After being named Best Artisan Producer at this year’s Great British Cheese Awards, we caught up with Jonny Crickmore from Fen Farm Dairy to find out how the farm went from selling milk to making the UK’s only raw milk Brie de Meaux-style cheese – the delicious Baron Bigod.
‘I’m a third generation dairy farmer. My grandfather was a dairy farmer, my dad is still a dairy farmer, and I joined the business as soon as I left school,’ says Jonny Crickmore. Jonny has been working at Fen Farm for over twenty years now. By necessity, the dairy must be treated as a business, but it doesn’t take long to realise that Fen Farm is so much more than that to Jonny and his family. ‘I always used to come up here and work weekends for pocket money when I was little,’ he says.
In the last few years, Fen Farm has become well-known for the delicious Baron Bigod – the only raw milk Brie de Meaux-style cheese made in the UK, and still one of only a few made in the world. Although the Crickmores have been dairy farming for nigh on a century, it’s only recently that they opened their eyes to the idea of cheesemaking. The start of that journey, says Jonny, came from their idea of selling raw milk directly from the farm. ‘People were coming two, three, sometimes four times a week to Fen Farm to buy our milk, simply because it tasted better than shop-bought,’ says Jonny. ‘That’s what first showed us that there was a demand for better quality milk out there. Rather than looking at quantity, we started concentrating on quality.’
Inspired by the popularity of their raw milk, Fen Farm reached out to Ivan Larcher, a French cheesemaker, who taught them the basics of making their own cheese from scratch. ‘He told us that if we want to make the best cheese, we needed the best cheesemaking cows,’ says Jonny. Ivan recommended a couple of French breeds, one of which was the Montbéliarde – a red-and-white breed from eastern France, used traditionally to make cheese like Comté and Gruyere. ‘Before we knew it, we were in discussions with a cattle broker in France,’ Jonny laughs, ‘and visiting all these small dairy farms up in the mountains of Jura. We brought those cows to the UK, and now our herd is around two-thirds Montbéliarde.’
So, what is it that makes the Montbéliarde so perfect for cheesemaking? ‘These girls have a very high protein content in their milk,’ says Jonny, ‘but not too much butter fat, so the combination of the two is perfect for cheesemaking. Anything with higher solids in will taste nicer, because there’s more flavour there, and the unbroken fat in the milk gives it a beautiful creamy texture.’
With just a few years of cheesemaking under their belts, and having already won Best Artisan Cheese Producer at the Great British Cheese Awards 2017, you might think that things have always been easy at Fen Farm. But cheesemaking is tricky enough at the best of times, and when you’re dealing with raw milk it adds another level of complexity to the process. ‘There are so many factors that affect the cows and the milk,’ explains Jonny. ‘There are simple things like temperature changes across the seasons, humidity, how much salt and lactic bacteria you use, but also more specific situations. When the combine harvesters come out in the autumn and they kick up lots of dust, the cheeses get a lot more yeasty from all the extra particles in the air. Then you look at the cows themselves, and their lactation. When a cow first calves, she’ll have more antibodies in her milk, so you have to add more lactic bacteria to compensate.’
The last few years have been a constant process of learning for Jonny and his team, with the challenge being to maintain consistency with a product that naturally wants to change. It’s not always easy, but the results are spectacular and totally unique. Baron Bigod is rich, gooey and full of flavour, with an incredible silky texture that stands out head and shoulders above the rest. ‘By not pasteurising the milk, you leave the sugars in their natural state,’ Jonny explains, ‘so you keep that creamy, sweet flavour in the final cheese.’
As delicious as Baron Bigod is, the cheese isn’t the only reason that we named Fen Farm our Best Artisan Cheese Producer for 2017. Jonny and team have implemented some clever technical solutions over the last few years to help make Fen Farm one of the most sustainable cheesemakers in the country. ‘We run our milking parlour entirely off solar energy now,’ he says, ‘and then there’s the heat exchange. When we milk the cows, we run the milk through a plate cooler, where ice cold water runs down one sheet of metal, and the milk runs down the other. Essentially, the water and milk exchange temperatures as they run through the cooler, so the milk is chilled and ready for storage, and the water gets a head start before it goes into the boiler!’
It all speaks to a dairy farm that has the future in mind – producing a one-of-a-kind cheese through sustainable energy. Jonny admits that he’d love to make Fen Farm even more sustainable down the line, but in many respects, the future is simply a case of continuing to learn and improve. ‘We feel like there’s so much more we can do with Baron Bigod,’ says Jonny. ‘There’s so much work in getting one cheese right, I feel like it’d be way too much work to take on two cheeses! Plus, if I were buying cheese, I’d prefer to buy brie from someone who specialises in making brie. The more we do it, the better we’ll get at it.’
Article and image courtesy of Great British Chefs