Friday, April 20, 2007
NYETIMBER: FIZZING DOWN TO SUSSEX
A Dutchman and a Canadian go into a bar and ask for a glass of English sparkling wine.
It sounds like the beginning of a joke and, in years past it may well have been. However, if Eric Hareema and his team at Nyetimber have their way then Nyetimber’s Classic Cuvee will appear as regularly on any celebratory table as any Champagne. For Eric has plans. Big Plans.
In recent years, English wines have gone from being the stuff of jokes to being respected if not widely known. To put it in context, English wines release about 3 million bottles. Champagne alone releases about 300 million bottles. There is a long way to go.
But, Nyetimber has always been leading from the front and its aim not to produce a great English wine but a great wine full stop has paid dividends as their wines collect awards by the armful including the prestigious IWSC best Sparkling Wine in the World (outside Champagne) for its elegant 1993 Classic Cuvee.
However, with success comes problems. Good problems but ones that need dealing with nevertheless. They simply can’t make enough of the stuff and this is where Eric and his big plans come in.
Nyetimber is situated down in West Sussex about an hour’s journey from Victoria Station and, after swapping a few e-mails with Eric’s inordinately helpful P.A, Sue, I arrived as requested a little before 10am.
It is a glorious location and the offices are based in a stunning Elizabethan mansion on a site that dates back to The Doomsday Book. The offices look out over a small pond and towards a smaller vineyard. A truly lovely place to work.
First port of call, the vineyards themselves with Vineyard Manager, Paul Woodrow-Hill as guide. He is unusual in the English Wine business as he is entirely homegrown and has always worked in this country, if only a recent arrival at Nyetimber.
The soil, he explained was a mix of greensand and chalk which gave it a composition very similar to that in champagne and allowed them to grow the three grapes of the classic cuvee, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Initially Nyetimber planted about 14 hectares. But, Eric’s plans for expansion mean that they are buying up local land and plan to increase this to around 60 hectares. This will be the biggest planting of its type in the history of English wine and will take their capacity from 50,000 bottles a year to 500,000 bottles a year in 5 years.
This will please their new Sales Director, Nina who accompanied me on my tour a great deal. It was her first week too and most of it had been spent telling customers that they were having to reduce their allocation as they simply did not have enough supply to meet demand. Much as I like the idea of telling supermarkets to “bugger off” it is probably not the best formula for a sound business plan, eh?
With expansion often comes a decline in quality and a level consistency that equates to mediocrity. Eric is determined not to let this happen and my next stop on the tour was further evidence of this. Husband and wife team, Cherie and Brad Spriggs are winemakers of note having studied at Adelaide University and worked around the world. Nyetimber was listed as one of her dream jobs and a letter on spec to Eric early in 2007 saw them up sticks and move from the West Coast of the USA to leafy West Sussex to reinvigorate Nyetimber’s winemaking.
Not that she will be able to taste the fruits of her labours for some time yet as Nyetimber is stored for up to six years before release.
As I entered the small winemaking unit, the first thing Cherie did was offer me a glass of the 1997 Blanc de Blanc made entirely from Chardonnay. Dry with quite high acidity and a lot of length, it represents all the qualities that put Nyetimber high up on my list of places to visit.
As I sipped on my glass, I got a tour of the facilities. It is tiny and will scarcely be able to cope with the planned expansion, so a major new plant is planned a short way down the road which will also alleviate the hippity-hopping of annoyed neighbours who are up in arms about heavy trucks bundling along small country lanes.
Nyetimber Classic Cuvee is made in the traditional Champagnoise way with grapes being brought in to the press in small batches to avoid damage and, therefore, too much contact between juice and skins. After fermentation, it is bottles and left with its standard amount of sugar and yeast in the bottle for 5 years with the turning of the bottles every seven days being one of the few mechanical parts of the process.
After disgorging, the bottles are left to settle further for up to six months before labelling and release. Simple, no?
Well, obviously, no. While the process is straightforward, there is much that can and does go wrong and the skill of the winemaker is to create a blend that while definitely recognisable as being from that particular vineyard has characteristics unique to the particular vintage. I suspect it is going to be in very good hands with Cherie.
