Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Going solo - setting up The Courtyard Dairy

So i've gone and done it and left the lovely world of The Fine Cheese Co. in Bath to return North with my partner, Kathy.

What to do!  Well I thought I want to stay in cheese so with the help of fine wine retailer Buon Vino (  i'm going to start a cheese shop in The Courtyard, Settle, BD24 9JY (

More to follow and i'll let you know when the website: is up and running!

PS Sorry about the pics on here - when BT took down the free site so went all the pics.  But fear not - they'll be back, along with all the blogs when I set up The Courtyard Dairy's website soon.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Rennet: how does it fit in with vegetarian cheese?
Vegetarian cheese is everywhere: pretty much every block of cheese you pick up in the UK will be made with vegetarian rennet. Now I’m all for equal rights and all that but the whole issue is a bit of paradox to me.

So we’d best start from the top: Rennet - What is it and what does it do?

Rennet is an essential part of the cheese making process (only very fresh, fragile curd cheeses can be made without it) being used to coagulate the milk and set it into jelly (Sam Holden is pictured here adding liquid rennet to the vat). It was probably discovered by accident when animal stomachs were used as vessels to store and transport milk in ancient times.

Rennet is an enzyme obtained from the fourth stomach of an unweaned calf (this can include veal calves, or even lamb and kid) but is nowadays available in a liquid form (though some still traditional producers - e.g. Beaufort - still use strips of dried stomach).

Why can it only come from young unweaned calves? Because at that stage in their life they’ve only consumed milk, so the natural enzyme for coagulating milk (chymosin) is present in large quantities. As the calves get older the amount of chymosin reduces and other enzymes take its place (those necessary for digesting other foodstuffs). This is why you can get various quality grades of rennet depending on how much chymosin is present: 100% chymosin from a young unweaned calf is the Cadillac of rennets.

Killing a young calf for its stomach? Isn’t that cruel?

Unfortunately, it is a cruel reality of the dairy industry: “The Achilles heel of Dairying”.

Think about it… for dairy farms to have constant milk supply, their animals must have offspring yearly. Naturally not all these offspring can be kept (otherwise there’d be an exponential population growth) and some of these calves are also unusable (male diary calves by the nature of breeding don’t produce the required quality or quantity of meat, although some diary farmers are now trying to use them for rose veal).

This is the paradox of the dairy industry: in order to have milk, many young calves are killed every year. So it is economic to use the stomach linings of these animals for rennet, bearing in mind that even if there were no demand for rennet, these animals would still be slaughtered. As rennet manufacturer BioRen says, “A YES to milk and milk products logically also means a clear YES to the use of natural rennet.”

So how does vegetarian rennet fit in?

With the advent of mass-produced cheese in the 80’s supermarkets found that they could provide for a larger market using vegetarian rennet. This was coupled at the time with problems sourcing quality calves rennet (problems which still exist to this day: Sam Holden of Hafod Cheese sources his rennet from New Zealand Calves - New Zealand doesn’t have a white veal industry so the welfare standard for calves is higher and they are slaughtered younger meaning the rennet is higher quality).

So the supermarkets turned to vegetarian rennet. Vegetarian rennet can be produced by two methods:
a) Some moulds (e.g. Rhizomucor miehei) are able to produce protelotic enzymes similar to rennet. By fermenting these moulds in a laboratory before concentrating and purifying them a vegetarian substitute called Microbial Rennet can be manufactured. This is the most common rennet in the UK.
b) Alternatively, organisms (such as yeast, bacteria or mould) have been genetically modified to secrete the rennet enzyme ‘Chymosin’.

Therefore vegetarian rennet in general (see the below!) is really neither natural nor traditional and many believe it also doesn’t produce as good a depth of flavour (have a read of Patrick McGuigan’s notes here and Andy at Handyface carried out some interesting home experiments.

There is some evidence that using Microbial Rennet for aged cheeses may be one factor that contributes to bitterness and lower yields. Although it is worth pointing out rennet manufacturers have worked (and continue to work) to resolve issues like this, or have developed other methods of manufacture to cover these defects in the final cheese (such as balancing with sweetness). There are also some mighty fine artisan vegetarian rennet cheeses: Old Winchester, Cotherstone and Lord of The Hundreds to name a few.

Personally, I prefer ‘traditional’ rennet cheeses as I feel rennet produces a better cheese (and is one of the reasons many AOC / Protected cheeses cannot use vegetarian rennet, e.g. Parmesan, Brie de Meaux, Roquefort); it is a more traditional way of operating, and it is an economic use of the calves. Thankfully more and more artisan producers are using traditional rennet.

Vegetable Rennet: the exception to the rule.

Some plants naturally contain some of the protelotic qualities needed to coagulate milk. In general they don’t really work that well and that’s why they’re not used (apparently even nettles were used in olden days).

Yet in parts of Spain and Portugal the Cardoon thistle is (traditionally) used as rennet. It works quite well, producing a very distinctive texture and flavour: the stamens are ground before being infused in warm water, which is then added to the milk in the same way as rennet. (Mary Holbrook’s farm near Bath also uses Cardoon rennet for her characteristic Tiley and Cardo). Cardoon rennet works well with goats’ and sheep’s milk, but with cows’ milk it producers a very bitter cheese caused by the way it reacts with the proteins.

The science: how rennet works

Milk is full of protein particles; most of these (>80%) are formed into the casein micelle. One part of this micelle (kappa casein: located on the extremity of the micelle) is negatively charged. This means it repels the other casein micelles, causing milk to stay in its liquid form (a bit like putting two magnets of the same pole together).

