On April 5th myself and three other colleagues ventured north to the tranquil village of Berkswell where just beyond the realms of this historic village was Ram Hall. It is here that we met Stephen Fletcher the chief maker of Berkswell cheese. A warm and welcoming man Stephen let us spend a wonderful day with his team of cheesemakers in their purpose built dairy at the rear of the farm and getting to learn how one of Britain's most famous cheese is made.
Berkswell cheese is made using unpasteurised milk from the farm's flock of Friesian and Dorset sheep. In the dairy we were taken through a step by step process by Stephen's team on how to produce Berkswell. We were also fortunate enough to have a go at making the cheese itself!
First we were shown where the sheep were milked. This was an extraordinary site to behold where dozens of sheep were herded into the milking parlour where a member of Stephen's dedicated team (with rock music blaring away I should say!) systematically tends to the sheep's glaring udders and then we watched with a blend of awe and bewilderment seeing milk pump through a maze of pipes and tubes. This is a process that last approximately 4 hours for the flock of sheep who nonchalantly mull in their bay while nature and the mechanics of cheese making takes its course.
Once the sheep are milked the milk is then filtered and moved into a vast holding tank. In this holding tank it is stirred and cooled after which the milk is moved on once again to three large vats where it is gently heated with the addition of a starter culture. A gestation time of 40-50 mins takes place and then the starter culture bacteria rehydrate and begin to acidify the milk. The milk is then renneted using lambs rennet. Time then takes its course whilst the milk coagulates!
Once the curds have developed the team (including the Paxton & Whitfield crew!) get involved in the moulding of the curd. Famously Berkswell have used plastic colanders to mould the curd which give the cheese its unique aesthetic. This is a demanding task which involves pushing the curd hard into the colanders and squeezing out the whey. Once plenty of curd is pressed into the colanders the cheese is then turned over to reveal the famous patterned bottom courtesy of all the pushing and moulding we treated our arms to! Following this the cheeses are carefully placed on a shelf still in their colander and then they are salted and then the maturing process takes place for the next 4-6 months.
Afterwards we were rewarded with a wonderful lunch provided by Stephen's mother Sheila who incidentally began making Berkswell in the farmhouse kitchen after going on a cheese making course at Reaseheath College. Over lunch she would tell us stories of the history of Berkswell and the cheese world and treated us to a wonderful Goat's curd cheesecake. Safe to say we were in heaven and very lucky to have been provided with such wonderful hospitality. Spending time with Stephen and Sheila over a very informal and relaxed lunch gave us another insight into this very kind and welcoming family.
After lunch Stephen took us round the farm some more meeting his father Peter along the way, we were also lucky to visit the late Elizabethan cottage in which Stephen and his family lived in. Then we ventured out over the friends and was given a guided tour round Berkswell itself taking in the old church and getting a feel for the area that was strong in history. What struck me is the 'joie de vivre' that Stephen has and the deep personal connection he has with the land around him. This feeds into his passion for making his cheese and as I thought later a vital ingredient in the process. Ram Hall has been in his family for generations and that continuous handing down has built a dynasty of passion, care and knowledge that acts as a vital pillar in producing Berkswell and keeps its name strong in the cheese world today. That passion, kindness and warmth Stephen exuded certainly impressed the Paxton team and not only enhances our knowledge of how cheese is made but also increased our desire to play our role in selling great cheese to the greater world.