Given the plans for growth, the small scale if well made machinery she currently has to play with is simply not going to be up to the task. So, Cherie had to leave me to rush off to a conference and exhibition in Germany to consider possible purchase options.
That left me time to meet with Eric himself.
As affable a man as you are likely to meet, Eric Hareema carries the weight of Nyetimber’s future lightly but with extreme passion and the dedication to quality that is becoming a feature of EAT MY GLOBE even at this early stage of the journey.
His background is not in wine. He is, as the name, and his accent, suggests, Dutch and spent his earlier career as a lawyer and an asset manager.
Financial success gave him the opportunity to move him and his family to England, a country they loved visiting and, after a short time in London, they bought 14 acres of land in West Sussex which, for want of anything more suitable, he turned to vineyards.
If you have been reading carefully above, you will know by now that Eric doesn’t do anything by halves and, what was a hobby became a serious business as he looked to buy more land and, possibly an ongoing business.
It gets a little weird here as Nyetimber, at this time, was owned by Songrwriter, Andy Hill, creator of Bucks Fizz and that scary Eurovision winner “Making Your Mind up” and a host of other hit songs. He sold the business to Eric for what Decanter called “ the biggest ever single investment in the English wine industry” at a reported £7.5million. Pretty impressive stuff.
Despite the big figures and big plans, Eric remains extraordinarily down to earth and approachable and spent a good chunk of his time with me before giving me both a tour and a bottle of the 2000 CC to take away with me.
For those of you who have not tried it, Nyetimber is a wine of great depth and Eric is keen not only for it to compete with Champagnes, many of which it could knock into a cocked hat, but to be drunk throughout a meal as its many qualities compliment a wide range of food. I fully intend to put that to the test with the bottle he kindly gave me.
I shall be visiting many vineyards as I EAT MY GLOBE, I am sure. But, it seems only fitting that, as I am touring the UK first, I should visit Nyetimber before any of them. The makers not of a great English wine but a great wine full stop.
Go and try some.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
MRS KING”S PORK PIES: THE PIEMAN COMETH
Every Saturday at 8.45am, come rain or shine, a similar scene is played out in Borough Market between a handsome forty something of the slaphead persuasion and a gruff northern gentleman, in a white hat, from Melton Mowbray.
SLAPHEAD: Are you open yet?
MAN IN HAT: Do we look open?
SLAPHEAD: I just want a pie
MAN IN HAT: I haven’t even had my coffee yet
SLAPHEAD: Can’t I just get a pie before it gets too crowded?
MAN IN HAT: No! Come back at 9 o’clock
SLAPHEAD: Please, I have to rush off somewhere
MAN IN HAT: ( sighs ) Go on then, that’s £3.50 please
SLAPHEAD: Departs happily munching said pie. There is often jelly running down his chin.
OK, I grant you, the last scene in Casablanca it ain’t, but it certainly could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
For MAN IN CAP in this instance was played to the hilt by Mr Ian Hartland, the Borough Market face of The Hartland Clan who now own Mrs King’s Pork Pies, officially the greatest product to ever come out of the UK.
Now any product containing Pork and Lard is going to find it hard not to contain a excess of deliciousness. But, a Melton Mowbray Pork Pie takes it to a whole new level as I was about to find out.
Obviously, EAT MY GLOBE is about the food, but it is also about the people and if I am lucky enough, on my travels, to meet a family who are as much fun as the Hartland’s then I am going to enjoy my trip a great deal.
There’s Paul, the eldest. Ian, the front man. Neil, the youngest brother. Jane, who seems to do most of the work and Adam, Ian’s eighteen year old son who seems to come in for the most stick. Together, they combine to create a working environment akin to The Marx Brother’s Duck Soup while turning out perhaps my favourite thing to eat in the whole world, a Melton Mowbray Pork Pie
And what pies!
