The demise of Ashborne’s Cranborne Chase, was a blessing in disguise for cheese maker Alison French. Out of a job but with a ready-made market of wholesalers looking to fill a gap in their product range, Alison saw an opportunity. In February 2012 she and friend Sue James went into partnership, founding Chalke Valley Cheese. Drawing on Alison’s extensive cheese making knowledge and Sue’s business expertise, the company has gone from strength to strength and their cheeses are, just three and half years later, available at delis, speciality cheese shops, farm shops and restaurants across the South of England.
Housed in a former calf house on the Cranborne Estate, production is small scale and the entire process is conducted by hand. The range comprises five cheeses: soft cheeses Dorset White and Cranborne Chase, Tilly Whim a semi-soft cheese, Old Harry a cheddar and Tregonwell, a Caerphilly style cheese.
Alison showed us round the creamery and explained the cheese making process. 3 days a week Alison collects around seven hundred litres of milk in a tank housed in her converted van from Manor Farm, Sutton Waldron. Using raw milk from a single farm results in cheese with subtle nuances in flavour, with seasonal variations dependent on the cows’ diet. The milk is piped into the cheese making room into a custom made stainless steel cheese vat. Freeze-dried cultures are added, then rennet which clots the milk, creating a blancmange like texture.
This is cut by hand to begin the process of separating the curds and whey. The milk is warmed by water circulated through the walls of the vat, multiplying the bacteria which promote the production of lactic acid. It is then stirred and in the case of cheddar, salt added. Stirring further separates out the whey, thus the longer it is stirred the harder the resulting cheese. Only in the case of the cheddar and caerphilly style cheeses are the curds stirred mechanically, due to the length of the process. From the seven hundred litres of milk, seventy kilos of curds are created.
The curds are removed from the tank using a jug and colander, then poured into moulds. They must be drained, then turned, and drained again. When we visit the latest batch of Tilly Whim is nearing the end of its 24 hours draining, ready to be placed in the brine bath. The soft cheeses are dry salted. After being pressed, it’s into the chillers to ripen.
For us, it’s time to dig in and enjoy the final product. We begin with Old Harry, a smooth medium flavoured cheddar with a green/ blue naturally developed rind, marked with the impression of the muslin cloths in which it is pressed.
Then it’s onto Tregonwell, a 12 week matured Caerphilly with a mild and tangy flavour and earthy notes from the rind- it’s a hit with John.
For me, Tilly Whim hits all the right notes; a gold award winner at the 2014 World Cheese Awards, it has a yoghurt tang and slightly fruity undertones. Alison explains that by heating the milk to a slightly higher temperature she is able to promote the natural sweetness of the milk and hence imbue the end product with this same sweetness.
Trumping even the delectable Tilly Whim, is Cranborne a deliciously creamy camembert style cheese. I could greedily devour the whole round. Finally a very ripe and stringent Dorset White, with a slightly firm centre surrounded by an almost liquid creamy paste, all encased in that same bright white rind. Interestingly Cranborne and Dorset White start out life as the same batch, the essential difference being that they are each set in different moulds. Whilst the Cranborne becomes fairly firm, the deeper mould of the Dorset White retains more whey, hence it’s oozing quality.
To complete our cheese feast, Alison slices great slabs from the finest of sourdoughs, which she tells us are freshly baked at the orchard bay bakery at Cranborne stores daily.
There is an element of alchemy to the cheese making process – the transformation of a common-or-garden substance – milk – into an endlessly varying array of cheesy goodness; we left with a true appreciation of cheese as a product of craft and a sense of having witnessed a touch of magic.
Chalke Valley Cheese
t: +44 (0)1725 551181
|Invited by PR company?||No|
|Guest of chef/restaurant/owner?||Yes|
|Restaurant/outlet knew ahead we were bloggers?||Yes|
|Was the meal complimentary from the restaurant?||No|
|Any complimentary items provided by restaurant/outlet?||Cheese!|