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Katy and Caroline Bell of Shepherds Purse Artisan Cheeses

Artisan cheesemaking – a mix of art and science

by Nancy Anne Harbord 10 July 2015

Like many regions in Britain, Yorkshire is producing some amazing artisan cheeses. We visited cheesemaker Shepherds Purse to find out about their beautiful cheeses and how they make them.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

It’s difficult to express with words how much I love cheese. It’s been a passion that has been with me for as long as I can remember and has brought me joy every single day of my life. My tastes have changed from the mass-produced generic to the hand-crafted artisan, but at some stage I have genuinely loved them all.

Living part of the week in Yorkshire, as I do, I know the culinary delights of the region well and have been keen to spread the word further afield. I am also very excited about the burgeoning array of quality cheese that is now available in Britain. Milk rationing during the Second World War and in the post-war years dealt a huge blow to the craft, as only cheddar that had been made in a particular way was legal to manufacture. Cheese of uniform taste and quality – Government Cheddar as it was known – was the rule. Where there were 3500 independent cheesemakers in Britain prior to 1914, by the end of 1945 that number had been reduced to 100.

For many years, this situation prevailed. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s something changed. Many people, often without any practical experience of farming or producing cheese, started to revive old recipes. Pioneers such as James Aldridge, a scaffolder and mechanic by trade, began to experiment once again with raw milk and develop farmhouse cheeses. A new era in British cheese-making was now underway.

Shepherds Purse Artisan Cheeses, near Thirsk, North Yorkshire
Shepherds Purse Artisan Cheeses, near Thirsk, North Yorkshire
Bluemin White with chutney
Bluemin White with chutney

Around the same time Judy Bell, a pharmacist by training, was considering how to diversify her small sheep farming operation near Thirsk, in North Yorkshire. Working then as a part-time osteopath, she had come across an increasing number of people who were allergic to cow’s milk – not just intolerant, but actually allergic – and were suffering with symptoms such as eczema and asthma. She had read about the health transformation some people had achieved by switching to sheep’s milk, with its different type of lactose and fat structure, and wondered if there was a market for these dairy products. She initially experimented with yoghurt and ice cream. Her daughter Caroline, who has run the business with her sister Katy since their mother retired, told me: ‘When we were young kids, we were backing the ice cream!’

Judy Bell was mentored by local cheesemaker, Les Lambert, who noticed her natural talent. He encouraged her to enter her first cheese, Olde York, into the International Cheese Show. She came away with a gold medal. Caroline told us: ‘That is what really gave her the confidence. She realised she was actually making something quite special.’ Shepherds Purse cheese-makers was born. I visited their production facility recently to learn more about the family, the cheese and how they make it.

The milk arrives from nearby farms – they use both sheep and cow now – and is pasteurised. It is then added to large vats together with vegetarian rennet, starter cultures and penicillium roqueforti (if a blue veined or blue mould-ripened is being made) to create curds. The curds are then cut to begin the separation of curds and whey. Caroline told us: ‘Cheese-making is all about flow – we need to be gentle and quite responsive to the curds. The milk is slightly different every day, so you need to have a sensory response to it.’

 
 
Truckles being turned
Truckles being turned
Cheeses being hand salted
Cheeses being hand salted

Curds are then poured into truckle moulds and allowed to settle under their own weight. They are turned regularly over the next 48 hours to ensure even distribution of moisture. Caroline says: ‘The area is quite warm and that is how you want it for the cheese-making process – it helps keep the starter cultures active and working.’

The cheeses are unmoulded and hand salted, before being transferred to their temperature- and humidity-controlled cave for maturation. While in the cheese room they get turned regularly so the whey drains evenly and they mature consistently. Caroline told us: ‘We actually have electronic temperature and humidity trackers throughout the production process, which automatically back up to the cloud so we can track a batch and know what temperature and humidity it has been at throughout its life. As we make changes we have some really great data that we can go back to.’ Cheese data in the cloud – the perfect marriage of craft and technology.

 
 
Yorkshire Fettle: First stage in the cave
Yorkshire Fettle: First stage in the cave
Harrogate Blue: First stage in the cave
Harrogate Blue: First stage in the cave

The blue vein cheeses are taken out after about seven days to be spiked – a process which creates their distinctive veins. Caroline says: ‘The penicillium roqueforti we added to the milk is activated by oxygen, so air needs to be let in to create the veining. If you don’t spike it, it will produce mould on the outside, but when you spike it, it allows oxygen inside as well. You’ll see in some cheeses they’ll be air pockets and you will get a nice patch of blue.’