When I arrived at there tiny unit in the village of Cotgrave and walked through the door the first thing that hit me was the smell of baking pies. Surely, this is the smell of heaven. A meaty, savoury aroma that had me wanting to strip off and roll around in pork pie jelly.
I wanted one and I wanted to know how they made such a thing of beauty.
But, first things first. By the time I arrived, it was lunchtime and work came to standstill as everyone, me included chowed down on sausage sandwiches and big mugs of tea to provide a bit of much needed sustenance for the rest of the working day.
And, it is hard work. Between them and in between the banter, The Hartland’s turn about 1000 pies a week, more at Christmas. Each one of them made and stamped with little mechanical aid, baked to perfection and then individually filled with hot jelly.
After lunch, the history lesson.
Mrs King’s Pork Pies originated in 1853 and has been through a number of hands before The Hartland’s took it over 18 years ago. They knew little about the business but Paul, the eldest married into the family of Jack Parr, the owner of Pork Farms, a massive producer of meat products in the North, who by then had bought Mrs King’s. When Mr Parr retired, the brothers came on board.
It was Mr Parr who taught them how to hand raise a pork pie and for the first few years they made every single pie the traditional way. As the popularity grew, however, this became impractical and they had to bring in some modern methods.
I say modern, but that is all relative. The pie stamps they now use in the moulding of the pies are two hundred years old and the pastry mixer nearly a hundred. As much as possible they still like to do things the traditional way. They butcher their own meat, fill the pies with jelly by hand and still hand raise the larger versions.
A Melton Mowbray Pork Pie is a very special animal, er or bits of an animal. With only six ingredients in the whole thing. Lard, water, flour, pork, white pepper and salt it combines to create a unique product and one that is about to receive an official geographical protection.
For years, anyone who made a pork pie has been able to slap the name “Melton Mowbray” no matter what kind of soggy crust, grey meat monstrosity it is. That’s all about to change and from now on when you see those magic words it will mean a pie made with hot water paste, pure pork shoulder ( the right ratio of 70/30 lean meat to fat) and will have at least 45% meat content more than double the legal requirement.
Melton Mowbray became the centre of the Pork Pie world for two reasons. The first was that it was six hours from London by coach which, two hundred years ago was the point at which horses pulling stage coaches legally had to be rested. This led to stalls and inns being set up to feed hungry travellers who needed a filling food that could be carried with them without breaking. Hence the hard crust.
The protective crust also made it the perfect snack for hunting folk who were leaping fences and hedges and hunting to hounds, a sport that had become popular in the area after the enclosures act.
OK, enough of the damn history, I wanted to know more about the pies.
First, Ian showed me the lard. This is no ordinary lard though, this is Italian lard. That creamy, milky white, soft magnificence that is so delicious with chunks of bacon and crispy onions through it when spread on toast.
This is mixed with the same amount of water and double the amount of flour before being mixed and rested. After being rolled out, it is cut into bases and lids and filled with a coarse mince of the pork shoulder before being rested again.
It is baked until the centre of the pie reached 100o’s and then left to cool before being filled with the jelly. Ah, the jelly, my favourite bit of all. Made from boiling the pig’s trotter until it releases all its gelatinous goodness and then strained to produce a pure liquid which is poured through two holes in the top of the pie which is then chilled until the whole thing is set.
And, there you have it. The Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. One of the simplest products you can imagine and impossibly delicious.
The real problem is to get the nervous and the stupid to try them. Most people turn their noses up at them, particularly women who think they are unhealthy but then go and shove the myriad chemicals of a ready meal down their gullets.
Ian gave me a run down, nation by nation, of the reaction to his porkie wonderment. The nervous Americans with bum bags, of course, wont go near them, the French quite like them and so do the Germans. Most of all though, he tells me, The Spanish love them. I knew there was a reason I liked the Spanish. It is their love of all things pork. Good for them.
How about us brits? Well, we associate them with, to quote Ian “ big, fat, ugly men who drink a lot of beer” See, I knew I would be the perfect demographic for something.
