Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mary Holbrooke Interview

One of the best parts of my trip has been meeting and getting to know British cheesemaker, Mary Holbrooke.  Hard working, talented, and dedicated, Mary has been making cheese for close to 40 years, after having spent much of her life as a museum curator.  Getting into the business because of “boredom”, she has built a reputation as one of the most important cheesemakers in the British Isles.  Specializing in goat’s milk cheese, she has built up a reputation for savory tasting soft & hard cheeses that are made the traditional way. 

Having spent many years in the business, she comes to the Neal’s Yard Dairy aging caves about once a week, to aid/assist with the handling of her cheeses.  She’s a very pragmatic person, who is perpetually positive, whilst maintaining a stiff upper lip British style that makes everyone around her smile.  Inquisitive and helpful, she walks around with a gleam in her eye of someone who has seen and done it all, but still really loves cheese.

Although she was extremely giving with her time and helpful with questions, I could not get her to pose for a picture, nor a video.  I have included a picture of her from another website I found on the Internet and one I took of her while working on her cheeses.  She is quite modest, and is apparently, quite camera shy.  So, in an attempt to meet halfway, she agreed to sit down with me for an interview that I recorded using audio.  Here is the transcript of that interview.

Photo taken from an online article by Tamasin Day-Lewis, found here.

So, I read that you were a museum curator.  How did you get from there to being a cheesemaker?

Uh, well, two goats…family farm…and being fed up with the museum.  I was in Germany, came back to Bath, and then because I was fed up with the museum, I decided to go back to my husband’s family farm.

Tell me about your cheeses:

Well, they sort of developed over the years.  I started making a funny fresh cheese.  Can’t remember the name of it now…Calomay (sp), perhaps?  It was just a fresh, soft, sort of flaky English style, short coagulation cheese.  Then I, I think I started making feta and it turned into a hard cheese, or I can’t remember, it was a long while ago.  So, it happened accidentally.  Yeah, then, I went to France and learned about lactic cheeses.  And so, I started making slow coagulation cheese because it was easier.  And, I also made a hard goat’s cheese called Mendip, which I discontinued and then started again, and it’s now called Old Ford.

Why is it called Old Ford?

Well it’s Old Ford, because when I’m in London, I live on Old Ford Road.  I’ve run out of field names at the farm .  In the mid-19th Century, Bazalgette, an engineer, designed a wonderful sewage system for London to stop the Thames from being polluted.  I have a feeling that one of the sewage treatment plants might have been at Old Ford – it was at that end of London.  And there used to be a place named Old Ford, a neighborhood, where a ford (bridge) went over the little Thames River.

What about your other cheeses?
Well, Tymsboro is a typical Valencay style cheese named after the village where the farm is.  Sleightlett, the farm is called Sleight Farm, so it’s a little slate.  And then we have a fresh cheese called Plainsleight.  And, we used to have some sheep’s cheese.  All of the cheeses are named after our fields on the farm. 

And Timsbury is where your farm is located?

Yeah, we’re considered to be in the village of Timsbury although we’re outside of it.  We’re in the perish of Timsbury, I suppose.

How many acres is your farm?

Depends on whether you count the bits that are rented out or not .  Um, Some of it is rented out.  Actually we’re farming about 200 acres but there’s about another 100 and odd acres which I’ve kind of rented out to people because they’re away from the main farm and rather more difficult to use.

And you’re doing all goats…?

I am now, because I sold the sheep.  I had the sheep for a long time but sold them back in 2001. 


Well, we had foot and mouth…umm…. and I wanted to spend less time at the farm.  I was very involved in milking the sheep and making the cheese and I had somebody who was happy to buy the flock as a whole.  So, it was an opportunity that, you know, I couldn’t pass up on really.  I’m very sorry – I enjoyed making sheep’s cheese.  But, it’s simpler just to do the one, although, it was much simpler making sheep’s cheese than it ever will be making goat’s cheese.

Did you ever think about selling the goats and going back to sheep?

No, I don’t, actually.  I think sheep take more looking after, but the actual cheesemaking process is so much easier than making goat’s cheese, which is always kind of borderline.

You said to me the other day that you have about 140 goats, is that correct?

I think that’s what we’ll sort of end up milking this year.

And do you milk seasonally or year around?


And cheesemaking?

Seasonal.  We only use our own milk, so we can only make cheese when we have our own milk.

What are they feeding on mostly?

