Three of our newer members of staff from our Jermyn Street and Stratford shops travelled to the Leicestershire Handmade Cheese Company where Sparkenhoe Red Leicester is made to take part in the making process and understand a little more about the cheese and the people behind it.  Here is their account:

Jo and David are the owners of Sparkenhoe Farm. They started to make the Red Leicester in 2005 using the milk of their 150 pedigree Holstein Friesian cows. The cows eat grass and oats from neighbouring farms to help produce milk as consistent as possible for the cheese making, and the Farm is registered under the countryside stewardship scheme with all efforts being made with regard to conservation. Before entering the cheese making room we were provided with clean clothes and boots to wear. We met Craig and Andy, the cheese makers who were already turning milk in the vat. We arrived too late for the first steps of the process but were told that the cows are milked twice a day - the first in the morning at 5am and the latest at 5pm in the afternoon. The milk used to make the cheese is raw (unpasteurised) and so they use specific disinfectants to clean the cows’ udders before and after milking. They also get their milk analysed every week.

At 7.30 am the milk had been piped directly from the parlour into the cheese vat at a temperature of 4.3°C. Around 4600 litres of milk are used to make 44 whole Red Leicester cheeses. At different points over a 2 hour period, starter culture, annatto and frozen calf rennet were all added to the milk to achieve the correct milk acidity and to create the traditional colour and bouquet of flavours associated with the cheese. It is very important to keep the temperature and the acidity under control during the process as a temperature shock could bring problems to the production process and wrong level of acidity makes for the wrong curd density. The milk had now started to become a curd. After an hour and a half it was cut up and stirred and the temperature had risen to 30°c. The result was a viscous and soft curd which we taste and it is soft and has a milky taste. At this stage, Andy and Craig were turning the curd all the time. Craig used a plastic spade to release any curds lodged in the corners and one of us had a try at turning the curd as well and it is really hard! The temperature was checked every 5 minutes to ensure it did not overheat. After this a valve was opened so the curd could flow via a pipe down to a second vat and the whey drain off. It is spread around their estate as nutriment for lands and plants.

As the whey disappeared, what looked like a yellow/orange tarmac road of curd remained. It got increasingly more compact and when tasted at this stage, was harder and squeaky. The curd was spread and levelled with a rake and a large knife was used to cut the curd into brick sized blocks. The acidity was checked every half hour and after an hour when it had reached the correct reading, the curd blocks were turned again and cut smaller, before being piled up, put through the mill and then salted - a process which takes considerable effort. Salt breaks up the curd and you need to fork it through. If you don't it all sticks together which you don't want at this stage.

Next, the curds were put in the moulds and we all got involved with this part. We applied the muslin to the stainless-steel moulds and then put the curd within. The moulds were stacked on top of one another and pressure was applied in order to both squeeze out the whey and compress the cheese. This happens throughout the night. The following day, the pressure is increased on the curds and the cheeses are left for the day. When ready, the cheeses are wrapped up in cloths previously soaked in lard and then put in the maturing room which runs at 13.4°C and 90% humidity. The cheeses are rotated around the cellar as they age and we were amazed to see an industrial hoover with the sole purpose of removing cheese mites. All the process steps are recorded in a “cheese record”, setting traceability for each cheese production.

Thank you to Jo and David for a fantastic day, and not least for the tasty Lemon Drizzle cake before we went home.