But, The Hartland’s are quite happy with this. As Paul said “ we are never in fashion, but we will always have a business because the people that love them really love them”
And, God, I love them. A slice of Melton Mowbray Pork Pie (Mrs King’s, of course) with a slab of sharp cheese, a few pickled onions and some chutney all washed down with a pint of real shudder making bitter is the stuff that this country was made on and thankfully it is beginning to reappear on menus as gastro pubs look to regional food.
A few hours after I arrived, I left the Hartland family bickering happily in their small space while I walked seven miles back to Nottingham through glorious countryside. In my backpack, a pork pie, a parting gift from Ian.
Like I said, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
FILM MY GLOBE: FEELING ALRIGHT WITH THE CREW
If someone had told me a year ago, when I was sitting across from a foreign publisher trying to sell them a few books, that this year, during the LIBF, I would be wandering around the streets of London being followed by a film crew, I probably would have laughed in their face.
But, hey, life is full of surprises.
In this case, the surprise was a meeting with a small but prestigious production company who thought that EAT MY GLOBE may just be a good idea for a TV series and were willing to commit to make a trailer to pitch to potential broadcasters.
So today, when my ex colleagues were at the fair, I was eating my way around the capital and trying to choose an angle that did not show off my massive lugholes.
Thankfully, they had put me in the capable hands of an patient and skilled director, Phil. An excellent sound man, Mike and a trooper of a production assistant, Cher and I was made to feel more at ease than anyone who looks like me has the right to in front of the camera.
After a coffee and a few shots in Smithfield Market, we made our way to Tubby Issac’s Seafood stall for the first main set up (see how easily I drop the words “set up” in the mix just like a real pro?)
On the way, we winged it a bit and they filmed me walking into a Newsagent that was offering “ Healthy Eating” by way of sandwiches for 99p. Grim, doughy bread and filling of no discernable provenance. I took one bite and did not have to feign a grimace for the camera as I spat it out and threw the rest in the bin.
Tubby Issac’s was much more fun. They crew filmed as I dived headlong into some jellied eels with malt vinegar and then talked to some of the other people who had come there for their lunch. Paul, the owner, suggested I try some with his special stash of “extra hot” chilli vinegar and, being a brave little soldier, I did. Bloody hell, it almost took the top of my head off which may make for great TV but will almost certainly lead to a Johnny cash moment in the morning.
Across from Tubby’s is a Halal burger stall, we filmed me buying a burger from the very sweet couple who were running it and I felt bad that it was so dreadful that it too went in the bin after one bite. I felt slightly less sorry for the owner when I saw him drive off in his big Mercedes Benz
Now it was time for lunch proper and the guys asked me if I knew where to go. Well, of course I did. I had been unable to attend a memorial dinner for Tony Finch at Tayyabs last night so, it seemed the perfect place for me to pay my own tribute by way of lunch. Well, Wasim did Tony proud. The lamb chops of course, some fish and chicken tikka and some tandoored panir were followed by three curries and the unbeatable Tayyabs roti.
Phil got rather excited by this ( or rather disgusted by my table manners) and whipped out his camera to film the food and me giving some bones a lot of gnawage. I guess this TV show will have an R rating (R for revolting )
Pretty full up by now as you can imagine, but we had one more stop to visit the good folk at the blessed Hawksmoor where we had set up a scenario where I was going to be a pedant and a bit, well of an asshole. I know, I know, it is almost impossible to imagine but I called upon my childhood performance as The Mean Little Postbox in junior school and dragged the character of knobhead from the depth of my soul.
First Nick Strangeway plied me with a girly pink cocktail which I threw aside in disgust and came around the other side to make my own Martini. Then I ordered a steak rare and looked suitably less than gruntled when it came out medium ( it didn’t of course, I don’t think Carl is capable of cooking a bad steak if he tried – but hey, this was acting remember ) so I stormed the kitchen and again cooked my own
The staff at Hawksmoor were well up for it for which I am of course, hugely grateful.
And, that was that. A few shots to camera (see, taking to it like a pro) and it was very much “a wrap”
I have no idea, at this stage if any thing will come of it, but it was huge fun and working with an experienced and talented TV crew was a real eductation.