Rennet contains an enzyme (chymosin) which cuts this negatively charged kappa casein protein so that the negative end of the chain dissolves into the liquid (it will leave with the whey).
This is the primary phase of the coagulation.

With this neutralisation of the protein micelle the secondary phase can begin: the proteins no longer repel each other and start to join together. This happens because the freshly cut kappa casein chain (now called para-kappa-casein) is sensitive to picking up minerals. Its cut end links up with phosphate and then calcium minerals present in milk to form a bridge that joins the casein micelles together (effectively creating a protein web).

Milk that is poor in calcium and phosphate (such as goats’ and sheep’s milk as well as old cows’ milk) will have calcium phosphate added in to help improve this stage: this is why it can sometimes be seen on the ingredients list of cheese).

As the proteins join together (coagulate) to form the curd/junket, the web also traps in the fats and minerals.

This junket will go on to form the cheese (after other stages of manufacturer: cutting, draining, pressing, ageing).

Most of the rennet will leave with the whey: approximately 0.0000005g per kg is left in the finished cheese.

I'm back...

I had been posting all my blogs at for a while but BT has dropped thier free hosting. So i'm back to blogger! Look out for some more cheesy posts coming soon!

Sunday, 27 November 2011


SatNav is nigh on useless at finding farms. Which means that, late, and rapidly becoming an expert in the Cheshire and Shropshire countryside, I was getting stressed. Even the locals at the post office couldn’t point me in the right direction – a shame they didn’t know that Britain’s finest Cheshire was made less than a mile away.

It’s Britain’s oldest-known cheese, said to have been made before the Roman invasion, and is even mentioned in the Doomsday book (1086). It was once more famous and wider-eaten than Cheddar; in the industrial revolution it was sent down by the shipload from Liverpool at the request of London’s gentry.

My first venture up North since returning from the promised cheese lands of France had to be to visit two of my favourite, yet vastly underrated cheeses: Cheshire and Lancashire. The French just don’t understand or appreciate the classic lactic and acidic British ‘crumbly’ that is epitomised in these cheeses.

My visit was to Appleby’s of Hawkstone; the last remaining producer of unpasteurised traditional cloth bound Cheshire. A far cry from the two-thousand-plus farms making it in 1914; the decline that was caused by draconian Milk Marketing Board regulations, and requirements to make a fast setting, drier, waxed or vac-packed cheese. This in turn gave rise to the soggy crumbly bags of factory Cheshire that give it a bad name to this day.

Yet, one farmer struggled on, in her effort to preserve Cheshire’s name and to educate the public on what it can be like. Appleby’s is clean and zesty, slightly tangy, quite moist yet crumbly and savoury, a total contrast to the other Cheshires still around. Paul and Sarah Appleby are the most recent generation, taking over the reigns handed down over three generations from when Lucy Appleby learnt her craft at the local college.

Along with the parents, Edward and Christine (who still cast a critical eye over the cheese), we watched their cheese-maker, Garry Gray. He captures the minerally saline flavour of the milk from the Cheshire salt marshes on which their cows graze.

The unpasteurised milk, and the techniques of old: long acidic maturation, traditional starters, crumbling the blocks by hand, cloth binding... all contribute to this cheese’s complex interesting flavours and textures.

If you can find it, buy some; and should you find yourself with too much (never a problem!), follow Paul Appleby’s advice – fry great slabs with bacon, or crumble it, cover with milk and sliced onions, then bake. The acidity goes really well with sweet fruits and fruitcake too.

Monday, 18 July 2011


Whey! Let’s have some meat!

Whey, Lactoserum, Petit Lait: the by-product of making cheese. What do you do with it? That’s one of the big questions in life. Sometimes a little is kept to add to the next day’s milking, to start off the coagulation (like a bread starter), and those dedicated souls who still make their own rennet use it to dissolve the veal stomach (see my Beaufort Alpage blog - coming soon).

However the majority goes down the drain, mores the pity, as its still jam-packed with protein, fats and minerals. Some entrepreneurial Italians decided to make a mighty fine cheese by reheating it and adding acid, and re-coagulating the proteins that are left to form a fragile curd called Ricotta. Some cheese-makers put the whey in a centrifuge and separate out the cream that remains, using it to make a mighty fine butter. Many farmers put it on their fields as fertiliser and some industrial firms freeze-dry it and use it to add protein to foods – such as baby food (read the ingredients…). The monks at the Abbaye de Tamié, use it to heat the abbey (by converting it, rather niftily, to methane).

But the age-old method for reusing whey was to feed it to the pigs. To do this in Britain the whey must originate and be used on the same farm, to minimize cross contamination, so it’s not that common anymore. Yet in France, that’s not a problem, and as my local pork producer offered to show me the whey (pardon the pun), I popped in for a visit (and to lend a hand, naturally).

As is typical in France, it’s a very small, not intensive, farm where Jean Claude keeps pigs and sheep. He receives the whey once a week, and feeds it to the pigs. As you can see they adore it! He says it also contributes to the flavour of the meat. All the meat he produces here he processes himself into various forms (nothing is wasted – tripe, cooked head, pigs trotter salad are all on offer) and sold on local markets. So I helped make a pigs liver terrine and, we’re in France after all, it finished with a mighty fine meal with all the family!

Great subsistence farming. If you’re in the Roanne area look out for Malème’s pork products.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Our Terroir

A quick mention to a friend of mine, Marie-Laure. Whom i lived and worked with for Mons Fromagerie in France. A passionate cheesemaker and eater she is studying all over Europe to learn about cheese. Please have a look at her blog: