BATH SOFT CHEESE COMPANY
DISTANCE TO TABLE: 7.12 MILES
I love cheese. On toast, with crackers, a sneaky sliver on its own; I love it all. When I came back to the UK, one of the most exciting foodie things was the availability and affordability of artisan cheese here. At a local food festival in the autumn, I picked up a Bath Soft Cheese, and was instantly hooked on the creamy, soft cheese within. So when I realised how close the farm was, and with Christmas approaching (a perfect time for a cheese board!) I decided a visit was most definitely in order.
Hugh meets me at the entrance, and invites me up to the viewing room where we can see the cheesemakers at work. I ask about the history of the farm, and he starts to tell the story. “My great grandfather moved here in 1914,” he begins, “They had a small herd of short horn cattle, which they would milk by hand into pails, and they used to make cheese with the milk they couldn’t sell for drinking because there wasn’t much refrigeration.”
The history of the farm turns into a history of milk legislation, as he explains that the second world war meant that farmers had to sell all their output to the government, causing a dearth of artisan cheese making in the country. “Coming into the 80’s, there were reforms that made it possible for you to retain some of the milk that you produced,” he tells me. “Keeping some of your milk and trying to make artisan cheese with it appealed to a lot of farmers, including my father.”
Hugh’s father had big dreams. He didn’t want to just replicate other cheeses, he wanted to create something unique to the region. “In the Bath reference library, he kept coming across references to the Bath cheese, that had been popular in the late 18th, early 19th century,” he continues. “Instead of signing up for an artisan cheese course, my father decided that if he was going to make the Bath cheese, he needed to learn from the books written in the 18th and 19th century. So we can really say that our cheeses aren’t just a copy of a brie or a camembert!” he says, laughing.
The original recipe specifies that the square, white mould ripened cheese must be salted by sprinkling salt on by hand, and spread with the aid of a feather. They started making the cheese in 1993, and apart from the feather part, they stuck closely to the recipe. In 2000, Hugh’s father decided he wanted to make a new cheese, “The kind of cheese his grandmother might have made,” Hugh explains. “Traditionally it would be a soft curd, and be put in a cloth and hung from a beam or sat in a basket, giving it a lovely round shape.” And thus the Wyfe of Bath cheese was born, and until May of this year was still made in the barn adjoining the house where Hugh’s great grandmother would have made her cheese.
Hugh always helped out with the cheese making, but moved back to the farm 5 or 6 years ago, coinciding with his father’s experimentation with blue cheese. “It was a rocky journey,” he states with a good humoured smile. “It’s not simple to make a blue cheese, and the thing about cheese making is that when you can’t make it right, you don’t know what you’re doing wrong. And when it suddenly starts being good, you don’t necessarily know what you’ve done!” Clearly it was worth the journey, as their Bath Blue was voted best cheese in the world at the 2014 World Cheese Awards. “Blue cheese, from a customer and cheese maker’s point of view is a bit special,” Hugh admits. “It quite simply blew us away.”
Listening to Hugh talk, it’s clear that it’s about more than just cheese. “For us, cheese making is all about farming,” he admits. “It’s about creating a rural enterprise that can sustain a way of life and farming that can go on for generations. My father could see that farming was becoming more and more commoditised. With the cheese business, we’ve got something that allows us to invest where needed in the farm, in the cheese business, and we employ around 15 people across the two.” The farm now has 130 cows, and just over half the milk, around 550,000 litres a year, goes into making cheese. They make each of the three cheeses twice a week, “And on the seventh day we don’t rest, we clean!” he jokes. This year, they upgrading their cheese making facility, increasing their capacity from 1500 litres a day to 2300, and building on a cafe and shop space.
He’s also keen to bring in an educational element to their operation, part of the reason behind the viewing room where we’re sitting. “I’m very keen on having more school visits, from a point of view of connecting children with where their food comes from,” Hugh tells me. “On this farm, you can drive along the main road and you can see a tractor planning grass and the cows in the field. The milk from that grass is being pumped across into the cheese dairy, where it’s being used to make cheese. And four weeks later you can eat a soft cheese made from that milk. So we’re talking to schools about coming out here for visits.”
After looking longingly at the facility through the window, Hugh asks if I want a tour. He introduces me to Joe, one of the cheesemakers who’s been working there for 4 years, and I dutifully don a hairnet, white jacket and sterilised boots.
Today they’re making the Bath Soft Cheese. After being pasteurised, the milk is cooled to the correct temperature, before the starter culture and mould are added. After being left for an hour to acidify, the rennet is added and the milk left to coagulate (for the soft cheese, this is done in large buckets). The curds are then cut into inch square pieces and stirred several times to allow the whey to separate. When ready, each bucket is poured into 32 moulds, which are then turned to help the whey drain. The following morning, salt is sprinkled on and rubbed across the surface of each cheese by hand.
Joe takes me into the chilled storage rooms, where I’m greeted by a sweet buttery smell, and racks upon racks of the square cheeses. As we move through the rooms, the amount of mould growing on the outside of the cheeses increases. “With this cheese, they’re ripened by the mould. They’re turned every day for 10 days until there’s sufficient white moult growth on each cheese that we can wrap them,” Joe explains.
We move through to where the blue cheese is ripening. It begins with a similar process to the soft cheese, but instead of being poured into individual moulds, the curds are poured into trays with cloths at the bottom. The following morning the curds are crumbled into the moulds in walnut sized pieces, creating the cracks you find in blue cheese. After being in the moulds for five days, they’re taken out and the outsides sealed. “We don’t want the mould of the cheese to take over before the paste of the cheese ripens,” Joe points out. “After 5 weeks of sitting in here, we needle the cheese, about 300 holes in each one. After about another month they go blue and marbled”.
As soon as I’m starting to get my head round the blue cheese, it’s time for the Wyfe of Bath. As it’s a harder cheese, you need to get more liquid out of the curds. So instead of using the buckets, the milk is placed into a large vat, and knives placed on the stirring arms that cut the curds into small pieces. The temperature is raised and warm water is added to the whey as it’s stirred, which helps suck more liquid out of the curds. To gain the rounded shape that echoes the traditional farm cheese style, the curds are placed in cloth lined colanders, and turned regularly. Joe shows me the brining tank where the cheeses are submerged, instead of being dry salted, and fishes out a cheese for me to see. The storage room is huge, lined with racks and racks of cheese, changing in colour as they mature. Because of the longer maturation period (around 6 months), the number of cheeses in storage at any time is much greater than for the soft cheese or the blue.
We finish the tour with a spot of cheese tasting, where Joe educates me about seasonal cheese making, and the variations in the cheese this produces. “There’s nothing else that tastes like it; there’s only 160 cows here and its their milk that makes the cheese. The fat content of the milk is different every day, but more noticeably through the seasons, so you have to balance this with how you make the cheese.” We get onto the important sampling, where I get to try the regular and extra mature Wyfe of Bath, noting the stronger and crumblier texture of the latter that’s aged for more than 12 months. With the soft cheese, we taste cheeses made two weeks apart, and I can instantly see and taste the changing taste and texture of the cheese, with the older cheese oozing over the board as we cut it. And the blue, well, there’s not much else to say other than I can see why it was voted the best cheese in the world.
Before I head off, Joe asks if I want to go and say hi to the cows. We head to the barns to see the newly born calves and their mothers (the rest of the cows are out in the field). It’s a great way to end the visit, seeing some of the animals who produce the milk that goes into the cheese I just sampled. I leave with a parcel of cheese under my arm and a big smile on my face.