A Day in the Life of England's Most Badass Cheesemaker
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because artisan cheese is the new craft beer.
By James Watkins
Rod Smart, Churcham, Gloucestershire, U.K.
We’re making Double Gloucester cheese today. We make cheese twice a week, so we’ve just put away the cheese we made on Tuesday. We started at 6 a.m. with about 450 liters of milk [119 gallons], and we’ll make about 45 kilos of cheese [about 99 pounds] from that. We’ll be done by around 6 p.m. It’s not hard work, but it does get monotonous sometimes.
We’ve been on the farm about 55 years now. In 1986, when she was 60, my mother took over this little cheese-making business, just as a hobby, really. She’s still living here on the farm — she made cheese till she was about 85. As she got older, she taught me to make it the same way she’d been taught, and the last couple of years I’ve taught my younger son.
Cheese is a living thing; it progresses and develops. When I built the first cheese house on the farm for Mother, she brought mature cheese out of the stores for three months before we actually started to make anything, so the building got those spores, those molds. By the time we started, the equipment, the storerooms, the shelves were all living; they were all ready for the cheese. It’s all those things that make the difference between just any old cheese and true artisan cheese.
We supply the cheeses for the annual Cheese Rolling event. … It’s world-famous. … One year we had a bit of trouble with the police because of health and safety.
We make Double Gloucester and Single Gloucester. Double Gloucester is a robust, hard-pressed cheese; Single Gloucester is smoother. Traditionally, the Double Gloucester was strong enough to be chucked in a cart and taken away to the cities. As the Industrial Revolution came, the factories started making it. The Single Gloucester didn’t travel so well, so it was just a local cheese. It’s now protected, so it’s only made in Gloucestershire. There are only six producers of it — there used to be only three when my mother took over.
We’ve stuck to the traditional recipe. As far as I know, there aren’t any others who continue with that, because it’s such a fiddle. But it’s the recipe we inherited, it’s what’s been done with this particular cheese as long as we can trace. The equipment we inherited was Victorian, over 100 years old. We can put 15 hundredweight on, about half a ton, with all the levers. Good Victorian technology. All these things have a bearing on your end cheese. When Mother took this over, there were fewer than 400 artisan cheeses in Britain. Now it’s over 1,000.
We supply the cheeses for the annual Cheese Rolling event on Cooper’s Hill. It’s world-famous. They just wrap a wheel of cheese in a bit of ribbon and throw it down the hill, then go chasing after it. They usually buy four big wheels and then three or four little wheels for the children, who do a race up the hill.
One year we had a bit of trouble with the police because of health and safety — they came to the farm and made the case that since no one organizes the event officially, we could be held liable for any injuries [the race down the near-70-degree slope regularly results in broken limbs and even a broken neck in 2014]. I’ve got a cousin who’s in public relations — he said just go with it, it’s the best publicity you’re ever going to have. Sure enough we had morning television wanting Granny to sit on the sofa at Cooper’s Hill. Russia Today wanted to do an interview, they wanted to make a thing about the oppressive British state. The headline was “Policemen Intimidate Granny” or something like that.
Traditionally we would be making about 20 percent of our milk into cheese, and it was making 50 percent of the farm’s dairy income. In the last couple of years we put about the same volume of milk into cheese, but it was probably making 80 or 90 percent of total income because the price of milk was so low. A couple of years ago it was 11 pence a liter of milk; now it’s about 26. We couldn’t have survived very much longer at 11 pence, even with the cheese.
We got a gold at the Artisan Cheese Awards this year. In 2011 we won the Best Traditional British Cheese, which was nice. We sell as much as possible in person, here and at the farmers market. We don’t do any supermarkets or anything like that. It’s nice to just carry on in a small way and not get too big. I’d have to start employing labor, because I’m running the rest of the farm as well. It’s in my interest to do all the stages — I milk the cows, I know that we’ve got good milk.
On the whole I’m looking forward to some changes with Brexit. A lot of people turn around and ask, “Are you going to lose all your subsidies?” (the Single Farm Payment from Europe). It’s very nice to have, it does help, but most of it goes to landowners with thousands of acres, so we don’t see much of it.
But I like to think that if we had voted to stay, we’d have still got on with it and made the best of it. They make out that every Leaver just didn’t want immigrants. I think that was just the minority, but it’s the vocal minority. The biggest thing, which has upset me, is the bureaucracy. I don’t see why if we want Europeans to come here to work, why shouldn’t they?