Recently, I had the rare fortune of getting to learn from some great English cheesemakers. We delved into their stories, the farms, and how they make cheese. I never take these opportunities lightly because the work that they are doing in the vat is at its core a direct connection to the land and telling that story is key to inviting a customer to enjoy the fruits of that labor. The stories of the producers are what invigorates me and keeps me so centered in this industry. Cheese tastes good, sure, but the people, the land, and the animals are what keep me striving to stay in this industry I love.
The Kirkham’s have been making Lancashire for three generations. It began with Ruth Townley in 1939 and at the time, there were 200 other producers of Lancashire in the area. Ruth made cheese through the second world war and quit for a stint, but picked it up again in 1969. Waxing the rind was seen as the modern way of finishing the cheese, at the time, so Mrs. Townley began that practice instead of using lard like she had previously done. Mrs. Townley retired in 1978 with her daughter, Ruth Kirkham, then taking over the cheesemaking. The long, slow make of Lancashire was conducive to running a household so Mrs. Kirkham was able to raise her three children and house while still making a few cheeses a day. In 1988, the Milk Marketing Board graded the Kirkham’s cheeses against the more homogenized and pasteurized versions and a few food scares through the area made the Kirkham’s realize that they would rather pack up the business than pasteurize their milk. It seemed like pasteurization was the only option until Neal’s Yard Dairy stepped in with their encouragement to continue their traditional ways of making and even to take it a step further by buttering the rind instead of waxing it. This guarantee of sales helped Mrs. Kirkham produce what she thought was the best version of her cheese and now they are the only farmhouse, raw milk Lancashire being made in the world. Her son, Graham Kirkham took over in 2008 with a new make parlour and cow barn though these modern amenities did not push them to more modern ways of making. In fact, Graham has done extensive research on the traditional recipes and has refined the cheese in to one that is steeped in the past while also looking to the future.
The process of making Lancashire is unlike any I’ve heard of before. I even had to call in a friend to help me decipher this make process altogether. I got a wealth of info (and photos!) from Tom Perry, DZTA 2015 recipient and Cheese Sales Manager at Shelburne Farms. The thing that really makes Kirkham’s Lancashire different is the use of three day aged curds. As with most make processes, this was born out of necessity because makers would not have enough milk from one day to make a full wheel of cheese, so the curds would sit until enough curd created the desired size. This aged curd lends much of the flavor you taste in Lancashire because Graham only likes to use enough starter culture to gain the texture he desires. Simply put, they seperate the freshly made curds in to thirds and use them through the next few cheese makes. Each wheel then has a bit of curds from the last three days of making cheese. I’ve also already mentioned that the make process was longer so Ruth was able to care for her household. Well, Kirkham’s Lancashire requires a 13 hour make process. There are many spurts of activity and blocks of waiting time. For a frame of reference, an average cheddar make at Shelburne Farms is about 7 hours. The cheese is pressed for a full day before being buttered and wrapped in cloth. They use a full cream, clarified butter which keeps the wheels moist enough to survive aging but also helps to promote the “buttery crumble” (say that with a British accent a la Paul Hollywood or Merry Berry!) that Kirkham’s Lancashire is known for. It’s wildly inefficient but also caters to a time and place where that time was needed in other areas of the farm.
Thanks to Tom for these pictures of the process!
There are many producers of Lancashire but Kirkham’s is the only one that uses these practices. Larger companies have shortened the make process by speeding up the acidification but the result is much different. Using raw milk and giving the time allowance for the acidification to happen naturally, the flavors are more pronounced. In a younger version of Kirkham’s, you taste the farm and fresh cream alongside the bright, yogurt notes. It’s texture is lighter and fluffier. In the more aged version that bright acidity envelopes your mouth and tongue with more of the cream on the back end with a longer lasting finish. The texture is firmer and more flinty. It sets itself apart beautifully and artfully.
There is history in our food. It’s important to look to the past to prepare for our future. We can use science and innovation to look at the history of food preservation and fine tune what was once a result of necessity. That’s not to say that we should take the art out of making. Quite the opposite. Science can work alongside art to create something beautiful, delicious, and safe to eat.
Here’s your homework: Go find yourself a piece of Kirkham’s Lancashire and revel in a flavor that is ancient and modern at the same time. Then, tell me about that experience!