Angus D. Birditt
The Making of Baron Bigod
Fen Farm Dairy is home to Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore, farmers and cheesemakers behind the world-renowned Baron Bigod cheese. Read the following article by Angus D. Birditt when he visited Jonny and his fellow cheesemakers to research for the 'Our Isles' new poetry book and to see how they make their award-winning Baron Bigod.
I meet Jonny at the front gates of Fen Farm, already wrapped up in a thick cosy jumper and weathered coat, clearly knowing how to dress for a late winter’s morning in Suffolk. Before we set off to the cheesemaking rooms, however, Jonny suggests that first we must climb the steep grassy field opposite the farm and on the other side of the road to really see the farm and its land in all of its pastured glory, and more importantly, to learn the first stages of cheesemaking.
After a short, sharp burst up the hill, Jonny tells me that this is where everything starts in the cheesemaking process, the land. He points out where Fen Farm begins and ends, from us high on the hill to the banks of the River Waveney, a good half a mile away. After pinching the ground below us, Jonny notes that the first thing you need to get right in cheesemaking – and farming in general – is the soil; get your soil right and you’ll get the right results in the end. He tells me they are very meticulous about what they put on their soil, reinforcing the fact that good soil creates healthy grass, healthy grass creates happy milk, and happy milk makes, well in Jonny’s case, bloody good cheese.
Jonny then raises his arm to the wide-open field behind the farm buildings to where his herd of cows are peacefully grazing. These are his red and white Montbeliarde cows, brought over from France in 2012, when he and Dulcie decided to start making their Baron Bigod, an unpasteurized cheese and the British equivalent to Brie de Meaux. Particularly known for their high level of protein in their milk, the Montbeliarde cows produce milk that is perfect for cheesemaking, wonderfully rich and creamy.
Back down the hill, Jonny tells me that when the cows are not eating grass outside he feeds them on mown grass from the fields, mixed with finely chopped fodder beet, hay and silage – otherwise known as roughage. The cows love the fodder, apparently seeking out each sweet crunchy hit amongst the hum of grass with their wide-open nostrils. He tells me that is it vital to know which breed of cow needs what level of nutrients, so the right balance of roughages and concentrates. The latter being a mix of concentrated pellets mainly that of cereals, brans, meals, oil-rich seeds and the like, which they wouldn’t necessarily get from other feed like roughage.
We soon arrive at the cheesemaking room, a large black weather-boarded building, where Jonny introduces me to Mark, the farm’s head cheesemaker. After a change into hygiene gear, I immediately get stuck in in helping out Mark ladle the curds that are now apparently ready. Over the sounds of sloshing whey, Mark tells me that each morning the Montbeliarde milk is channelled into this room via pipes jutting out of the wall. The milk is then warmed to the right temperature for the separation process to begin, with the help of the starter and rennet.
I must say the process of ladling – essentially collecting the curd whilst draining the whey – is rather a therapeutic business, but one that evidently takes time to master. Using a metal jug with a series of small holes on the side to drain the whey, the ladling motion has to be in one single smooth action or the curd will disintegrate. Mark looks like he’s done this before, effortlessly running the jug the length of the tank and filling it up with curd in a matter of seconds. Once the jug is full and mostly cleared of whey, the curd is poured into circular moulds resting on a mesh that helps the whey to drain further. With Mark on one side, and me on the other, we sift the curd from our respective tanks into the rows of moulds in no time.
Once the curds had been ladled into their moulds, and drained over a well-earned cup of tea, it was time to trolley the young cheeses through to the adjoining ‘ageing room’, where they are left for a few weeks to ripen. Jonny tells me that the perfect time to eat Baron Bigod is after a few weeks, when the centre is still firm and the top and bottom are deliciously oozing. Baron Bigod is described as a ‘creamy, white bloomy-ring cheese’ with ‘a smooth silky texture and a golden curd, with long lasting warm earth, farmyard and mushroom flavours’. It is a beautiful cheese, one that – now I can really appreciate – has been nurtured from the very beginning, and should have its place on every cheeseboard in the country. Alongside their Baron Bigod, Fen Farm Dairy also produce a raw butter, both are sold throughout UK cheesemongers. Now, more than ever, it is vital that we support and buy Baron Bigod – and all British farmhouse cheese for that matter – to safeguard it, and along with it, our food heritage.
The Making of Baron Bigod
Photographs & Words by Angus D. Birditt | @ourisles