Umm….our grass, our hay, some straw, and then they get a dairy cow ration, as well.  They get that twice a day in the milking parlor – we call it cake – it’s a sort of concentrate, ummm…. so, I think it’s 16% protein, and it’s got, you know, various vitamins, cereals, etc., in it.  I think just off grass, they would milk, but you wouldn’t get the amount of milk – not off our kind of grass, because our grassland is very traditional.  We don’t fertilize it.  So, we get a slower glass growth and we get much more interesting grazing, actually, because we’re not using lots of nitrogen which would kill all the weeds and, you know, the wildflowers. 

They’ve got a pretty big area to roam, I noticed.

Yeah, they have.  We try to keep them extensively, I mean, they get bored pretty easily in the field, actually. 

And what do you do for boredom?

Well, if you give them a choice, then they sort of look out of the door and say, “Ahhh, I think we’ll go that way today.”  It’s, it’s also probably quite good, because if you graze them too tight, which they don’t enjoy, and they don’t milk…. I mean sheep will mow it down quite low, at least, at least meat sheep will, but goats won’t.  And, it’s not good for them to do so.  So, you know, if they can just at least wander off in that direction, and then another day, wander off in that direction, hopefully they’re not gonna pick up quite such a big worm burden as if you had them in such small parcels all the time.  The only other thing to do would be to have lots of little separate fields, but then you would have to be, you know, fertilizing and, you know, it’d be much more intensive.  So, they’re not free range, but they are nearly, actually.

So, then you have pigs, too?

We have pigs and we have a few cattle.

How many pigs do you have?

I wouldn’t know what to say at the moment. We probably got 12 or 13 sours plus all of the progeny, which we don’t sell anything of them except for slaughter.  So, we’ve got a lot of pigs.

How did the relationship with Neal’s Yard start?

I don’t know.  I don’t think Randolph quite knows either.  There was someone called James Aldridge (LINK), who was going around to various farms.  And, that would have been in the late 70’s, so Randolph may have come to the farm. 

The other possibility is, I went to Harrods.  I was working on scientific instruments at the time that I started making cheese.  And I went into Harrods to buy some cheese and the lady behind the counter said, “aahh, you’re gonna have a party, dear?”  In those days, you got cockneys in Harrods, not any more.

I said, “Ahh, no, I’m just sampling other people’s goat cheese, ‘cause I make cheese.” 

“Ahh, you wanna have a word with Mr. Taylor”

So, I made an appointment with Mr. Taylor for the next week.  I went back with a plastic briefcase full of cheeses. And so, I sold cheese to Harrods directly until I sold the sheep basically, so that was 2001.  And that could be, but I don’t know, how Neal’s Yard…honestly, I can’t remember if I talked to them or if they came across my cheese. 

So, Neal’s Yard starts selling your cheese and then you start working here?

Oh much later.  I mean they bought my cheese in the eighties.  It was soon after they were founded, because I used to deliver, um, into that little courtyard, when they were there.  So, I’ve been supplying them with cheese for a very long time.

Getting ready to flip her cheeses at the NYD caves.

Why did you start coming into the caves for cheese shift?

Um, well, we’re quiet in the autumn.  And so, I came up and did one or two stints before Christmas.  And then, the sheep went.  I actually wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the farm.  And, I started coming up three days a week.  But, they were only half days and then I could spend some time in London, which is a major reason, really.  Otherwise, I get sucked into the farm 7 days a week.

How many people do you have working at the farm?

Variable numbers based on the season.  Obviously, when we had sheep it takes a lot more, you know, because it is a full time occupation.  And then, we have to get rid of all of those bloody lambs, you know.  I think it’s easier, a more of a special thing, to sell goat kids than it is to sell baby lamb, I think actually. 

Are you going to be doing any new cheeses, any time soon?

I really doubt it.  We’re doing a washed rind, a washed curd, and lactic cheese.  So, the only thing I wouldn’t mind doing again, is doing a bit of feta.  Which we used to do, but that’s a problem.  But, I don’t want to anything complicated. 

How many years have you been making cheese?

The late seventies is when I started, so about 35 years.  We started with 2 goats and now are at about 140.  We used to have more and then were milking 200 sheep, as well.  Um, but, I think, you know, we don’t milk record or anything.  But, you can improve the quality of your herd if you lots and lots of goats.    You know, then you’re not keeping any that are not particularly good.  I don’t think there is anything special about the herd, at all.  The important thing is that they’re home bred – they’re used to our system - we don’t bring anything in, except for males.    So, it’s a closed herd, really.  From a health standpoint, it’s a good thing…we have our own diseases, but we don’t bring in any from the outside.

Are you involved with all aspects of the animals, from birthing to slaughter?

I’m involved with everything that goes on in the farm.   It’s quite difficult to achieve really.  Some times, I’m involved with the cheese more or with the animals more. 

And what do you do in terms of dealing with diseases?

