Back in May, we spent a lovely long weekend in Dorset for Pete's birthday.
As the visit was all about great local food, I was keen to visit local producers and learn about their products, their history, their processes and not least, the people.
George and Amanda Streatfeild of Denhay Farm were kind enough to respond to my somewhat last-minute pre-trip email with an invitation to visit and learn about their traditional farmhouse cheddars and dry cured bacons.
We started off chatting to the Streadfeilds in George's little office, where we learned about the history, the challenges and the current production processes of Denhay cheeses and bacons before a visit into the cheese production areas, including the maturation room where large and small truckles are kept at just the right temperature and humidity.
The Streatfeilds produce cheddar in three forms – traditional 27 kg truckles, smaller 2 kg rounds called Dorset Drums and 20 kg blocks. The milk comes from their own cows, which are Freedom Food accredited by the RSPCA.
We were delighted to be able to try some of the cheese on site, as George extracted a shiny, yellow cylinder with his cheese iron, to test one of the maturing truckles and Amanda cut a slice off one of the blocks too.
The cheese is a delicious, traditional, nutty cheddar – properly savoury without the European-style sweetness creeping into many cheddars. For me, it's a touch mild, but I do have a tendency towards ridiculously strong cheese!
Waitrose buy most of it and sell it under their own brand West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, but some is sold (under the Denhay name and also their SpoiltCow label) to other supermarkets, independent retailers and even exported to America and Europe.
When we left, we're given some of their dry cured bacon to try. This is available in many supermarkets as either Denhay or SpoiltPig.
The cheese is good.
The bacon is magnificent!
Such a perfect texture and flavour, in fact, that we've become quite addicted to it, buying ourselves at least a pack a week. We have it grilled and crispy for breakfast or stuffed inside bread for the perfect bacon sandwich and we use it in cooking too – most recently, a delicious courgette carbonara using courgettes from the garden.
Below, you'll find a long but fascinating interview with the Streatfeilds, followed by a few video clip interviews and tasting sessions inside and outside the factory areas.
We started farming here in 1952 and we started milking cows in 1953 when we realised that this part of the world grows grass. If you grow grass, the one thing you should do is turn it into milk as that’s more profitable than turning it into beef and sheep. That’s the traditional view.
And it’s a very traditional dairy area. There are a lot of small dairies still, in this vale.
In those days (’54, ‘55) we had 3 dairies of 50 cows each – people came from all over the country to see one man milk 50 cows by himself, “couldn’t be done by himself, not possible!”
So we’ve grown from that base. The first big change was in 1959 when we started making farmhouse cheddar. We used milk from our cows and we bought in from neighbouring farms and we made 7 days a week and we made 400 pounds a day. And it dominated our lives.
Where you’re in here is the Marshwood Vale.
Historically there’s no water in the vale so the herds were only 4 or 5 cows at the most. And there was a history of neighbour warfare because the neighbours who had the springs on the hillside dammed them up for their cows. At night and the other neighbours, who didn’t have water, would come up and break the dams…
The main products from the Marsh of Vale were eggs and butter. The farmers would go from the vale to Bridport or Axminster to sell their eggs and butter. The result of that is that they had a lot of skimmed milk, which they made into Blue Vinney. This was one of the areas where it originated.
Now the original Blue Vinney is a horrid cheese. Very dry… very royal blue blue and because it was properly skimmed milk, albeit it by hand, it didn’t have a lot of flavour, because It’s the fat that gives you flavour.
Moving to beef, why people whinge about no flavour in beef is coz it’s too lean.
And why as a bacon producer I’d always eat streaky bacon because that’s got the flavour in it.
So anyway, we started making cheddar in 1959.
How did they learn to make cheese, your parents?
Oh my old man never actually made the cheese, he employed a cheese maker!
He employed Ken who was with us until 1982/83.
We’ve only ever had 3 cheese makers, we’re on our 3rd cheese maker at the moment,
The answer is that you seek advice from other cheese makers; the cheese making fraternity is very good at helping each other even though we’re competitors in other ways. So he had a lot of help from other farmers and a lot of encouragement.
In those days it was very easy because you sold your milk to the milk board and were paid on the 20th of the month following production. You bought it back from the milk board and turned it into cheddar but you only had to pay for it five months later. You had 5 months free credit. Brilliant! A lot of big farmhouse cheese makers built their whole lives on that credit so when that credit stopped, when the milk board ended, it was very painful for them.
So that’s how it started.
And at the same time as that we put in the piggery because when you make cheese you’ve got whey, which is the watery liquid leftover from cheese making, and that’s what we feed our pigs, whey and barley meal.
We grew and grew and grew and at our peak we had about 750 sows and we were making about the same volume as we are now, probably about 2 vats a day 6 days a week, a vat is a tonne… so that’s…
No we’re really small, one of the smaller makers.
