DISTANCE TO TABLE: 28.57 MILES
PRODUCE: RAW MILK, CREAM & YOGHURT
Growing up, my sister loved milk. She’d drink glass upon glass of the stuff, but I was always pretty indifferent. That was, until I lived on a farm with a Jersey cow in Canada. The taste of fresh milk, rich and creamy, sweet from the summer grass changed everything. Milk stopped being this tasteless white substance that came in a carton, and became something delicious and nutritious, produced by the lovely but rather temperamental Ellie-Mae.
This was also my first experience of ‘raw’ milk, referring to milk that has not undergone the pasteurisation and homogenisation processes that shop bought milk has. Before, milk would make me bloated and inflame my eczema, but I found I had no such reaction to raw milk. Returning to the UK, I was delighted to find that raw milk is fairly easy to find here - it’s legal to buy (unlike Canada and the USA), as long as you buy it directly from the producer.
The milk I’ve been drinking comes from a small dairy down in Somerset called Hurdlebrook. After a year of drinking their delicious milk, I thought it was about time that I paid their cows a visit.
After getting slightly lost on my way to Babcary, Rosie welcomes me at the farmhouse and puts the kettle on. Always a good sign. Her husband Dave joins us for a cuppa, and we sit down in their kitchen to talk cows and the benefits of raw milk.
Dave and Rosie are the third generation of the family to be farming on the land, with Dave’s grandfather moving there in 1961. Originally a short horn cattle dealer, he switched to Guernseys and they’ve been retailing the milk since the 1980s. “We bought a milk round in the village selling raw milk,” Rosie explains; “And we did that till 1997.” Dave explains, “The milk round was too small, too time consuming. Then farmers markets began to take off and I realised it was a better outlet than driving round the countryside every day.” They still supply their local village, with an honesty box system that allows their neighbours to buy milk directly.
The farm is 250 acres, and they have around 200 milking cows plus another 150 or so young stock. “Well, as of last night we’ve got one more!” Rosie points out, with the birth of their first calve of the season. They’re expecting just over 100 calves in the next 2 months, and have a second calving block in the spring. “We try and rear all our replacements,” Dave tells me, “So we rear and keep enough cows to maintain our numbers of 200 milkers.” The cows themselves are purebred Guernseys, milked twice a day. “They’re very low input, low output. Our cows probably yield 4500-5000 litres a year; we don't push them at all”.
Here comes the science part; raw milk has not undergone pasteurisation (heat treatment) or homogenisation (breaking down the fat globules so it doesn’t settle on the top of the milk). Talk turns to the benefits, one of Rosie’s favourite topics of conversations. “Why would you take something from a clean, healthy animal and feel that you need to super-filter and pasteurise it?” she begins, before talking about the increased nutrition, presence of enzymes that are destroyed by pasteurisation and the easier digestion. Talk turns technical quickly. “Milk from pasture reared animals has the right proportion of Omega 3 and 6, and A2 Guernsey Milk has the same beta caseins as breast milk. In dairy cows there are two main beta caseins, which means when you digest that milk, you don't get a casomorphin by-product why is why people say they feel sluggish after drinking milk.”
I confess that once I tried raw milk I struggled to go back to drinking pasteurised milk again. Not only did I find the digestibility better, the taste was incomparable; living on a farm with a dairy cow, I learnt to taste the variations in the milk during the changing seasons. “If you take milk from different herds and taste test them, you can tell the difference,” Rosie tells me. Not only between herds though; “If you're used to drinking our milk, you can taste the change in fields, the differences in the soils and leys across the farm.”
I sip my tea and we talk about the other side of unpasteurised milk; the need for strict cleanliness. Rosie explains their process; “We have a very strict pre-dip, individual paper towel, wipe regime. It's laborious!” she points out. It takes them an estimated 25% longer to milk because of the extra care they take, but as Dave points out; “You can't produce raw, clean milk without being thorough. With raw milk, you don't do anything to it afterwards, so it’s crucial. If you contaminate it there, it's contaminated forever.” Their animals are regularly tested for TB and pathogens too. They have unannounced visits from the hygiene inspectors, and any milk they send off the farm in a bulk tank is also tested (they currently sell about 75% of their milk to a couple of local cheesemakers).
Of the 25% they keep back, they sell some as milk and cream, but also make their own delicious yoghurt, sold plain and flavoured. All of this is made and packaged on site, then sold mostly through farmers markets in London. “The customer base has changed over time,” Rosie tells me. “It used to be all the old people who remembered raw milk, and now it's become the people who've informed and educated themselves and done their own research, and decided that is the better wholesome option. There's been a swathe of young people come through and making that choice to rear their children on raw milk.”
Talk turns back to the farm and I ask about the name Hurdlebrook. “When we went pedigree, we had to find a name for our herd,” Dave explains. “A lot of people name it after the farm or the surname, but we didn't want Overton or Olive or Babcary. So we looked round at the field names we have, and Hurdlebrook is a name of one of the fields.” Rosie joins in the explanation; “A hurdle is a wooden fence piece that you put in, like a temporary fence panels that shepherds use. So it's a hurdle over the brook.”
Fittingly, the cows are currently out in Hurdlebrook field, so Rosie offers to take me out to see them. We jump in ‘The Mule’, which seems to be some kind of beefed up golf cart, I get a labrador by my feet and off we head in search of a herd of Guernseys. To allow them to keep the cows out on pasture as long as possible, they’ve built ‘roadways’ along the edge of the fields from old concrete sleepers with recycled astroturf over the top; this helps protect the ground that the cows walk on twice daily from getting too chopped up. “We want them out as much as possible,” Rosie shouts over the hum of the engine. They’ve also put a lot of effort into preserving biodiversity too, with wildlife corridors running along the field edges and barn owl boxes. “The way we farm is ideal to the barn owls because we don't take all the cover away all the time; there's plenty of place for small mammals to get around.” Hares are also regular visitors in the fields, but I mostly enjoy the sight of an overexcited labrador running alongside us as we drive.
We walk into the field, and I'm soon surrounded by an ever inquisitive group of the distinctive red and white cows, curious about the intruder and her camera. I spend a happy 20 minutes hanging out with them, being sniffed, taking photos and just enjoying the beautiful location.
Reluctantly I head back to the mule and clamber back in. As she starts up the vehicle and the engine begins to roar again, Rosie pipes up; “We get people asking if they’re happy cows? Course they're bloody happy!” she says with a smile. As we drive away, I look back and can’t help but agree.
Find out more : www.hurdlebrook.co.uk