It’s fair to say that Suffolk has historically had a bit of an image problem when it comes to cheese. Back in the sixteenth century Suffolk cheese had a good reputation but farmers began to turn to butter production, which was more profitable; cheese made from the resulting skimmed milk was famously hard and inedible. One connoisseur described it as having ‘a horny hardness and indigestible quality’, Samuel Pepys recorded that his wife was ‘vexed at her people for grumbling to eat Suffolk cheese’ and a range of contemporary ditties describe how weevils are unable to penetrate it and rats on ships prefer to eat grindstones. When severe floods and cattle disease caused a drop in production, cheesemongers were only too happy to turn their attentions to Cheshire cheese instead and before long Suffolk cheese receded into folk memory.
In the last few years, however, the area has seen a revival in cheese-making. I had already tried Shipcord, made at Rodwell Farm Dairy near Ipswich, but when fellow blogger Linda Duffin invited me to the area to visit her local cheese-makers, Suffolk Farmhouse Cheeses, I jumped at the chance. (And if you haven’t checked out Linda’s blog Mrs Portly’s Kitchen before, do go and have a gander for some lovely recipes, both seasonal and more international in flavour).
Suffolk Farmhouse Cheeses was founded by Jason and Katharine Salisbury and is now established at their farm in Creeting St Mary. We met Katharine at the farm shop where she told us a little about how they had started and the cheeses that they now produce. Katharine trained as a veterinary surgeon and, as part of her studies, would visit the animals at Cambridge University Farm. Jason was in charge of the herd there and, as Katharine explained, ‘romance blossomed at the back end of a cow!’
Their cheese dreams began to take shape in 2004, when Jason was made redundant from his then job and decided to pursue his passion for dairying. He rented some old dairy buildings and land and bought a small herd of Guernsey cows from a farm in Kent. They now average 30 cows in milk at any one time which graze outside in the summer and are brought inside during the wet East Anglian winters; they were munching away happily when we were there, the meadows alive with flitting birds and edged with pink campions and thistle.
Katharine eventually decided to take the plunge, give up the veterinary work and concentrate on the cheese. They moved to Whitegate Farm in 2007 where they now farm 109 acres and have installed a milking parlour and purpose-built cheese dairy. The parlour is situated next to the dairy so that the milk can be pumped directly through, causing as little damage as possible en route.
The flagship cheeses that they produce are Suffolk Gold and Suffolk Blue, as well as seasonal cheeses such as a brie, fresh cheeses with herbs and curd cheeses. Suffolk Gold is a stunning-looking cheese, so buttercup-yellow that you might wonder if a colouring is added, as with Red Leicester or traditional Cheshire. It’s all natural, though, and results from the fact that Guernsey cows are unable to process beta-carotene, a pigment that’s present in the grass and other forages and which is carried in the fatty part of the milk. All of the lovely yellow colour therefore passes into the milk, giving it its distinctive hue; the lush summer grass makes the colour even richer.
The milk is pasteurised for 15 minutes at 72 degrees before vegetarian rennet and starter culture are added. Suffolk Gold is made by washing the curds, as with a Gouda. It’s then lightly pressed and matured for 10-12 weeks where it develops a natural grey rind; it’s unusual and rather lovely, as sleek and furry as a mole. For the Suffolk Blue, Penicillium roqueforti is added at the start of the process and the cheeses are drained and turned in moulds before Katharine pierces them by hand to allow the blue mould to penetrate the paste. They are eaten as young as three weeks old. The different types of cheeses are stored in separate maturing rooms so as not to allow rogue blue moulds to infiltrate the other cheeses; the brie in particular has a tendency to turn unsightly which, although it doesn’t affect the flavour, can deter wholesalers. Fortunately Jason and Katharine have built up a loyal following at local farmers’ markets who are all too happy to take ugly but tasty specimens.
The Suffolk Gold is a real enigma of a cheese. Although it’s made to a Gouda recipe, in texture it reminded me of a Gorwydd Caerphilly, slightly squidgy under the rind and then crumblier towards the middle. Producers took to dying their cheeses with annatto because consumers loved a yellow coloured cheese, associating it with rich, good quality milk, and there’s something about the colour of Suffolk Gold that makes you want to eat it. It tastes a bit like a Cheddar, with a slight tang, but it’s far more creamy and buttery. The Blue is similarly creamy but peppered with the earthy blue veins. They make for an attractive cheeseboard, especially with the brie in tow too (which I tasted at the shop and is also delicious).
Jason is clearly cow-mad and is strengthening his herd’s genetic line by breeding with stock from Guernsey. Ironically, because Guernsey farmers get such a good price for liquid milk (50p per litre, compared to 22p per litre in the UK) there is little or no artisan cheese-making happening on the island. As a result, the Suffolk cheeses are in big demand over there in hotels and restaurants. ‘Like taking coals to Newcastle,’ laughs Katharine. With their cheeses also being sold in London, the northwest and over in Europe, it looks like the Salisburys may finally be restoring the good name of Suffolk cheese.