British cheeses are creating a stink worldwide, partly thanks to a course in Cheshire. Kevin Perry watches trainee makers mature
The Caerphilly cheese is truly delicious - would I care to meet the person who made it?
Margaret Bostock steps forward. She made the Caerphilly when she was on a basic hard cheese-making course in April and her results are now mature enough to taste. Margaret has a smallholding in east Yorkshire, and her Hindmarsh goats provide the essential milk.
Today Margaret and six other trainees are coming to the end of a two-and-a-half-day soft cheese-making course. Each of them is dipping the Camembert they have made into a mix of penicillin candidum, to create the traditional crust. They then pick out their mozzarella cheeses and bag them. One or two have a nice shape but the others are not as successful.
Still, they all look delicious.
We are at Reaseheath college in rural Cheshire. There are cheese-making sessions for students, as part of their food technology diplomas. Today's course is for adults and is one of a series put on by AB Cheese Making, a training company run by Christine Ashby.
Chris tells me that her students are usually a mix of smallholders, farmers seeking to diversify, cheese-room operators, sales people and absolutely anyone involved in the cheese industry.
"We had the general manager of the biggest cheese factory in the UK on the basic course, sitting next to a lady who milks six goats," says Chris.
"We get operatives who press buttons in the factories but don't know what's going on."
Chris Ashby is taking the course with friend and colleague Val Bines. They are spoken of with great respect. Each has formidable experience in research and teaching and as consultants.
"We have had 800 cheese-makers on our courses since 1998", says Chris. "The Specialist Cheese Makers' Association has welcomed 30 new members in the last year and the total membership is around 300. The situation is healthy."
The room looks very high tech with huge steel vats and lots of fascinating piping. Everyone has white lab coats and hats and their shoes are covered with polythene. The emphasis is on small-scale, hand-made products but the principles remain the same. The trainees have made 10 types of cheeses from the same milk.
Chris Dawson, cheese buyer for Waitrose supermarkets, is attending this course. It helps him understand what makes a good cheese and he can meet the people who will be making them.
"Chris and Val are outstanding," says Dawson. "If it wasn't for them you wouldn't have British farmers making British cheeses. These two people are doing more for the British cheese industry than almost anybody. They're helping to create the cheeses of tomorrow. I cannot speak highly enough of them."
Dairy farmer Michael Davenport has pastures at the foot of the Lincolnshire Wolds. He wants to increase the monetary value of the milk his cows produce. "I currently get about 18 pence a litre," he tells me. "I've read odd bits about cheese-making but I would not have had the confidence to make cheese without coming on this course. It shows the procedures, all of the little bits that you need to know."
We move over to a steel table where there are two bowls of lactic cheese.
Val Bines wants to demonstrate the making of roule cheese and the cheese will be filled with lemon curd.
Has anyone ever made a Swiss roll? Margaret Bostock has because she used to be a domestic science teacher.
The lactic cheese is duly and expertly rolled. Val then pours freeze-dried cranberries into the other bowl of cheese and one of the trainees does the mixing. She suggests other things that her students might add to create blended cheeses.
"We support them when they go back," Val explains. "We are only a phone call away. We can help them understand the analysis reports on their milk and their cheese products."
Val mentions her own cheeses that have been successful at county shows but these achievements are mentioned in a matter of fact way. Obviously she expects her trainees to go in for shows because it is what cheese-makers do.
Gary Bryan will not be entering shows but his mozzarella looks a treat. He is negotiating to purchase a flourishing delicatessen in Nottingham city centre and he wants knowledge of cheese-making to help his customers.
"I want to become more of an expert," he says. "If someone asks what is rennet (usually the stomach lining of a calf) I will be able to give them an authoritative answer".
The other students will be going back to their farms and smallholdings to make their cheeses. They have starter recipes in their folders and these recipes, with varied flavours and ingredients, will form the basis of their new business.
Family and friends will sample and comment on the first efforts. Then, dear reader, the new cheeses will be ready for you to buy and enjoy.
Details of Christine Ashby's courses can be found at www.abcheesemaking.co.uk. Also see www.thecheeseweb.com for details of specialist making and tasting courses, the British Cheese Awards and the Great British Cheese Festival