We got out of pigs 8 years ago - we lost a shed load of money on pigs – pigs do that, if you’re an economist you know they go up and down,
I’ve heard that but I don’t know why they go up and down? Why is that?
Very easy, the traditional reason is that when pigs are on the floor, the big barley farmers then don’t sell their barley they turn it into pig meat, because that’s more profitable. The more pigs are profitable the more and more pigs get produced, and then they get to a point where suddenly there are too many pigs and it all crashes. If you ever studied economics it was a regular 3 year pig cycle and a 10 year blackcurrant cycle … same thing…
There were probably four good reasons why we got out of pigs, profitability being the very big one. The second one was that our buildings were very old and inefficient and really you’ve got to have efficient buildings. The third reason was that, because of the change in legislation – which is quite right and reasonable, I’m not attacking it in anyway – to have cows and pigs on the same block of land is too many livestocks. If you’ve got a pig farmer in East Anglia with arable land, it’s not a problem, but here with dairy… we were going to fall foul of everything.
The fourth reason and probably the one that to me was the most driving reason is that we were developing the Denhay brand on the bacon side (as well as the cheese side) and it was very clear that that the consumer perception of premium brands is high welfare and the consumer perception of high welfare with pigs is pigs outside. Now, today [a gloriously sunny day] it would be lovely - the pigs would be very happy outside! But you can’t keep pigs outside in West Dorset. We get 36 inches of rain on very heavy clay. Go and do it on the Thetford Sounds with 24 inches of rain and the sand is so dry you can drive on it – here you can’t drive a car after an inch of rain. So, the wrong part of the world.
But we started curing bacon in 1994 (after the air dried ham in 1989) and we reckon we’re pretty good at curing bacon, so we continue to cure bacon. But we now source all British outdoor reared pork from around the country. Some comes from Devon… some comes from Gloucestershire… some comes from Norfolk… some comes from Scotland…
I take it those pig producers have no interest in doing that to the meat themselves?
No, most pig farmers are pig farmers and that’s the end of the argument.
The disadvantage we have is that we are only interested in backs and bellies. The big problem with British livestock farming (and this will keep you blogging for generations, this) is using the carcass in balance. Anybody can use a back and a belly - what are you going to do with the legs?
Oooh gammons, when do you buy gammons, when do you eat gammons? Christmas! Thank you, I rest my case! You try and sell a gammon at this time of year, a hopeless task, don’t know why, a fabulous product… We do a stunningly good gammon but we can’t sell it except for Christmas when we can’t make enough!
And shoulders, what do you do with shoulders? Make sausages… and… sausages…
So what we do is we buy from abattoirs. No good us making a relationship with the pig farmer, because they want to sell the whole pig. So we make relationships with abattoirs and we buy the bits we want…
I guess then that means you have to make sure your product is premium to offset the fact that you’re now paying more for the pig parts than you would if you farmed them?
You’re absolutely right, that’s absolutely smack on. And so premium is what we do, so we’re outdoor reared, we’re Freedom Foods accredited…
What does that mean, Freedom Foods accredited?
The RSPCA have a Freedom Food scheme and it’s based upon the five freedoms, if I can remember them all – freedom from thirst, freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, freedom from cold and freedom to express their natural tendencies…
[The five freedoms as more fully defined by the RSPCA as freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury and disease, freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress.]
And so to be Freedom Food accredited doesn’t imply it’s outdoor reared so we have to tie the two together.
But, for example our cows are all Freedom Food accredited so the RSPCA come 2 or 3 times a year and look around. It means, if I say to you, “we look after our cows well”, you know it’s independently checked rather than me just saying it. And it’s something that Waitrose require us to do, too.
Yeah it’s one of the things I love about Waitrose actually is they’ve been looking at that for so much longer than everyone else, it’s great that everyone else is now interested but they’ve been doing it for a long time…
It’s second nature for them!
Anyway to come back to cheese, we were all traditional – that’s with the cloth bound – until 1984 when we realised we were a very large fish in an extremely small pond and the air was getting rarefied so we changed and we now make 12 vats a week of which 11 are block and one vat is traditional.
I don’t know much about cheddar so tell me what that means…
The difference is that a traditional cheddar has a rind on, is round and weighs 27 kilos. A block cheese is rectangular, weighs 20 kilos and doesn’t have any rind. I’ll show you the difference later…
And so we made that change and that block cheese is what you mostly buy in Waitrose as pre-packed cheese.
The majority of cheese you buy will be cheddar in the UK.
So that’s still our favourite cheese?
I wouldn’t say it’s our favourite cheese but it’s the one that most people use. If you’re making sandwiches, you’ll use cheddar, if you’re cooking you’ll use cheddar, unless the recipe calls for something different…
And so that is the bog-standard line.
The problem we face - We’re going through a very very difficult phase at the moment – is how people decide which cheddar to buy.
