Food & Drink: Cheese with their porridge: Fine Italian mozzarella is about to be produced in Kent - by British prisoners. Kathryn McWhirter reports

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THE DRIVEWAY to East Sutton Park sweeps round through lawns and bright, immaculately tended flower beds. Off to the right, the view over the Kent countryside is spectacular. But the fine Elizabethan house to the left at the end of the drive is no conference centre or country hotel. East Sutton Park, with its farm and 84 acres of beautiful parkland, has been a women's prison since 1945.

Round the back, the brick farm buildings are Grade II listed. There are pigs, chickens, 50 head of Friesian dairy cattle, greenhouses full of flowers that the prisoners make into arrangements for the Home Office, and a small vineyard providing a crisp, spicy white wine - for Home Office consumption only. And in the former stables, newly renovated and sparkling white, four aproned Italian men crack jokes about English tea-breaks while adjusting a piece of stainless steel equipment. Beside a great pad of half-processed mozzarella cheese, four white-coated, white-booted, white-hatted women prisoners are interested but bemused.

This is the first week of a new venture at East Sutton Park Prison; later this month, this team will be processing 1,000 litres of milk a day into top-quality mozzarella and ricotta cheese. In time, the four workers should be able to turn 12,000 litres of milk a day into a ton of mozzarella and half a ton of ricotta.

Unlike most other prison produce, which goes mainly to the armed forces, the Post Office or back into prison kitchens, the cheese is destined for the open market. Sights are set on delicatessens and restaurants, top department stores and an up-market supermarket chain. And this is a real first in two respects. No other British prison makes cheese (though prison farms and gardens do produce more than enough milk and quite enough bacon, eggs, pork, salad and vegetables to feed the nation's prisoners). It is also the first-ever commercial factory within a prison where the prisoners are being paid the going, outside-world rate for the job. On their pounds 3-an-hour, 40-hour week the four women who have been selected as cheesemakers will pay tax, national insurance and a contribution to their keep. (Prisoners normally receive only a nominal pounds 6.50 a week pocket-money for work in prison gardens, farms or workshops.)

'We wanted to introduce conditions as close as possible to working outside in the community,' says the prison's governor, Bill Duff, whose aim in this, one of Britain's three open prisons for women, is the gradual rehabilitation of women serving anything from six-month sentences to the last couple of years of a life sentence. (The Home Office, with a protective eye on the fine Jacobean wood panelling, draws a line only at arsonists.) 'East Sutton Park is unique for its surroundings, the atmosphere, the relationships between staff and prisoners. There's still an element of loss of liberty here, but there's a far greater degree of individual responsibility. This is a wonderful opportunity for a small group of women to be involved in a commercial venture.'

The women had to make written applications for the job, were interviewed along with other short-listed inmates and now have a six-month contract. Eventually, another four prisoners will be trained alongside them, and the current four will move on to a hostel on the estate, from which they will go to work out in the community, prior to release.

The cheese project was the brainchild of 45-year-old Italian entrepreneur Edgardo Pasquale, who, with a varied business portfolio, is now based in Sussex. One of his three companies, Interfabrics, was tendering two years ago as part of an American consortium to do the interior design for Britain's first private prison. One day he was lunching with a member of the prison service's board of directors who ordered mozzarella and commented on how good it was. Pasquale's mind flipped laterally. 'Why not make mozzarella in your prisons?' he mused. 'You have 19 dairy units and your own milk quota. Prisons are Britain's second largest milk producers with an annual production of 12 to 13 million litres. Why not?'

Cheese was another of Pasquale's specialities. He had begun his working life marketing the Parmesan, mozzarella and ricotta made by his cousins in a large factory near Parma in northern Italy. He visited East Sutton Park, and had samples of the milk analysed. 'It was fantastic. And Italian experts who have visited since have all agreed. Cows in Italy are intensively farmed, kept inside for much of the year. The bacterial content of Italian milk is incredibly high, and it is much whiter because the cows are fed antibiotics on a daily basis. My cousins use half their own milk, half better quality milk imported from Germany. What I wanted to make here was a top-quality, very pure cheese without any preservatives.

