WATCH: How award-winning brie is made in dairy’s £500,000 new cheese building
- Credit: Chris Hill
An East Anglian dairy farm has invested £500,000 in its pursuit of the perfect cheese – the latest stage of a targeted diversification which has bolstered its profitability and changed the shape of its herd.
The new cheese-making building at Fen Farm Dairy, near Bungay, has been custom-designed to create the optimum conditions for the farm's award-winning Baron Bigod raw-milk brie.
There are specialised rooms for each stage of the complex process of making and maturing cheese, so the perfect temperature and humidity conditions can be controlled at all times.
And the ethos of re-calibrating the farm's assets to focus on its most profitable product has already been applied to the 290-strong dairy herd, which has been switched from the mainstream Holstein breed to Montbeliarde cattle from France – renowned for the cheese-making quality of their milk.
Since the first 72 Montbeliarde cattle were bought in 2012, the cheese production has grown steadily to about 60 tonnes per year, which is sold to farm shops, deli counters, restaurants and high-end customers including Harrods, which bought 2,000 cheeses at Christmas for its hampers.
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The new building, which employs six people and was part-funded with a £152,000 grant from the EU Leader programme, will take production capacity up to around 100 tonnes per year.
Jonny Crickmore, who runs the business with his wife Dulcie, said the changes had revolutionised the farm's finances – and he encouraged other farmers to seek ways to make best use of their assets.
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'All farmers need to realise the potential they have on their farms,' he said. 'They don't need to grow wheat or have pigs. They may find that if they concentrate on adding value to a small part of that farm, it makes a better profit.
'The reason we started doing what we do was that as dairy farmers you get screwed to the ground by supermarkets and so many of our dairy farming friends went out of business because of the pressure on milk prices from supermarkets.
'We were selling milk to a processor at 1p profit, but as soon as we started selling it in our shop we made 50p. I realised for every 50 litres we sold through the processor I only needed to sell one through the shop, rather than having another 50 cows, and making another 50 x 1p, with all the added expense of maize clamps and big machinery.
'We did some figures a couple of years ago and we were making more profit from the 10pc of milk we were making into cheese than the 90pc we were selling to the processor. Now we use about 40pc of our milk on farm.
'We had an opportunity to make the new cheese building specifically for the Baron Bigod recipe, so now we can make it perfectly week in, week out. 'When we built the first building I had no idea how to make cheese. In the old days all the important steps – from bringing in the milk, adding the rennet and the ladelling and salting – we did all that in one building, but they all need different conditions in different rooms, so now every step is done in perfect conditions.'
The farm started selling raw milk in 2011, and within a year Mr Crickmore said he knew he wanted to make a high-quality cheese, with a compelling 'story'.
After taking advice from master cheese-makers in France, he was convinced to change his herd to a specialist breed, as milk from mainstream Holstein cows does not have the ideal proteins. Now half the farm's 290 milking cows are pure-bred Montebeliarde, and the others are Montbeliarde-Holstein crosses.
As the cheese business grows, Mr Crickmore is conscious that it must not become 'just another mainstream factory product'.
'I don't want to sell to supermarkets,' he said. 'I would much rather grow our sales to the point where we are on every deli and farm shop counter, and they can all say they have a cheese which is not made for a supermarket.
'We have lovely customers, so if we still want to grow, we could make a second cheese, and sell it to the people who have supported us, and who we know we can work with.'
HOW BARON BIGOD CHEESE IS MADE
• The cows are milked at 4am and 3pm, and within hours the milk is being processed in the factory.
• First, the milk is piped into a collection tank, where cultures are added.
• As acidity starts to develop, rennet is added which makes the milk set.
• When the milk is set, the curd is cut using long 'swords', and separated from the whey.
• The curd is then ladelled into 'hoops' which form the rough shape of the cheese.
• The cheese is turned three times to shape it into an even disc, and to drain off surplus whey.
• On Day Two, the cheese is salted and left in the 'hastener' room, until the first mould starts to show on the rind.
• On Day Five, the cheese moves into the maturation room, with similar temperature to a cave.
• Once the mould is established the cheese is wrapped and boxed at around Day 21. It continues to mature in the box.
• On Day 42-49 it is dispatched to customers. The cheese is edible from 35 days old, but is at its best around 60-70 days.