Fen Farm Dairy is home to Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore, farmers and cheesemakers behind the world-renowned Baron Bigod cheese. I went to meet Jonny and his fellow cheesemakers to see how they make their award-winning Baron Bigod.
I first meet Jonny, wrapped up in a thick cosy jumper and weathered coat, clearly knowing how to dress for a late winter Suffolk morning. Before we set off to the cheesemaking rooms, however, Jonny suggests we climb the steep grassy field opposite the farm on the other side of the road. After a short climb up the hill and now close to a bird’s eye view of the Suffolk landscape, he starts to tell me where everything is on the farm, which building is which, and where their land begins and ends just before the River Waveney in shallow sight. Pinching the ground below us, Jonny notes that the first thing you need to get right in farming and in cheesemaking 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, and healthy grass creates healthy milk.
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 an unpasteurized, British equivalent to Brie de Meaux, something that was apparently lacking on the British cheeseboard. Particularly known for their high-rich protein milk, the Montbeliarde cows produce milk that is perfect for cheesemaking. This level of protein in the Montbeliarde milk is classified as β (beta) or B casein – casein being the main protein in dairy. Compare that to a common Holstein or Friesian cow that have low yields of protein, and thus potential for making cheese, so are predominantly bred for milk production. Their milks are classified as A1 or A2 casein.
We descend back down the hill, cross over the road, and through into the main thoroughfare of the farm. As we walk to the cheesemaking rooms, he tells me that when the cows are not eating grass outside he feeds them mown grass from the fields, mixed with finely chopped fodder beet, hay and silage – 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. Jonny 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, to explain, 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. For example, the Montbeliarde breed would have a different balance of concentrates and roughage to that of the Holstein breed.
Soon we arrive at the cheesemaking building, where Jonny leaves to tend to his herd and leaves me with Mark, Fen Farm’s head cheesemaker. Before entering the main building, however, I take off my shoes and don matching hygiene-regulated shoes, coat and hat. Mark then leads me through to the cheesemaking room and to its abrupt waft of warm, tangy-smells. Once in and acclimatised to the temperature, we immediately crack on with making the cheese. I arrive when the curds have just set.
Earlier on in the morning, Mark tells me he had channelled the Montbeliarde milk into the cheesemaking room to warm – to no more that 36 degrees – to start the separation process with the help of a starter and rennet. Now it had separated, it was time for us to collect the curds using a metal jug with a series of small holes on the side to drain the whey. Mark looks like he’s done this before, swiftly running the jug the length of the tank, filling his jug up with curd, with whey spewing out to one side. Once the jug is full and mostly discharged of whey, the curd is poured into a circular mould with a mesh underneath 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.
Now that each and every mould is filled, and the whole room is jet-washed down, Mark and I trolley the young cheeses through to the adjoining ‘ageing room’, where they are left for a few weeks until ripe to sell. 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. Fen Farm Dairy produce Baron Bigod, St. Jude and a Raw Butter that is sold throughout the UK.
Words & Photography by Angus D. Birditt
Fen Farm Dairy | fenfarmdairy.co.uk