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The Courtyard Dairy

Since 2012, Andy and Kathy Swinscoe have proudly carried the torch for small-batch, farm-made cheese

words by Will HALBERT

Tell us a little about yourselves and Courtyard Dairy. How did you both get into cheese?
Many years ago I worked infine-dining, and we had a fabulous cheeseboard.  But in those days at the top end, apart from Cheddar and Stilton everything was French. So it intrigued me how we had all these great dairy farms but didn’t seem to make any real ‘quality’ artisan cheese. So I spoke to our French supplier and he said why don’t you come abroad to France and do an apprenticeship in cheese-maturing. So I did! I worked in a cheesemongers cave over there and learnt so much about small scale, raw-milk cheesemaking. It gave me a real good grounding so I returned to the UK and worked in Bath & London with cheesemongers down there before Kathy & I returned back North to set up The Courtyard Dairy in 2012.  Since returning from France we’ve seen the quality and range of British farm-cheese increase year-on-year and it’s great to have been part of that resurgence.

There’s more to being a cheesemonger than selling cheese. What does a working day at The Courtyard Dairy entail?
The obvious stuff is the cutting, talking to customers, wrapping and talking about the cheeses and their profile. Aside from that my role entails a varied range of other items, my favourite being grading (where we taste through a range of different batches of the same cheese with the team and select the order in which we’ll sell them and if we want to buy them). One of the interesting things about farmhouse cheese is you do get day-to-day variation so grading allows us to cherry-pick the days we think are the very best. One of my least favourite jobs (but essential) is working in the cheese store. As we mature cheeses ourselves these need a bit of care, from brushing to washing in salty water; all to improve them and bring out their best characteristics. We’re one of the few cheesemongers to do this but it really helps add an extra depth of flavour and ensure we sell each cheese in tip-top condition. Then there are the calls to chat to cheesemakers about tweaks to their making procedures, tasting profiles, changes on the farm etc.

Tell us a little about some of the cheesemakers you work with. How do you select them?
What we try and champion is traditionally-made, farmhouse cheese. So we have a selection profile in order of what we are looking for: primary is taste, followed by cheese-making methods (how traditional/hands-on the methods are in order to capture the best flavour in the milk). Then we look at farming methods (animal breeds, feeds, and the sustainability/ethics of the farm), whether the cheese is raw or pasteurised and finally how local it is.  The more boxes you can tick the better.  If a new cheesemaker comes to us and they are keen to go down the right route, we will try and support them from the beginning, helping them develop their cheese in the right manner. One of the things I’m most proud of, is when you see a farm commercially making viable cheese and we’ve been involved in helping them down that route and getting them to that point of making cheese on their farm.  It makes me happy to see a farm re-starting cheesemaking and making something unique to them. Fellstone Cheese, Stonebeck and Hebden Goat are three we’ve been heavily involved in, and it almost feels like our ‘baby’ too. It’s great to see them doing well.

These are pretty small farms with small batch production methods as opposed to larger-scale, industrial production lines. Is this important to you?
Yes. I am all for industrial production, it is more efficient and keeps costs down. However, what I try to do here is champion farm-made cheese. Because I think that is important too, and vital we keep it alive. The reasons being; on a small scale you can be in more control of your inputs (like the feed, and raw milk) and can make a product completely unique to you, you have potential therefore to make a more flavoursome cheese (it isn’t about standardisation or cost). As value is added, they can also afford to farm more sustainably and ethically, using traditional breeds and farming methods. A lot of my producers also follow historic cheesemaking recipes and techniques. These are all important to value and should keep going, in my opinion. Finally, this style of making keeps alive small scale-farms and keeps money in rural areas, as adding this value on the farm means that many cheesemaking farms provide 12-15 jobs off one herd, which would otherwise would be 1-2 jobs. But the main reason is all about flavour and getting something that is extremely tasty and unique to that farm.  That’s why we do it, the other reasons are just additional benefits.

How important is the concept of terroir when it comes to cheese?
It’s one of things that makes true-farm cheesemaking great. There was once 2000 farm producers of Wensleydale. Each one would have been different, and different people would have preferred different farms. Just as in the same way if you take a cake recipe and give it to 2000 people they will all make it slightly different. This is amplified on a farm level by tweaks to the recipe, using different equipment, different pasture and breeds, etc. Making true farm cheese means you’re make it of that place – that is one of the things that makes it so special.

Are there certain characteristics to British cheeses that set them apart from their Euro counterparts?Historically yes, as we were more constrained to the climate, cow breeds, grass/hay that grows here, not to mention the utensils and storage methods that would have been unique to each area. But the world has become more global, and farming and food production has changed. As a result, versions of most cheeses are made everywhere. But the minuscule details mean you will get a different result. You can start with the same recipe and if you are making cheese on the farm by hand, each farm will produce a slightly different result – that’s one of the exciting things about it.

Is there an element of seasonality to cheesemaking?
Definitely, grass grows differently throughout the year. What the animals are additionally being fed changes, as does the stage of their lactation. That all affects the milk. Then the external temperatures and humidities affect the cheese making and maturing procedures.  On a industrial scale, this is minimised by standardising and pasteurizing the milk, then using commercial cultures and ‘sealed vats’ to make cheese. Farm-made cheese doesn’t employ that same level of standardisation, so it is less consistent and varies more throughout the year. But that is something that should be celebrated, and that’s why we’re keen to let customers taste before they buy. There isn’t a ‘best’ season, just different.

How important is the process of affinage to the taste of a cheese?
Farming and cheesemaking are the first two bits to get right. What we try and do at The Courtyard Dairy is ‘affinage’ or cheese maturing. This basically involves keeping the cheese and maturing it (in different environments) to make sure it is sold at its peak. It helps out some farms (as they will sell their cheese young to ensure cash flow), and with others it allows us to change the very nature of the cheese to get a different flavour. It essentially boils down to me examining each individual cheese we get and determining how to make it taste its best. One of the reasons we have a great reputation is our attention to these details; we treat farm-cheese as the living product it is, rather than just something to put on a shelf. That allows us to sell each cheese at its peak.

Any advice for those looking to expand their own knowledge (and collection) of cheese?
Find a good cheesemonger and ask them what is good at the moment. Another good method is to sign up to a monthly cheese club, that way you get random and different cheeses each month and you can slowly build up your arsenal.

What would your perfect cheese board be made up of?
That’s Tough! That’s like asking a painter their favourite colours. It depends on time of year, mood and seasonality. But if I was to stick my head above the parapet; I love St James (a real expression of its terroir), Hafod Cheddar (soft, smooth and buttery Cheddar), Young Buck Blue (Northern Ireland’s answer to Stilton, but more moist and less-aggressive), Hebden Goat and Baron Bigod Brie.

And lastly: Eating the rind, yay or nay?
Always try (unless you’re spitting out cloth, wax or foil). The rind is often the most concentrated part of the cheese, so can be strong, particularly in older cheeses, but on younger softer cheeses it is really key to the flavour!