[We ramble a bit here, but essentially, George tells me that many consumers choose based on price, promotional offers and packaging, with very little understanding of the differences in styles of different cheddars.]
The problem we face is that farmhouse makers are making a different style of cheese to the majority of cheddar now available. If you compare our cheese to the market leaders (Davidstow, Pilgrim’s Choice, Cathedral City, Seriously Strong…) they are two totally different styles. And I’m not knocking Davidstow, it’s a really very good cheese… The market leaders are all very European in style, they’re quite sweet – if you ate one you wouldn’t say sweet, but it’s that kind of Emmental flavour. Whereas the traditional farmhouse flavour is much more savoury flavour.
[George is also frustrated by the way that some cheddar retailers, making cheeses in this newer, sweeter, European style are marketing their cheese with slogans about it tasting “how cheese used to taste 50 years ago”, which is completely inaccurate.
I agree to the suggestion that I should do a blind tasting of a few different cheddars, including some traditional farmhouse cheddars and some of the modern market leader brands, though I haven’t done this yet!
We move on to talk about PDOs]
Cheddar is something I've never ever paid that much attention to. I always thought though that you couldn't change the style of it that easily because they were protected, is cheddar just not protected in that way?
Well West Country Farmhouse Cheddar is protected…
The generic term cheddar isn't then?
Generic cheddar definitely isn't but West Country Farnhouse cheddar is. But there are still things you can change. The weakness of the PDO scheme is that it's only as good as how it was written/agreed in the first place. Cheddar was actually one of the earlier PDOs and it was fairly weakly written and so you can produce a whole raft of different cheese under the PDO. It has a value but not as big a value as it should have.
[I talk about the Stilton PDO and the Stichelton story, which is the only example I know – the Stilton PDO was nailed down to specify a pasteurised cheese, even though that was, at the time the PDO was created, a fairly recent development and the traditional recipe had always been unpasteurised. When a new kid on the block came along wanting to make a traditional unpasteurised Stilton, they were forced by the PDO to call it something else, and Stichelton was born. We agree though, that in retrospect, this did them a huge favour, from a marketing perspective.]
A PDO is only as good as the rules that were written at the time.
It sounds like whoever is big and successful at the time is the one that gets to pin down the PDO to what they want it to be?
That's probably fair!
So what are you doing to address this, because that's quite a challenging thing to deal with really?
We’re scratching our head about it! It's only in the last 6 months that it's really become very evident and that's because so much cheese has been sold on promotion.
[We then ramble a while about bacon, and which brands Pete and I have noticed/ bought from our Waitrose.]
There will be at least three or four Denhay bacon products on the top shelf and then there'll be Duchy Originals and that’s us too.
Really, that's you?
We've done Duchy Originals bacon since 1999.
I assumed it was done somewhere in his estates, I had thought it was farms that he owned. Interesting! So what's the difference then between the Duchy Originals bacon and the one that's branded Denhay?
Well it's the cure, they wanted to do a different cure.
And they're organic and we're not.
Are the pigs theirs?
Not necessarily... and in future won't be.
OK, so it really is a brand for them more than anything, they can control the quality?
Yes, it's a brand that delivers quite a lot of money into The Prince’s Charities Foundation and it's a brand which the Prince is very passionate about and watches and manages in terms of quality control and what products go in, what don't go in.
As of the middle of June it's going to be Dutchy Originals from Waitrose and it'll only be available from Waitrose.
[We talk about how we shop for bacon, and how oblivious we are to the different packaging and information printed on the packaging and how consumers often don’t read or notice anything other than what they are already familiar with.
The conversation moves on to Waitrose, and I talk about how I like shopping in Waitrose not only because of the quality but also because they have always had much more of a commitment to looking after their producers.]
Again, that's what we always read in the press, that Waitrose look after their producers, do you feel that or not?
They are very good, very good indeed.
Is it a marked difference from the rest of them?
We've dealt with Waitrose, supplied to them for 25 years.
Another thing I like about waitrose is how they say that if they find a producer that can only produce enough for three stores, if they like it they'll still take it and put it into three stores. I don’t know how much they do this but I do see a difference in products stocked in different stores.
That's correct, for instance you can buy our butter in only three Waitrose stores I think it is. And at Ocado.
[At this point, we don white coats and go to visit the cheese producing and storage areas.]
--- with many thanks to Jow Lloyd for her help transcribing the audio file ---
(Please forgive quality of sound and image composition – these videos were taken purely to give me an audio file for transcription, as above, but decided to share the videos instead. Pete's actually really good at shooting video when he knows it's going to be used as video! And ignore how daft I look in my orange hat and white lab coat, please!)
Grading the cheese
Truckles and Dorset Drums
(no idea why this one is a different size ratio, it's from the same video footage, same settings but when I export it to youtube it loads differently to the other 5)