Eating cheese is more or less my number one pastime, but despite having an abundance of enthusiasm for the subject and plenty of cheese tasting miles under my belt, there’s nothing quite like getting hands-on to better understand the art of the cheesemaker.
Naturally, we jumped at the chance to visit Lyburn Farmhouse Cheesemakers when invited down by head cheesemaker, James Brown, and the experience didn’t disappoint. Wandering around aisle after aisle of steadily maturing cheese certainly brought back that unmistakable ‘kid in a sweetshop’ feeling, but the real fun was getting involved in the cheese making itself.
Leaving autumn behind and entering a room with 90% humidity, we joined James who had been carefully controlling the temperature and acidity levels within the huge vat of milk that came fresh from the farm’s own 170 cows at 5am that morning.
From then on we were put to work, getting involved with all stages of the traditional cheese making process, beginning with the mid-morning cut, slicing and dicing the milk in the vat, which had taken on a blancmange-like consistency in just a few hours. Keeping the milk moving was then our focus, encouraging the curds and whey to separate further.
While James continued to nurture the makings of 50-odd truckles of cheese, we found ourselves briefly back in our comfort zones, tasting Lyburn’s full range of six cheeses with pack room manager, Andy. Aside from being a treat for the taste-buds, it was a wonderful demonstration of what can be achieved during the aging process, with everything from humidity and turning frequency to mould spores in the air coming into play to produce dramatically different results.
Beginning with the cheese that started it all, Lyburn Gold, a semi-hard washed curd cheese with a smooth and creamy texture, ripened for 10-14 weeks, we worked our way through the nine month aged Winchester to the Great Taste 2-star winning Old Winchester, aged for over 18 months to take on a dryer, nuttier and more crumbly character, in the same ballpark as Parmesan or Old Amsterdam. In contrast, the subtle flavours of Lyburn Lightly Oak Smoked (smoked over dry oak chips at Dorset Smokery) and Lyburn Garlic and Nettle were refreshingly restrained compared to many other flavoured cheeses, more light and delicate than one would expect.
Stoney Cross however is an altogether different beast and the star of the show for me – as it was for the Great Taste judges, who deemed the three to four month matured mould-ripened cheese worthy of a spot in the much revered Great Taste Top 50 in 2015, winning over the industry’s finest palates with its buttery texture and unmistakably earthy finish.
Now that we knew exactly what we were aiming for, it was back in with James to work off the tasting session with the remaining members of the four-strong team, Steve and Amy. Initially draining the whey from the curds by creating a channel through the middle of the vat, we then broke up the curds with some gentle turning and then placed them into moulds of different types and sizes, depending on the variety that they were destined to become.
As soon as the moulds were filled, it was time to flip the cheeses, balancing 7kg of barely formed curds on one hand, before placing them back into the mould upside down as neatly as possible… hot work in the humidity of the cheese making room, but I can’t think of a more fitting way to earn your evening’s cheeseboard.
A big thanks to the whole Lyburn team for giving us such a great insight into what goes into making an award-winning truckle. These cheesemakers certainly seem to be on fine form, so with the World Cheese Awards coming up later this month at the NEC in Birmingham, owners Mike and Judy Smales might just be running out of room in their awards cabinet before long.