PRODUCE: EWES MILK CHEESE
DISTANCE TO TABLE: 11.59 MILES
I’m sure I’ve mentioned my love of cheese before, but in case you missed it, I bloody love the stuff. I came back from Canada with a particular appreciation for feta after sampling some that a friend made on her farm, so the discovery of Homewood Cheeses put a big smile on my face. Fortunately Tim and Angela were up for a visit, so off to cheese-making land I went.
I admit that Homewood HQ is a little unassuming from the outside. A small space, opposite a rather sprawling garage. But Tim and Angela’s friendly faces great me at the door with the offer of a cup of tea, and I instantly feel at home.
I chat with Angela in the packing room while Tim is busy with the cheese making process. They met at the Tobacco Factory market, where Angela was selling preserves and baked goods, and Tim was selling cheese. “We had a stall next to each other,” she tells me with a smile on her face. Tim has been making cheese for 16 or 17 years, but they decided to start their own cheese making business in 2008. Angela tells me the story as the kettle boils, “We had the chance to set up through a friend who was renting half of a space over in Shepton Mallet, so we we went in and it was perfect. Because she used to make yoghurt there, it was all very minimal start up costs for us as she had quite a bit of kit that we borrowed, and eventually bought. At the same time she introduced us to a farmer down in Dorset who was milking sheep. And that’s where it all started.”
Outgrowing that place, they moved into their current premises in August 2014. With the larger space came an increased capacity, and they now have a trailer that can take 600 litres of milk at a time. “It’s difficult to get hold of a tank that small too,” Tim tells me, popping into the room to grab his cup of tea. He explains that compared to most cheese producers, they’re tiny, and a lot of the available equipment is jus too big. They’re currently picking up 500 litres on a Monday, and 350 litres on a Wednesday, but it will increase in the summer months. The advantage of the trailer is that they can collect enough milk for two days processing, putting half into their chilled storage tank (basically a big tank with an ice jacket) for the next day and saving them valuable travel time. They now collect from two farms, both under an hour away; one farm has a flock of between 300 and 400, and the other is smaller; maybe 150 ewes.
Why sheep’s milk I ask? “It was a bit random,” Angela admits. “Tim had been working with goat's milk beforehand, and we wanted to start something new and separate ourselves. Cow's milk is a lot of volume, and quite a lot of paperwork. You need about 5 times more milk for the cheese, and end up with 5 times more waste with the whey.” They were introduced to someone milking sheep, and have never gone back. “At first we weren’t sure we were going to be just sheeps cheese, but we don’t want to move away from it now. The people we deal with are really nice. And the sheep are nice. Plus it’s the oldest form of dairy.”
Tim ambles back into the room during a brief break in the cheese making process to offer a technical perspective. “Because it's naturally homogenised, you can't separate the cream,” he explains. “It's a lot easier to digest, a lot more gentle and has a sweeter taste.” Angela expands further. “Because of the homogenisation and high fat content, we get a fabulous yield. We get a lot more cheese for our milk.” She pauses for a moment. “And it’s sweet and creamy and utterly delicious,” she finishes, laughing.
Their most popular cheese is a soft fresh cheese, but they also make a pickled ewes cheese (what you likely know as feta), halloumi, ricotta and a harder cheese, Old Demdike. “Very roughly, I would say we must be producing a couple of hundred kilos of cheese a week,” Angela tells me. “More than you’d probably imagine!” We talk about the cheese making business, and how most cheese makers notice a dip in their business over the summer, and use the time to stockpile for the winter months. “But halloumi, feta and fresh cheese is summer cheese - during those months we’re making and selling it straight out of the door!” Angela explains. They’ve discovered that there’s also not much of a dip in the colder months either, and a few years ago their biggest halloumi sales were in November. “We basically have to accept that this is the way our business is!”
Tim has another momentary break in the cheese making process and shows me round the making room. “The tank has a hot water jacket, which heats up the milk,” he explains, showing me the big metal tank in the centre. He has some cheese draining in big trays. “This is yesterday’s fresh curd. The milk was heated and put in big buckets with a start culture for about an hour, then rennetted. I leave it overnight at roughly 20 degrees, then the next day I strain it in here. Tomorrow I’ll salt it.”
We move onto the halloumi, and in the next room, he lifts the lid of a bucket to show me the chunks submerged in brine. “With halloumi, you set the cheese with rennet, cut it, mould it, press it, turn it, then I boil the whey (which is the liquid left after the curds form). When I’m boiling the whey, I get ricotta; it floats up to the top and you scoop it off,” Tim explains. “Then you put the halloumi into the boiling whey and it sinks to the bottom. When it floats to the top, it’s done.” He then leaves it to dry overnight, and brines it for 24 hours. He then shows me the barrels of feta, which are brined for about a month. After adding the starter and rennet and draining the resulting curds, he strains it for about four days before putting it in the brine.
The final cheese in the cheese room is their Old Demdike, or, “all that remains of the Demdike,” as Tim points out. “It’s a washed curd cheese, where basically you cut the curd and wash it,” he explains. It’s not the ideal time of year to be making it due to the seasonal variations in the milk, so they’ve only got a few left. “We try to make it more in the summer months when the sheep are out on grass; it just seems to work a little better,” Angela explains.
Back in the packing room, she puts the kettle on again and we try some of the lovely cheese. “It’s a bit niche still, but the profile is increasing,” she tells me, spooning out some soft cheese to eat with oatcakes, and slicing up the deliciously creamy feta. “A lot of people say they’ve never had sheep cheese before, but they don’t realise that Manchego and Roquefort are both sheep cheeses!”
As I nibble on the different cheeses we talk about their market. They sell at the Bath farmers market each week, and also directly to shops and restaurants across Bristol, London and the South West. “The farmers market is really a social thing,” Tim points out. “Otherwise it’s me shouting at Radio 4 most of the time! It’s nice to speak to real people sometimes. A lot of the chefs we deal with are local and it’s nice to have those connections, and something we want to build on.” They also sell through a number of wholesalers and via Abel and Cole, which means their cheeses go nationwide.
Where do they want to go from here? “We don’t want to take over the wold do we Tim,” Angela calls out jokingly down the corridor to Tim, who’s disappeared off again to check on the cheese. The answer a resounding no. “We don’t want to be employing a lot of people, but we do want some holidays!” Angela explains. “We’d like to get some staff trained up so we can get away and the whole business isn’t dependent on just the two of us”. Tim is keen to get their table cheeses more established. “I would like to get Old Demdike and the other table cheese perfect; that’s my aim. It’s getting there slowly. I’d like to have three different style cheeses to reflect the different seasons."
All too soon, it’s time for me to go, but I'm happy in the knowledge that I can buy their delicious cheeses round the corner from where I live, and my feta supply is in good hands.