I call somebody, when I have to.  After you’ve been dealing with goats for quite some time, you have a pretty good idea of what the problems are, actually.  It’s only when you suddenly run into a major problem.  We do use the vet, but we don’t call them out every time we’ve got a sick animal.  Quite often, we have a pretty fair idea of what to do.  Actually, we do what the vet would do, because, quite often, it’s a case of doing different things.  You know, it’s not like us going to a hospital. 

From a retail perspective, what would you like people to know about your cheese?

Well I think, the important thing is that the goat’s are outside most of the year, and they graze mostly on things that we have on the farm.  And, you know, it’s funny, this year we’ve got some environmental schemes in this country, where you actually get rewarded for in this country, that you get for having old pastures and trees and things.

And Matt Ayre (cheesemonger at NYD), told me that you were recently designated some sort of organic farm?

Well, we’re at a "higher-level stewardship".  When I first started having anything to do with the farm back in the 60’s, I think we’ve used two lots of fertilized, and most of the fields have never been plowed since the war and some of them may have not been plowed during the war, because some of them are quite hilly.  Actually, we’ve got some really interesting hills with some neat vegetation, which I think contributes probably a lot to the flavor of the goat’s milk.  It’s what we’ve always done, but now I’m getting paid for doing it, which is lovely because, I’m being helped to spend some money.

Via the government?

Yep.  Well, government and E.U. (European Union).

So, it’s an E.U. wide body?

I think, if some of the money is coming from the E.U., it does mean that some of the other countries have something as well.  I have a feeling it’s like tree planting, it’s partly funded by the British government and partly funded by the E.U.  And I have a feeling with the stewardship schemes; it’s probably something similar…I’m not absolutely sure.  But, it’s a very welcome contribution and helps us to maintain the farm in the way we’ve always maintained it anyway.

It takes some pressure off, I suppose.

Yeah.  It’s good.  It means that we can spend a little money on doing things that I couldn’t do otherwise.  But, I’m sure that one reason I’ll get something different from other peoples is that most other goats are housed and they’re eating what they’ve been given.  People control their diets much more.  We can’t control their diets, because if we put the goats in the fields and they see nettles & docks, then they’ll eat nettles & docks.  I can’t say ‘eat grass’.  Um, so they select what they want to eat so there is going to be lots of variation.

How much milk are you doing in a day?

At the moment, we’ve still got kids running on their mothers.  Which will go to slaughter shortly.  On a good day, and it depends enormously on the weather, we’re not far off from 300 liters, probably.  I don’t know how many kids are running around out there, but I suspect quite a lot.  I think last year, we kind of peaked at 350 or 370, which is enough milk for making something like Tymsboro, because compared with all the other goat’s milk cheeses around here is extraordinarily labor extensive – it’s the shape, the pyramid shape, that makes it quite difficult.

Which cheese is your highest yield cheese?

Tymsboro followed by CardoOld Ford, you know, it’s the trouble with a hard goat’s cheese, you don’t get a phenomenal yield, which is why it’s so expensive.  I’m afraid if people want to buy it, they’ve got to pay for it.

What is the yield for Old Ford?

Well, out of 160 liters, I suppose we’d make about 1.6 kilos from 20 liters of milk.  We don’t try to keep the moisture in the cheese…we allow it to mature.  So, I’m not sitting there measuring the weight loss, because at the end of the day what you want is flavor not volume.  During the summer months there is actually quite a bit of weight loss, especially when the temperatures are quite high, but that’s why I think it tastes the way it does.   

So, this is the moment I have to confess, that Old Ford is my favorite goat’s milk cheese….

Well, it is the flavor of the month at the moment.

Well, what do you mean by that?

Well, everybody wants it.  A couple of years ago it was Cardo.  But now, for whatever reason, it’s Old Ford.  It’s law, isn’t it?  Anything that is in really short supply, and is quite good, is the most desirable thing.  And suddenly, if you’ve got a bit more of something, it is not as desirable anymore.

So, when I realized I was able to come to England for a visit, and that I would have the opportunity to visit your place or meet you, a large smile came over my face.  I am such a fan or your cheese that I just want to offer you a huge kudos and thank-you for what you do on a regular basis.

Well, you know that we only use free-range milk from the summer.  And, you’ve seen the farm, so you know that it is quite high up and very exposed.  To be quite honest, it would be quite hard to keep milking the animals during the winter because of the rough climate.  And, even then, I just choose to only use the milk from the summer months.

Thanks so much for the time.

You’re welcome.  You know, if you have time, your more than welcome to come back and visit the farm again, if you want.

Thanks so much for the chance to sit down and talk.

You’re welcome. 

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