Rising success for cheesemakers

Words by:
Glynis Fox
Featured in:
October 2014

It’s 6am and the start of another busy day for the Davenport family, as some of Cote Hill Farm’s ‘star ladies’ begin to make their way into the milking parlour…

Farmer Michael Davenport, who has been working the Osgodby farm for the past forty years along with his wife Mary, is checking in and preparing to milk the first sixteen dairy cows – and he’s not expecting any surprises!

“That may sound strange, but the cows have a definite pecking order. The herd sorts out its own hierarchy and some cows will always be among the first into the parlour, while the slightly more timid ones tend to bring up the rear,” said Michael.

“The thing is, each has its own personality and we know if one of them is having an off day.”

The seventy-strong Cote Hill herd features a mix of British Friesians, Red Polls, Holsteins and one Brown Swiss, Heidi – another cow who has established her place, especially at the feed face. Woe betide any neighbouring animal plotting to snaffle a little extra forage!

Individual characteristics aside, this is a much-cherished herd – a factor reflected in the superb quality of the milk which goes into the award-winning Cote Hill cheeses, which are in demand at restaurants and farm shops and gaining a larger following.

A smooth milking operation is paramount, with more than sixty cows to be milked twice a day. Michael starts milking at 6.30am, with the milk filtered straight into the cheese vats, ready for Mary and their son Joe to get the day’s cheesemaking underway at around 7.30am.

Such is the popularity of Cote Hill’s family of cheeses, that about a third of the 500,000 litres or so of milk produced annually – or around 800 litres a day – is diverted into cheese production. The rest is collected by Dairy Crest.

Cote Hill has been home to the Davenport family for fifty years. Michael’s parents, Cynthia and the late Peter, bought the farm in 1962. Michael, who has three brothers, was the only one who wanted to take over the reins.

“My parents set up an accredited dairy herd of about seventy pure Friesians on what was a traditional mixed farm. Today we have a variety of cattle. We introduced Red Polls, which have high milk protein, in 2008 to improve the quality of the milk,” said Michael.

Red Polls happen to be pretty photogenic too and, of course, having a mix of breeds on the farm adds extra interest when schools, U3A, Women’s Institutes and other groups visit.

Michael said: “Because of low liquid milk prices, we looked at turning our hand to cheesemaking in 2004. We were keen to stay in farming, but if we had continued producing milk for the supermarkets, we realised we wouldn’t be here for long.

That ‘crossroads decision’ has turned out to be a winning move, in more ways than one, but there is no doubt that making cheese is a complex and time-consuming business which demands close attention to detail.

For a start, milk quality is crucial, needing a balance of milk fat and protein. The milk not required for cheesemaking is sold to Dairy Crest, and tested daily for milk quality. Michael monitors these results and adjusts the cows’ feed as necessary.

He initially learned how to make cheese on a course at Nantwich Agricultural College, cascading his knowledge to Mary. Now Joe (their other sons, Tom, Ed and Ross have other careers) has joined them as an artisan cheesemaker in his own right.

“We don’t pasteurise our milk because, by retaining the natural flora and enzymes of raw milk, we know we get a unique and interesting cheese. When we made our first batch of cheese in 2005, we had to let it mature for a month to see how the flavour and texture would develop,” said Michael.

It was a nail-biting time but Michael and Mary knew it was senseless wasting precious milk by playing with variable formulas, only to get an unwanted end result. It was a case of being patient and seeing how that first batch turned out.

Mary said: “People asked Michael how long it was before we made something that we could eat. He told them that the first batch of cheese turned out very well and was delicious to eat.

And so Cote Hill Cheese was born, which is still made in the same way as that first batch made ten years ago. Today the family is delighted to have no fewer than six varieties of cheese in its collection, and some highly prized awards too.

Michael, Mary and Joe are tremendously proud of the fact that it is their own herd which produces the raw ingredient for their fabulous cheeses and it is wonderful to visit the farm and see the contented cows and their calves.

But farming is hard work. After the morning milking, the cows need to be fed, the milking parlour washed down, the crew yard cleaned ready for their return after ‘breakfast’ and the calves checked and fed. The farm also has to maintain the production of forage.

