

UK imports of cheddar totalled 7,355 tonnes in May, down 39pc on the same month last year, while UK cheese exports were 6pc higher.

Meanwhile in the domestic market, British retail cheese sales for the year ending May 2016 grew by almost 4.7pc.

NFU dairy board chairman Michael Oakes said: 'We have such a positive story to tell.

'The great news is more people than ever before are eating British cheese. With most branded cheddar sold on promotion in the UK consumers are getting good value on a highly nutritional product.

'And we have seen dairy commodity prices strengthening in recent weeks. The next step must be for the value of cheese to increase through the supply chain and for a fair share of that money to be passed back to farm as quickly as possible.'