Country Matters: Milk the cheese, not the tourists

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DURING the past few years, many farmers have sought to increase income by diversifying into new activities, not least by cultivating people as well as crops, and charging visitors to inspect their premises and animals. Yet at Baydon Hill Farm, high on the Wiltshire downs above the village of Aldbourne, a more original initiative is paying good dividends. Instead of fleecing tourists, the farmer's wife, Jo Hale, has turned the clock back centuries to produce traditional cheese.

Tall, fair-haired and in her twenties, Jo does not come from a farming background, but she trained in agriculture and in 1988 married into a family with a 200-acre farm. Finding some Friesland sheep on the place, she started to milk them and sold the milk successfully.

Then she decided to do something 'a bit more challenging'. It was common knowledge in the neighbourhood that from time immemorial until the earlier years of this century, the area had produced a cheese known as North Wilts, which was sold in London as a superior form of Double Gloucester. Research showed that until the 14th century it had been made from sheep's milk, but after the Black Death, which killed nearly half the human population, production switched to cows.

Pursuing a faint scent, Jo tracked down a woman, now living in the United States, who came from the Pewsey Vale, a few miles south-west of Aldbourne, and had an ancient recipe among her family papers. Armed with this, Jo went to Somerset for a course of instruction and learnt the nuts and bolts of cheese-making.

In January 1990, when the enterprise still existed only in her mind, she went in for the annual Venture Cash award, run by the NatWest Bank to encourage young people in the country to expand their businesses or set up new ones. The mere act of entering was itself a spur: to take part in the competition, she had to be in business by the time the judges came round.

That year there were 84 entrants, but she came first, winning pounds 3,000, which had to be invested in the enterprise. Research into marketing became a priority: she and her husband, Mike, travelled throughout Wiltshire and neighbouring counties to find out exactly what shopkeepers wanted. They also went to the South of France to see local sheep-milking and cheese-making methods. At home, they spent pounds 500 on developing labels, pounds 1,000 on fitting out a building and pounds 1,000 on a computer.

Production began in November 1990. Jo's first idea was to make sheep's cheese only, but the demand for cows' cheese was so strong that she began using that, too, and it now accounts for 60 per cent of sales. In just over three years, annual turnover has risen to pounds 40,000. Had the founder of the business not been distracted by the arrival of two children, now aged two and one, expansion would doubtless have been even faster.

The operation looks deceptively simple, and takes place in a small area. The cheese- making room is an old garden shed measuring 12ft by 12ft, refurbished to a high standard internally, and the store in which stocks ripen was once the body of a refrigerated lorry.

Cheese-makers of yore had to heat their mixture over open fires. Today the milk goes into a 50-gallon vat heated by a water-jacket, which gradually brings it up to the right temperature. If asked what this is, Jo gives a merry laugh to throw the questioner off course: her hard-found recipe is not for sharing.

At the opportune moment, she pours in a couple of litres of starter-culture to sour the milk, and then adds some colouring. It seems entirely in keeping with today's crazy regulations that carrot and beetroot juice - the agents traditionally used to give North Wilts cheese its buttery, golden look - are banned on the grounds that they are dangerous to health. In their absence, makers are obliged to fall back on annatto, a tasteless deep orange-brown juice derived from a tropical tree.

A dose of rennet completes the brew, which is then left to set. After an interval which varies from 50 minutes to 90, according to the state of the milk and the season of the year, the contents of the vat have turned into curd, with the consistency of soft blancmange. This is then cut into pieces with curd knives - frames which fit the inside of the vat exactly, and are drawn from end to end, one with its parallel blades mounted vertically, the other horizontally, producing hundreds of small cubes.

The next operation is known as scalding: further heating and stirring with wire whisks releases the whey, which is drained off, leaving the diced curds on their own. Sheep's milk yields twice as much solid matter as cow's - up to 20 per cent.

With the whey gone, the cheese takes on a rubbery texture. Now is the moment to add salt, cut it back into lumps and pack the pieces into muslin bags, which in turn are stuffed into moulds like short lengths of water pipe. These are loaded into a heavy-looking wooden press, where they stay overnight before being turned and pressed again.

Then, at last, they are ready to go into the store. There, in a controlled environment, they grow a coating of grey-green mould and gather flavour for the next four or five months, until, washed and sealed in red, black or clear wax, or sometimes only in lard, they go on sale, either in local shops or through a few wholesalers. Truckles weigh 4 1/2 lb, small cheeses about 1lb each.

On the day I called at the farm, no sheep's cheese was mature. I can therefore speak with authority only of the cow's cheese - but this bears the same relationship to supermarket Cheddar as my own free-range eggs bear to mass-produced imitations: it is sweet and springy and full of the kind of nutty flavour which one has been hunting for years.

Small wonder that it has won the approval of Jo's grandfather, who worked for many years as a grader in Cheddar and Stilton stores. Small wonder that it sells so fast, especially at country shows - Avebury, Marlborough, Abingdon - where Jo finds she can shift pounds 1,000-worth in a weekend.

In my own neck of the woods, barely an hour to the west, cheese-makers were once thick on the ground. Until the Sixties our kitchen was a windowless cheese-making room, with the flagstoned floor sloping steeply to one corner, so that it could be sloshed down with buckets of water. In another arm of the valley, Dingle Farmhouse - now vanished - had the reputation of producing the best cheese in the neighbourhood.

Round us, today, the art is extinct; in Wiltshire, Jo Hale has the distinction - as well as the advantage - of being the only maker in production. As people are on the lookout for traditional cheese with real taste, there is obviously room for her operation to grow.

Yet she has no ambition to build up a huge enterprise: rather, she has become fascinated by, almost addicted to, the mysteries of the ancient process which she has re-started, and would love to 'get down to a really good experiment for six months'.

As she says, 'You can pick up the basics quickly enough, but it takes a lifetime to master the art.'