The weather plays a major role in any farmer’s fortunes, whether he is at the helm of a dairy or arable concern. Mary said that some years end up being more costly than others.

“This year the cows went out in February, which is earlier than usual, and they didn’t need to be brought back in again thanks to the exceptional spring. This meant that we didn’t need to give them buffer feed in spring to supplement their grazing, but it is not always the case,” she said.

“They produce a lot of milk, so sometimes they need to be fed a supplement. It all depends on the amount of milk they are making. We grow our own grass haylage and maize silage, which is excellent for dairy cattle. Our silage is analysed and we buy in cattle cake too, as necessary.”

The Davenports began making cheese commercially in 2005 – starting with what has grown to be their customers’ favourite Cote Hill Blue, and it’s been non-stop ever since.

“In our first financial year we made three tonnes of cheese, in the second six tonnes and in the third nine tonnes. Of course, as well as making it, we also have to spend time coating, waxing and wrapping our cheeses, according to their individual types.

“In 2010, we wanted to expand. We couldn’t make much more with our existing facilities and labour and a big investment was needed to double the size of our dairy. We did that in 2011, thanks to a fifty per cent match-funded Rural Development Programme for England grant.”

That has obviously paid off. Joe is now a fully-fledged member of the team and has already proved his cheesemaking skills. Cote Hill also recently gave work experience to Joseph Darling, a University of Lincoln gap year student.

So, is further expansion on the cards and what would that involve? For now, the Davenports are happy to continue taking a great pride in producing their current varieties and promoting them to a wider audience.

Joe has brought his individual touch to the business, with the development of the popular Cote Hill Reserve – with its rind washed in Tom Wood Ale – and it is playing its part in keeping customers coming back for more.

But aren’t specialist artisan cheeses often seen as expensive and only for a niche market?

“We are producing an artisan cheese which has high labour costs and this is reflected in the price. It is a unique and local quality food and we have found no price barrier to our cheese,” said Mary.

“This is particularly noticeable at farmers’ markets. People know our range is exceptional and we offer varying portion sizes, which make it affordable for all,” she added.

Joe, who trained alongside Mary, and topped up his training at the Welbeck College of Artisan Cheesemaking, is enjoying helping to ensure that Cote Hill’s profile remains high.

He particularly relishes the challenge of coming up with new product ideas, his latest being his award-winning Cote Hill Lindum.

“For me, it is all about the satisfaction of creating. You start off with the raw milk and turn it into a cheese at the end of the day. The process involves an exciting mix of art and science.”

Cheesemaking is an intensive process which refuses to be hurried. Milk assigned for this time-consuming craft is already filtered when it leaves the milking parlour but, before Mary and Joe can begin its transformation, it has to be tested to check that it is at the correct temperature. Then a starter culture is added.

Moulds are prepared to receive the freshly-made cheese, but before it reaches that stage, rennet is added to set the milk, stirred in and left to coagulate the protein.

The resultant curd has to be cut to allow the release of the whey, before the curds can be transferred into the containers and allowed to settle.

Set cheeses are washed in brine, before being put on shelves to mature and – in the case of Cote Hill Blue – they have to be turned and go through a piercing process. In fact it takes two to three weeks before this variety is ready to be eaten.

Cote Hill Yellow also has to be waxed and a different type of coating is applied to Cote Hill Red.

Michael said: “Cote Hill Blue came first, because we enjoy eating soft blue cheese. It’s creamy, soft and has a delicate flavour. It’s different because it isn’t as sharp as some ‘blues’.

“In 2005, we bought our cheese vat and began producing this commercially. Once we had cracked that, our Yellowbelly variety – designed for people looking for an alternative – quickly followed. It is soft and buttery and is matured in its yellow wax coating for a period of three months.”

Cote Hill Red, which is a firm alpine-style cheese, with a sweet nutty flavour made its appearance in 2011, when the dairy was extended.

“In 2010, I was also thinking of adding a washed rind cheese to our collection. It was Joe who took this idea forward in 2011 with the development of Cote Hill Reserve, a complex cheese which is washed in a local beer made by Tom Woods Brewery,” added Michael.

Joe said the latest exciting developments to emerge from the farm’s dairy include Cote Hill Lindum, a firm, washed-rind cheese and the creamy, soft Cote Hill White.

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