I knew that EAT MY GLOBE would take me in all sorts of interesting directions and give me the chance to meet interesting people. Who knew that it would not just be about the food?
Monday, April 16, 2007
CASHEL: A WHEY TO BLUE
There is, believe it or not, an association of Specialist Cheese makers. Well, of course there is. There is an association of everything these days. Who the hell are specialist cheese makers to think they can be so damn different? They are going to have an association whether they like it or not. Even, if they are a bit useless.
And, useless they were. Particularly when I tried to get in touch with their office in the leafy suburbs of Clerkenwell. You would have thought I had offered to come around there and molest their grandmothers rather than write about some of their membership. Ho hum.
In the end, I decided just to pick up the phone and speak to the cheese makers direct. Always the best way because the people making the food always get EAT MY GLOBE immediately.
Fortunately for me, the person on the other end of the phone was Sarah Furno who, with her husband Sergio, is now the driving force behind J&L Grub, the makers of Cashel Blue and she was more than happy to have me pay a visit.
While both Farmhouse cheeses, there are entire light years between Mileen and Cashel Blue. Where Mileen is the daily labour of one young man, Cashel Blue is the combined efforts of up to nineteen people including two full time cheese makers. Where Milleen clings firmly onto its home grown status, Cashel Blue is a cheese with aspirations. Where Quinlan Steele uses instinctive methods of cheese making, Sarah Furno uses regular tasting and assiduous notation, taken from her years in the wine business, to compare batches. Where Milleen is making about ten tonnes a year with little capacity to make more, Cashel Blue is currently topping out at around two hundred and seventy tonnes a year with ambitions to double that in a new state of the art unit.
While very different, what they do have in common though is the passion to make great cheese. Different methodology, the same end result, a fabulous product.
The hundred and fifty acre farm that houses Cashel Blue is a bit of a bugger to find and it took a couple of phone calls to guide me in. But, finally, I made my way up the sun dappled drive past a few bullocks grazing contentedly on pasture and made my way to the small portakabin that forms Cashel Blue HQ.
EAT MY GLOBE, it appears, is going to see me appear in a wide variety of overalls, Wellington boots and hair nets. Damn the EU and all their rules. I knew the moment that Sarah appeared in her outfit that I was going to have to don the silly garb. The things I do to live the dream. I trust you appreciate it?
Still, I realise that this is a serious business in an area where entire herds were wiped out and the economy devastated in recent years. So, when feet needed dipping in cleansing solution, I dipped like a good boy.
First, the tour. Four 500 gallon vats of milk with the rennet and starter sit while being given the loving attention of the two cheese makers. Once the curds and whey begin to separate the whey is drained off for pig feed and the curds drained futher and set into moulds.
Much of the equipment at Cashel Blue is state of the art and specially designed by Sarah’s father who founded the business. Being a child at heart, I was particularly beguiled by a wonderful machine that turns crates of cheese moulds like a wheel of fortune at a Victorian fairground.
Unlike hard cheeses, the moulds are not pressed and the weight of the cheese is the only thing which drains the water out.
After a few days, the cheese is then dipped in a brine solution and pricked to allow natural flora to create the blue which gives that unmistakeable tangy taste.
And, that’s it.
But, of course, it isn’t.
I had imagined that, once the cheese was made and put away to store it would get little attention, being sent out in batch order as required with some random sampling for quality control.
How wrong can one fat boy be in a lifetime?
In fact, it is only once the cheese is made, that Sarah and Sergio’s hard work really begins.
Every cheese is referenced. Not just by which on which day it was made, but by which of the four vats it was in, who made it, which milk was used and the temperature at which the milk was heated.
After a welcome cup of tea in the farmhouse kitchen, Sarah took me to a small counter in the packing room and produced a large red book in which detailed notes had been written. Sergio appeared with a number of more mature cheeses that were destined for Neal’s yard Dairy and we began to taste them to see which were up to snuff for that most exacting of partners.