 
 
Harrogate Blue being spiked
Harrogate Blue being spiked
Harrogate Blue maturing
Harrogate Blue maturing

Each truckle receives about 200 punctures, before being wrapped in foil by hand and returned to the cave for further maturation. Blue cheese generates heat as it matures and the foil helps keep in the warmth, allowing it to develop evenly. They are then returned to the store for between six and sixteen weeks, depending on the cheese. When the cheeses are fully ripe and ready to be dispatched for an order, they are cut to size by hand and given their final packaging.

 
 
Cheese maturing in the cave
Cheese maturing in the cave
Foil-wrapped cheeses maturing
Foil-wrapped cheeses maturing

Katy is keen to stress the craft and skill that is involved in cheese-making – it is a living, breathing thing and although they strive for consistency with their cheese, there are always variables. She says: ‘Everything changes from day to day because the milk is always slightly different. That is really where the experience and the craft of cheese-making kicks in, because you have to react to what is happening in the vat rather than saying this is our recipe and this is the time it takes. The cheesemaker downstairs tastes it all the way through and puts little comments down. So he tastes the curd – he is the only one that really does like doing it, because not everyone likes the taste of raw milk. He tastes it first in the vat and again as he is moulding up, just to see if there are any taints in it which can then be picked up further down the line as it matures.’

Caroline agrees: ‘Doing what we do anywhere else, even in the Yorkshire Dales, would be difficult because the water is different and the climate would be different. You have to be really careful because any little change in cheese making – temperature, length of time, ingredients – just changes everything.’

 
 
Foil-wrapped cheeses maturing
Foil-wrapped cheeses maturing
Cheeses being hand cut for dispatch
Cheeses being hand cut for dispatch

She continues: ‘One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about going back into the industry is how cheesemakers genuinely help each other. It is a very supportive industry and that is very humbling. In most industries you would never show your competitors around your facilities, but with cheese-making you do. It might not be the same for everybody, but it’s certainly the way we do things. What you can do with essentially milk, salt and rennet… It is incredible the creativity that is out there.’

While I was visiting, Caroline talked me through some of the cheeses I’d seen in the making and how best to enjoy them:

 
 
What you can do with essentially milk, salt and rennet… It is incredible the creativity that is out there.

Bluemin White

'The Bluemin White is a mould-ripened, cow’s milk cheese and it is really soft, with a Brie-like texture. You will get a blue flavour from it, but not too much because you will be overwhelmed instead by the delicious gooiness.’

Pairing: Bake with figs for a gorgeous, melty, sweet/savoury match.

Yorkshire Fettle

‘The fettle – we can’t call it feta since the Greek cheese received PDO status – is 100% sheep’s milk. We hand salt, we don’t salt in brine, so the salt doesn’t take over and those lovely sweet notes in sheep’s milk come through. Sheep’s milk is really creamy and sweeter than cow’s milk.’

Pairing: Can hold its own on a cheeseboard and is beautiful accompanied by a crisp white wine.

 
It is a very supportive industry and that is very humbling. In most industries you would never show your competitors around your facilities, but with cheese-making you do.

Katy’s White Lavender

‘Katy’s White Lavender is a fresh, sheep’s milk cheese – a niche one that we keep because some people absolutely love it. We love it too – it’s a Yorkshire flavour. Lavender in anything is a difficult flavour to work with because it is so floral; you really have to get the balance of flavours right. We think it only works because the sheep’s milk has a caramel, meadowy sweetness – the lavender works with that.’

Pairing: Use in cheese scones to add a lavender lift or dip in rich, dark, melted chocolate to compliment the salty, meadowy sweetness of the cheese.

Mrs Bell’s Blue

‘Mrs Bell’s Blue is bright white from the sheep’s milk used to make it. You get a real sweet, salty flavour from it, but still our signature mellow creaminess coming through. Like a Roquefort it is a sheep’s milk blue, but unlike a Roquefort it has more moisture in there to give you that creaminess and it hasn’t got that level of salt and strength.’

Pairing: Like other blues it’s great with honey, warm pears, walnuts, rich fruit chutney or caramelised red onion marmalade.

 
 

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