'There are two other Italian producers of mozzarella in this country, and also big importers. But the UK-produced ones so far have been very commercial cheeses aimed at the catering trade. Instead of whole milk, they use 30 to 40 per cent fresh milk and supplement it with casein or powdered milk imported from Holland. However, from the quality point of view, mozzarella produced here on the spot can have a big advantage over imported cheese. Mozzarella is a cheese that is at its best as soon as possible after production, and past it after three or four weeks.'

Along with Denis Neville, a civil servant responsible for prison industries and farms, he set about evaluating the likely costs, income and what equipment would be necessary. 'I drove him crazy,' says Edgardo Pasquale, grinning. 'He is a very straight person and I am very Italian.' After a trip together to Italy, they concluded the project could pay for itself within two years. East Sutton Park's governor was enthusiastic. They put together a combination of second-hand and new equipment, much of it imported from Italy, and financed by the prison service. And Edgardo formed another company, Mamma Mia, to market the cheese.

It proved difficult to adapt the machines to the small rooms of the former prison stables. Edgardo called in 'an Italian genius in this sector', who was still tinkering with final adjustments as production got underway. Alongside, Francesco Tenca, a big, smiling master cheesemaker from a large mozzarella factory in northern Italy, was discussing the finer points of his craft with a thin, elderly Italian Parmesan specialist. Tenca had given up a week of his family holiday to get the project underway, and his friend will continue to oversee it for the first few months. English is not their strong point, and they communicate with the prisoners by demonstration and mime or through Edgardo.

Tenca lifts the muslin of a 6ft-long wodge of rubbery white curd and begins to slice it into slabs with a big metal hook. There are cheaper, quicker, more modern ways of producing mozzarella, he explains, but this slab has been left to ferment naturally for four hours with the type of bacteria used in yoghurt. What makes mozzarella so different from other cheeses, what gives you the strings of melted cheese when you tuck into a pizza, is the way the curds are then chopped up, heated and pummelled. Ideally, says Tenca, it is moulded at this stage by hand, but only a few artisans in the south of Italy make it that way today. The prison factory has machines that shape it into balls or cylinders for restaurants. 'This is very good milk,' he says, smiling, 'lots of cream, excellent for mozzarella. Our mozzarella at home is much paler, and has about 35 per cent fat. This has 45 per cent and it's a beautiful yellow colour. More like the traditional southern Italian buffalo mozzarella.'

Ricotta (literally, 'cooked again') is a natural by-product of mozzarella, and of other cheeses. It is made by re-curdling the whey with heat and citric acid to extract a different type of protein, left behind in normal cheesemaking. (The prison pigs eat the final, still nutritious, dregs of whey.) The resulting ricotta, a thick, white, slightly granular paste, tastes wonderfully creamy, with a mild flavour reminiscent of rice pudding or clotted cream, despite the fact that it contains less than 0.5 per cent fat. Italian restaurants use it in all sorts of dishes, from filled pasta to cheesecakes.

Mozzarella and ricotta will make up 90 per cent of the production at East Sutton Park. The rest will be two less well-known Italian cheeses, taleggio and stracchino. The first has a soft, unpressed and uncooked inside, encased in a rind; the second is the strongest of the cheeses, and is like a very young Caerphilly. Top-quality Parmesan is next on Edgardo's list, though it needs 18 months' ageing.

A London restaurant wholesaler is apparently interested in the entire production of ricotta. And there is, says Edgardo, a 'terrific market for fresh, top-quality mozzarella'.

For the moment, the milk production of East Sutton Park itself will suffice. But milk will eventually be brought in. At the moment all profits will enter government coffers, but there are hopes that in the future some might be ploughed back into the prison to improve facilities.

The cheesemaker-prisoners are clearly enthusiastic and eager to learn, already feeling that they are part of a team. 'They haven't got the language to understand us,' says Tenca, 'but they are really keen. It's very varied work so it's interesting and not tiring. It's a brilliant idea. In Italy we keep our prisoners like this.' He folds his arms.

There has been no apparent jealousy of the four women involved, according to Bill Duff. 'Even though these women will get more money and extra weekends at home, they see it more as a new opportunity for all of us.' 'East Sutton Park is the only place it could have been done,' adds Denis Neville. 'It would be very difficult to introduce this sort of unit into other prisons. I have every confidence that this will take off. But we can't afford a mistake. The first piece of cheese on the market has got to be the best. There'll be no second chance.'-

(Photograph omitted)