First, a visual appraisal for the colour of the rind, then using the cheese tryer to pull out a small plug from the paste, for the spread of blue. Next, obviously, the taste. High acidity is a standard in blue cheeses but it should remain fresh to the tongue and produce a mouth watering effect.
Then, there is the creaminess which depends on the amount of fat in the milk on the day the cheese was made.
I don’t know why I should have been so surprised that a crafted product like this should vary so much from cheese to cheese, but I was and it is down to the skills of Sarah and Sergio and the cheese makers at Cashel to choose the right wheels for the right customers. For Neals Yard, more full on cheese with a good spread of blue. For the supermarkets, younger cheeses that are not so filled with blue and which will mature more slowly to allow for the shelf life the supermarkets demand.
After sampling the mature cheeses, I was put to work loading up some containers. (Hey, I am happy to earn my corn.) before we moved on to tasting some younger cheeses so Sarah could show me the difference in colour, taste and texture which is remarkable. Again, her note taking was extensive and every batch was graded and earmarked for particular customers.
By now, Sarah had, quite rightly had enough of me and had to spend the afternoon with her small son. Me? I had to go and find my B&B for the night. So, I said my farewells and headed off back to Cashel
A few days later, I walked down to Borough Market and to Neal’s Yard to try some of the cheeses I had seen being made. The Cashel Blue was slightly grainy, with a wide spread of blue, a high acidity and low fat feel in the mouth.
Perhaps I should send Sarah some tasting notes?
Friday, April 13, 2007
MILLEENS: MEN ( AND WOMEN) OF STEELE
Everyone, but everyone I spoke to about visiting cheese makers on this trip said “ oh you must call it ‘blessed are the cheese makers’ “ and, of course, they all thought they were the only ones to have thought about it. Bless them.
But, even if it is a well worn Python phrase, it would still be an appropriate description for my thoughts for the good people of Milleens and Cashel Blue. Bless them for letting me come and visit. Bless them for letting me take up so much of their time and for being so welcoming and bless them for making two (three in fact, if you count Crozier Blue – but more of that later) of my all time favourite cheeses.
When I was making my initial EAT MY GLOBE list, I was, of course, going to have some cheese makers on there. But who? Montgomery’s Cheddar was a frontrunner, as was Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire and Gorwydd Caerphilly. But, my final choice was made during a visit to that cathedral to all that is good about cheeses from the British Isles, Neal’s Yard Dairy. When one of the young staff plied me with tastes of Cashel Blue and I ended up buying a big wedge of tangy, creamy, blue goodness. Alongside it, wrapped in its cellophane covering was a small round of wash rind Milleens. A lovely cheese, the assistant reminded me and, as they also pointed out, from the same part of the world.
So, that was me decided.
As seems to be ever the way on EAT MY GLOBE, when I got in touch with the people at Milleens and Cashel Blue, they could not have been more welcoming. Not only did they appreciate the idea of my trip, but welcomed the opportunity to talk about the thing they hold so dear.
It’s a long old drive from Cork Airport to Castletownbeer, the nearest town of any size to Milleens and most of it is spent behind tractors that, if they were going any more slowly, would be going backwards. It is, however, made bearable by the scenery. You know it is going to be pretty. You know that it is the stuff of picture postcards, but, the Beara peninsula in West Cork has to rank amongst the most astonishing countryside in The British Isles. Traipsing along at under twenty miles an hour for big chunks of a journey would usually have me on the edge of a stroke. Not here as I chilled out, listened to a bit of folky gaelic nonsense on the radio and took my time.
I was there soon enough and settled into my B&B before going out to hit the nightlife of Castletownbeer. Well, it was late afternoon by then, so the nightlife had finished for the day, obviously, so, after a dreadful early supper and a couple of pints of the black stuff, I slunk back to my room and got an early night.
Up bright and early the next morning, shaved and ready for some cheese, I drove the five miles to Eyries, the small hamlet which houses Milleens Farm.
When I puttered up the path to the rambling farmhouse, Quinlan was in the tiny cheese making unit turning the small wheels he had made a few days before. So, Norman, dragged a couple of rickety kitchen chairs out into the sunshine of farmyard and gave me a history lesson.
