We visited Nettlebed Creamery to discover how Sinodun Hill goat's cheese is made.
Whilst on our adventure (or ‘getting lost’) through Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds, we stopped in at North Farm to see where Sinodun Hill is made. Sinodun Hill is a lactic set, raw milk goat’s cheese made with vegetarian rennet. It is a relatively new cheese, in the scheme of things. Rachel Yarrow and Fraser Norton started making cheese around 4 years ago after leaving jobs completely unrelated to cheesemaking. Both had farming in their families, but neither had worked with goats or cheese before.
We were very graciously received by Rachel and given a tour of their dairy and surrounding fields. Norton and Yarrow Cheese sits on North Farm, run by environmental charity Earth Trust (https://earthtrust.org.uk/) . They offer tenancies to small agricultural businesses that can’t afford the high land costs of suitable pastures. North Farm sits at the end of a long dirt track by the side of the Thames in Shillingford, South Oxfordshire. It is a small holding, with old barns and sheds repurposed by the new tenants and lots of land for the animals to graze on. Rachel and Fraser currently have 45 milking goats, predominantly Anglo Nubians – a popular goat in cheesemaking due to the high fat content of their milk.
Rachel took us through their dairy – ingeniously repurposed shipping containers joined together in, what felt like, the most obviously practical way. The dairy is tiny but perfectly ergonomical for their purpose. The first room we entered contained the milk vats (empty at 3pm). Each milking returns around 400l, with 100l of milk making, on average, 72 cheeses. Sinodun Hill are lactic set cheeses, meaning they use the traditional method of slow acidification to coagulate the milk. The little rennet they use is a purely vegetal one – an almost tea-like substance made from a Cardoon thistle. In some cases, vegetarian rennet will be used to expand the consumer base of a cheese – in this case they just thought it produced the best flavour. It makes sense that any ‘additives’ would be as simple and natural as the rest of their process.
Above us in the windows, hung draining cheese curds from that morning’s milk. Hung simply in cloth sacks (like pillow cases), the whey is captured and fed to pigs at another farm nearby. The tables above which the curds are hung are then used to get the cheeses in to their pyramid-shaped moulds and drain off any remaining moisture.
In the next room, Rachel showed us some three day old cheeses, drying on racks. We were quite amazed to see how quickly a delicate Geotrichum had begun to form. They looked like cheeses that would have been delicious to eat as young and fresh as they were. Rachel agreed that this is the way she prefers them.
Back out in the yard, we went to visit the goats in the barn, ready for their afternoon milking. We watched (and provided the odd bit of encouragement) as they made their way through the labyrinth of gates in to the milking parlour, 8 at a time. Rachel then went through what we could tell were the well practised and carefully choreographed motions of milking. Happy goats don’t make too much of a fuss, luckily.
After our brief time at North Farm, we saw the joy of simplicity and how, when you let all of the components do the work, the result is a cheese as pure and characterful as the place it’s come from.