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Meet the Bungay cheesemaker whose St Jude is up for national awards

PUBLISHED: 12:36 05 September 2017

Julie Cheyney holds her St Jude at Fen Farm Dairy.   Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Julie Cheyney holds her St Jude at Fen Farm Dairy. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

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Cheesemaker Julie Cheyney has been winning awards for her truly artisanal products for more than a decade. Now her Suffolk-made St Jude is a contender in The Great British Cheese Awards. Tessa Allingham went to see how she does it.

As I leave the cheese room at White Wood Dairy, Julie Cheyney hands me a little A5 card. I thank her and slip it into my notebook. I’m too busy handing back clogs, hairnet, coat, and rummaging around for odd bits of removed jewellery, to take much notice.

Later, I look properly. There’s a lovely picture of Julie leaning on a black table, arm outstretched, one finger touching a roundel of St Jude cheese balanced on its edge, as if she’s rolling it like a wheel. She’s focused on the cheese not the camera, and the image suggests pride, a bit of playfulness and – without going over the top because this is a piece of cheese after all – love. It’s as if the photographer has captured a moment of intimacy between cheese and cheesemaker.

Julie is clearly busy when we meet on a Friday morning, one of the two days a week that the cheese room at Fen Farm Dairy on the edge of Bungay (it’s normally home to Baron Bigod brie, raw butter and unpasteurised milk) becomes White Wood Dairy, and the place that Julie makes her fresh, St Marcellin-type cheese from the raw milk of the Fen Farm Montbéliarde cattle.

She is professional, precise, expert, her language – she talks just enough – is dominated by words ending in ‘um’ or ‘ion’ – geotrichum candidum, penicillium, acidification, coagulation, lactation – or references to enzymes, bacteria, microbes, cultures, amino acids and pH levels. It’s not the fluffy lingo you associate with ordinary food.

Julie holds some of her produce Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNJulie holds some of her produce Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

This is serious stuff, because making cheese is a serious, scientific process with, as Julie admits, “a little bit of witchcraft” thrown into the mix.

Milk arrives into the dairy through an incongruously low-tech hole in the wall, however, gravity-fed through pipes from the parlour across the yard. It pours into giant plastic tubs.

“I was here at 5am yesterday morning to receive 510 litres straight from the cattle,” says Julie, “and I start the process immediately.”

She adds cultures to trigger the alchemy, a starter to acidify the milk and give flavour, mould to help form the rind, yeasts to break down the protein, rennet which causes the liquid whey to separate from the solid curds. The concoction is left to set for 24 hours during which time Julie checks the pH meticulously.

One of the cows used to make Julie's cheese.   Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNOne of the cows used to make Julie's cheese. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Once the correct level is reached, she ladles the curds into moulds from which they drip whey, in their own good time but roughly over a 12-hour period, into ground-level grates.

From there, the juvenile cheeses are taken out of their moulds and placed on racks where they are turned and salted during a further 12-hour period.

“This lot is going to Neal’s Yard on Monday. They’ll continue to ripen there for about 14 days before going on sale,” she explains.

Other batches will find their way to high-end retailers around the UK, and closer to home to delicatessens such as Earsham Street Deli, just two miles from the farm, Lawsons in Aldeburgh, Baileys in Beccles, local farmers’ markets, and the Suffolk Food Hall.

Close up of the process.   Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNClose up of the process. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

“I’ve made 650 St Judes from that milk,” Julie explains. “For every 10 litres, I get 12.5-13 cheeses. The yield depends on what stage of lactation the cows are at.

“In August when they are coming to the end of lactation, the milk is very different from earlier in the year, but I’m always talking with Shaun the herdsman so that I know what to expect. He’s been here for years and really understands the cows.” The cows’ diet, of course, also affects the milk.

When we meet in June the cattle are 100% grass-fed, resulting in milk with different characteristics from that produced a few weeks earlier, when a cold snap meant the cows had been fed some silage too.

“It changes the taste and the texture of the cheese,” Julie explains. “St Jude is a seasonal cheese and is sold young, so what you buy in early summer will be different from the cheese you pick up in September.”

Julie Cheyney making her St Judes cheese at Fen Farm Dairy.   Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNJulie Cheyney making her St Judes cheese at Fen Farm Dairy. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Julie is meticulous about every stage of the long, careful making process, overseeing detail with the help of an enthusiastic young apprentice, Isis. The air in the cheese room is damp, smells tangy, alive almost – it is indeed thronging with millions of bacteria – and a fan whirs in the corner to keep the ambient temperature correct, generally around 22C.

“St Jude is a lactic-style cheese,” Julie explains. “It takes a long time to acidify, longer than a brie-type which uses more rennet.” She will set aside some of the cheeses to create St Cera, which starts off life as St Jude before washing the rind in a salt solution inhibits some bacteria and encourages others, thus allowing a meatier flavour to develop. She deliberately makes no health claims about either of her raw-milk cheeses and, of course, safety is paramount.

“The milk is tested, the cheese is tested, I go over and above what’s required by food safety standards. I believe people should have the choice to eat raw-milk cheese if they wish.”

Julie came to cheese-making having been brought up around cattle. She was milking cows regularly from the age of 16, and was married to a Hampshire farmer for 28 years. She launched her award-winning Camembert-style pasteurised cheese, Tunworth, in 2005, before working for specialist retailer, Neal’s Yard, until the pull of actually making cheese became too strong.

The precision of the process.   Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNThe precision of the process. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

“I saw a gap in the market for a lactic cow’s milk cheese. I called my cheese St Jude because Jude was my nickname, and because I came to make it at an unhappy time in my life. St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.”

Julie moved to Suffolk three years ago, having heard Jonny Crickmore, of Fen Farm Dairy, on the BBC Radio4 Farming Today programme.

“He was talking about farm diversification, his desire to retain the family business, and how he had bought 80 Montbéliarde cattle to start making cheese. Montys can be bad-tempered (Jonny’s recently bought a few Brown Swiss who are more polite, very Swiss) but their milk is wonderful, a perfect balance of fat and protein.”

Julie’s belief in her cheese – “it really is in my head and my heart – it’s my cheese” – is supported by a slew of awards. One in particular, the James Aldridge Memorial Prize, is her most precious possession.

“That award is judged by a committee of industry people that I admire. I was the first cheesemaker to win the Best Raw Milk Cheese award twice for two different cheeses, St Jude and St Cera.”

For all the science behind cheese-making, it’s the taste that counts. St Jude is grassy, fresh, vegetal, redolent of farmyards, hay, the outdoors. There’s nothing insipid, plastic or manufactured about it. Eat it young and the inside is soft and fluffy, a few days later it runs readily, the flavours become more complex, and the thin, wrinkly coating created by geotrichum and penicillium moulds develops a more pronounced groove.

I turn over the A5 card as I leave, to find a recipe, from Nigel Slater. Halve some tomatoes, he suggests, drizzle with oil and roast them, tear over some basil leaves, put St Jude on top and grill to melting. Serve with lightly-toasted sourdough bread and a glass of chilled Chenin blanc. Now that does sound perfect.

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