There are, I am told, sixty five farmhouse cheese makers in Ireland. Milleens was the first.
Originally, Norman was a professor of Philosophy at Trinity College and split his time between Dublin and the farm which he and his wife bought in the late seventies.
They started making their wash rind cheese for the same reason many cheese makers begin, to use up excess milk. In their case, from their solitary and wonderfully named cow, Brisket.
In true “you couldn’t make it up” fashion, they gave some to a friend, who ran a restaurant and she happened to serve some to one Declan Ryan, at the time, the owner of the only Michelin starred restaurant in Ireland, Arbetus in Cork. He demanded to know what it was and who made it and the next thing you know, it was the wash rind of choice for any self respecting cheeseboard where it remains to this day.
Well, of course it was not quite that easy. Both good luck and bad luck helped along the way. Good luck came in the rotund form of Jane Grigson who ambled up their path one day because she had heard about this wonderful cheese. Bad luck came in the “angel of death” form of BSE which destroyed their entire herd and so devastated them that they have never replaced it preferring to buy in their milk from neighbouring farmers. As Norman puts it “I just didn’t have the heart anymore”
By the turn of the millennium, thirty years of hard graft had begun to take their toll and there was a real chance that they would begin to go backward rather than forward. Enter Quinlan Steele. Not, as the name suggests, the hero in a mass market paperback espionage thriller, but the only son of the Steele offspring who stepped in when family matters meant that Veronica was not able to dedicate time to making the cheese she had lovingly developed.
At 26 and a graduate in IT, Quinlan is an unlikely hero for Milleens, but, hero he is. Taking over the cheese making while Norman crunches the numbers.
With the unending energy of youth and an aptitude for technology that allows him to plough through the internet in search of the latest papers on micro biology, you get the impression that Quinlan is set to take what is already a great cheese, to new levels.
Not that he tinkers with Milleens for the sake of it though. Jane Grigson told Norman Steele that she loved his cheese because it “was always different but always recognisably Milleens” and this artisanal approach is something that all concerned have taken to heart.
He may only have been in charge for four years but he has been around Milleens since he was small and his love of it is tangible with him freely admitting that he probably eats a small wheel a day.
After The Professor had given me the theory, The Student gave me the tour. In truth, not much to see, a small vat, some racks, a temperature controlled room and a place to wrap them and that’s it.
It is a small operation making a little under ten tonnes a year. To put that into context, Cashel Blue produce two hundred and seventy tonnes a year and some of the larger English farmhouse cheeses double that.
But, bear in mind that everything concerning Milleens cheese is done by hand. The filling of the vats and the mixing with starter and rennet. The straining of curds from the whey, the moulding and draining, the turning and, finally, the packing in cellophane and the labelling. Everything.
After the tour, Quinlan selected a likely specimen and we took it back into the farm kitchen where the three of us chomped on it over a cup of tea.
It was a young version of the cheese I love as the more mature cheeses are out of the door the moment they are ready. But, it still had all of the characteristics I love about Milleen. This is not a cheese for the weak hearted. Not a one schtick pony like Stinking Bishop, but a cheese with depth, character and an unmistakeable flavour even here in its youthful form. It ripens from the rind through the paste until, at its peak it is a strong cheese with immense depth.
The avuncular Norman filled the time with more stories. The time Floyd came to film in their kitchen, the time a Dept of Agriculture official told them he would have to get rid of his beard, the time he thinks ripening cheeses in a caused a postal walkout over working conditions. An endless flow and I wish that my time with them could have been the same. But, Quinlan had cheese to make and Norman had milk to collect.
Quinlan wrapped a selected cheese in some greaseproof paper as a parting gift and I stuck it in the bottom of my bag hoping that it would not cause a walk out by Aer Lingus staff over working conditions.
Now, I am back home and waiting for it to come to temperature before biting into a large hunk. When I do, I shall think of Norman and his beard and of Quinlan, the quiet, serious cheese maker who is making sure Milleens is still on fine cheese boards everywhere and will continue to be so for years to come.