An Ode to Sleight Farm
Sleight Farm is situated on 200 acres of unfertilised pastures, just outside of Timsbury in Somerset. Mary Holbrook and her husband moved back to his family farm over thirty years ago, where she began making cheese from the milk of their small herd of goats. This move from her role as a museum curator in Bath, to the relative unknown in the Somerset countryside was made with the practical, no-nonsense approach typical of Mary. Her introduction to cheesemaking was equally so. The farm had goats, so she milked them. They produced more milk than she needed, so she made cheese from it. She sold the cheese, so she needed more milk. She bought more goats, made more cheese… and so on. It was this way of thinking that made her the exciting and, quite frankly, infamous cheesemaker that she was.
The land that Sleight Farm sits on is old and wild. The goats are free to graze on nettles, thistles and wildflowers – it is very rare to have so little control over your animal’s food source. This was a key factor in what made Mary’s cheese so special. She didn’t pasteurise the milk, so all the character of that terrain would be reflected in the end product. This made for incredible flavours and variation in the cheese.
The process of making cheese is a science, much like baking; it is precision and measurements and readings. You can romanticise her all you want, but the long and short of it was: Mary couldn’t be bothered with all that. She let her senses guide the process; observing the weather, feeling the texture of the milk, the weight of the curds. There was a cause and effect at every step and she could feel it. What would she need a PH meter for??
There were four distinct goat’s cheeses that came out of Sleight Farm; Sleightlett, a fresh, ashed rind cheese; Tymsboro, an ashed rind, pyramid-shaped cheese; Cardo, a washed rind, vegetarian rennet cheese and Old Ford, a hard, aged cheese. Mary famously had a generous hand with the salt, something which was very apparent in all her cheeses. This only served to enhance those wild flavours, whilst also, really, giving her a level of control over what would and could happen in those cheeses as they developed.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of eating and selling Sleight Farm cheeses via various outlets and we’ve had every variety on our counters at London Cheesemongers. Mary passed away earlier this year, which came as a huge shock to everyone who knew her. There was something so steadfast about her that almost seemed immortal. Like a rock. Production on the farm continued, those that had learned from and worked alongside Mary carried the mantle. But now, after a long struggle to find a permanent head cheesemaker, the decision was made to stop. The cheeses were not only a reflection of the land and the milk, but of Mary herself. And, maybe, no one else was quite willing to take on the challenge of filling those wellies.
We bid a fond farewell to Sleightlett, Tymsboro, Cardo and Old Ford. To Sleight Farm and to Mary Holbrook. She’ll always be there, looking over our shoulders. And telling us to add just a bit more salt.