The story and philosophy behind Slow Food approved trader Blackwoods Cheese Co
People travel a long way in their quest for good cheese, as many a Borough Market customer will testify. Its regulars come from around the country, thinking nothing of five hours on the motorway in the name of their favourite blue. Still, few can compare with cheesemaker Dave Holton, whose lactic journey has taken him from his hometown near Melbourne, Australia, to our own Neal’s Yard Dairy where, working as an affineur, he toured dozens of small UK dairies.
While there, he set up Blackwoods Cheese Co, producing raw milk cheese in Brockley—but even that wasn’t quite good enough. “When we started out, we all had other part time jobs, so it was convenient to be making in London,” he says simply, “but we outgrew it once we’d left our other jobs and were full time at Blackwoods.”
Like keen-nosed detectives, they knew their best hopes of success lay with their sources: their rennet, and their milk, which they got from Bore Place farm in Kent. “The more you intervene with the milk—putting it through pipes, pumps and so on—the more you damage the solids in the milk and affect the cheese’s quality.”
Dave’s first step, therefore, was to move his dairy to the farm—and as luck would have it, there was “an old building sitting empty” not 20 metres from the milking parlour. A dairyman on an Alpine alpage could not get it fresher. “We collect the milk straight away, bring it to the dairy, and gravity feeds it directly into our vat: unpasteurised and unchilled,” says Dave.
Limited intervention means both the texture and the bacterial content of the milk is maintained, reducing the need for additional starter cultures. “It’s still a live product, we need some in there to get it going, but using raw milk allows the natural flora to come out and express themselves.” Then there’s the rennet, from the cow’s stomach as is traditional, rather than the lab-made vegetarian rennets that are so popular these days.
“Rennet can affect flavour. I’ve worked in various dairies and I’ve found that animal rennet is better. It just makes sense to us.” Making fresh, soft cheese, Dave has found even the slightest variation can affect its quality. That’s why he likes it. “You are watching something evolve on a daily basis, controlling the environment to help encourage microbes and seeing a fairly rapid change.”
Contradictory though it might sound, the pace at which the cheese changes makes it all the more significant that Dave adheres to Slow Food principles. The cows’ diet, the time of milking, the weather and so on affect all cheeses hugely, but in young cheese the effect is heightened. “We always caught up with the herdsmen and farmer regularly, but now we’re based on the farm we’ve a lot more knowledge and involvement.” Even on the most basic level, spending more time making and less time sitting in traffic has improved the quality of the cheese.
Of course, slow doesn’t just refer to pace of make, but a pace of life that is in step with the community and environment. Blackwoods were already pioneering in this regard, having led the way for whey to be sold to restaurants and budding cooks looking to “do cheffy things”, instead of being discarded.
Nourishing a community
By moving to the farm, Blackwoods are able to nourish a community on a level they were never able to in a south London industrial estate. “They have a lot of education programmes for kids and people with disabilities. It is really cool for kids to do a tour of the farm, and see the cheesemaking process from start to finish. There is such a disconnect between cheese in shops and how it’s made,” Dave continues, “and this is a great way to address that.”
Dave’s come a long way when it comes to cheesemaking. But it’s testimony to how far we’ve come as a country that his dairy not only survives, but thrives in accordance with the values of Slow Food.