The clocks going forward last weekend mean several things. First is that my children will wake up absurdly early, full of vim and vigour, at a time fit for only dairy farmers and red-eye pilots. Another is that an increase in warmth and daylight will start to frisk up my tastebuds. Cravings for cheese on toast and chunks of Stilton wane in favour of something a wee bit fresher and lighter. Coincidentally this is the season when fresh goat and sheep’s cheeses start to appear after a winter break; so either my tastebuds are works of evolutionary genius, perfectly in tune with nature’s cycles, or else I’ve been reading too many spring recipes in the Waitrose magazine. Either way, it was a goat’s cheese that took my fancy on a recent spending spree in Neal’s Yard Dairy and very seasonally cheeseonal Sleightlett is too.
Sleightlett is a soft, unpasteurised goat’s cheese made by Mary Holbrook on Sleight Farm in Somerset. Mary is renowned as one of the pioneers of UK goat’s cheese. She started making cheese more than thirty years ago, when British cheese still mainly fell into the categories ‘block of yellow’ or ‘block of orange’. At the time she was a museum curator but started making cheese out of ‘boredom’ on her husband’s family farm. She played with various recipes, using goat and ewe’s milk, including a Coulommiers, a French Brie-like cheese and a feta that curiously turned into a hard cheese but after a visit to France she became interested in lactic set cheeses.
Mary is a very traditional, French peasant sort of cheese-maker (and I mean this nicely, in the cheese-making sense). She rears the goats seasonally (she got rid of the sheep in 2001, partly because of foot and mouth and partly because it was easier to concentrate on one thing). Goats stop lactating when the autumn days get shorter and their bodies start to gear up for another round of kidding. Many producers use hormones or artificial lighting to ‘trick’ their goats into breeding at other times of the year but Mary lets them do their own thing; this means that her cheese is unavailable between about November and March. She doesn’t breed a particular variety of goat either, instead having what might seem a motley collection of different varieties and hybrids.
The goats are free-range, roaming about on the hills around her farm. Much of the land has not been ploughed since the war and has hardly ever been fertilized. As a result, the goats feed on an extraordinary range of vegetation, weeds and wildflowers alike. Mary says of the goats that “We can’t control their diets, because if we put the goats in the fields and they see nettles and docks, then they’ll eat nettles and docks. I can’t say ‘eat grass’.” Different plants, coupled with not pasteurising the milk means that the flavours can differ from day to day, let alone month to month.
The cheese-making process is slow and traditional too. Mary adds starter and a very small amount of rennet to a mixture of fresh morning milk and the evening’s milk. Sleightlett is a lactic cheese, which means it relies primarily on natural bacteria converting lactose to lactic acid causing the proteins to cling together and form a curd; it takes much longer for the milk to coagulate. It can take anything from 24-48 hours for the curd to set to make Sleightlett but when the moment is right then it has to be done, even if it’s 2am. When the curd is set then it’s delicately ladled into moulds, taking care to keep each ladleful intact. Similarly, they are handled gingerly when they’re taken from the moulds, salted and sprinkled with the charcoal coating. It’s usually sold very fresh at just two or three days old.
The ash can make it look a little grubby but once you cut into it, the paste is dazzlingly white. The texture is creamy and smooth and the taste very fresh and clean. It has just a hint of goat so I can’t imagine anyone disliking it (unless you’re peculiar enough to dislike all cheese). I would love to be eating some right now, perhaps with a sprig or so of rocket, but I took mine to my in-laws and it all got scoffed.