The summer was hot and dry, and the autumn is cooler and wetter – seasons in the right place. That is so reassuring for a farmer – you realize how much we need everything in place. We had the finest harvest of field mushrooms for years, soil warm, good rain. We ate them for almost every meal, even dried them and froze them – I’ll report how that works. The hedgerows are still full of fruit – the sign of a warm summer, not a cold winter, we hope.
We have had a battle royal overhead with ravens and rooks scrapping, aerial acrobatics, cawing and croaking. The buzzards joined in, wheeling around and calling. Are they fighting over territory released from the summer birds leaving? Or are they playing in the autumn sun and crisp air? The one solitary fallow buck roaring in the rut was drowned out by the battle. The stalkers are at work, determined to reduce deer numbers.
I’m happy to see the stalkers, although seeing men with camouflage and rifles at dawn and dusk is an odd sight. Our crops need relief from deer. The last harvest gave us the lowest yields we’ve ever had, and lower than our neighbours. We had low populations of wheat and barley from deer damage and weather over winter, and the cold spring meant they delayed tillering, where each plant produces enough plantlets to use the available light. When the weather warmed up, the fewer plants grew more tillers rapidly, and when the dry weather came, the roots, limited by the overwinter wet, couldn't chase the water down fast enough to feed all those ears on the new tillers. Then the deer walked through the crops, feasting on the ears there were. The net result was half a yield. The maize had an excellent yield, except where deer had mown the plants! This season, we’ve already got good establishment of wheat and barley, that lovely even velvet sheen across the fields that promises yield. Fewer deer would mean that promise would come to sensible sized heaps of grain in the store. We are really pleased with the minimum tillage – fast, less fossil fuels, leaves the soil structure intact. I’m hoping for it to up our organic matter content, doing our bit to take carbon dioxide out of the air – arable farming mostly releases it, unlike grassland farming.
We are weighing the little ladies, making sure they keep to weight. Some of the older ones, from before we started weighing routinely, are a little underweight, and will not be big enough to calve at two years old. Calve older, and their udders will be fatter and less milky….might explain why bra sizes have gone up in humans. We start serving to calve next August, always a jolly sight, with a gaggle of hot girls with their attention on finding a bull to do the necessary. We brought them inside last month so they don’t have to cope with getting in calf and dealing with a feed change at once.
The autumn calving cows go to bull as well this month; they are milking well, lovely milk for cheesemaking. We’ve got them in at night to look after them that little bit better. The spring cows are still out day and night, depending on the weather. Enough grass to keep them out, and they’ll stay there; too wet, too much damage to pasture, and we will bring them in. Even a few hours of grazing gives those lovely distinctive grassy flavours. The work we did to get the milk pumping super gentle seems to be working, milk looking just right in the vats, lovely 3 month gradings, I can’t wait to taste the cheese at 12 months old.
I love November cheese, still grassy and rich as the spring cows come to the end of lactation and the autumn cows settle into full milk. Milk volumes are good, too, enough and not too much so the team strains to care for each cheese. We are busy sending cheese out for Christmas, too; we are expecting more sales of Extra Mature and Vintage Cheddar, as we can store our naturally matured clothbound cheddar longer than anyone else, giving real depth to the flavour, on top of the luscious richness from the grazing. Many clothbound makers either sell cheese younger or put their cheese into a plastic bag for some of the maturing time, both of which limit the depth of flavour. I’m very proud of our mite-busting system that enables us to keep cheese in great condition, breathing, growing a glorious garden of mould on the rind, and developing unsurpassed complexity. Moving the cheese to clean them also means we can sort our cheese into the different families of flavour, and really learn how each of the 6 starters we use produces subtly different flavours and work out which flavours work best for which customers. I have the best job in the world, spending my time thinking how to make the most glorious flavours, and what flavour would give the most joy and pleasure where!
Hips and haws jelly – I love foraging in the hedgerows to catch the last of the summer’s bounty. The bright red of rosehips and hawthorn berries make a wonderful jelly to eat with cheese. Take a bright autumn day (bright is for your joy, not part of the recipe), collect as many hips and haws as you have the patience for (it’s fiddly), wash, and simmer till soft with about the same volume of water as fruit. Strain the liquid, and add a pound of sugar to a pint of liquid, and boil till it sets. Put in jam jars and seal. You can further dry the jelly in open baking trays on greaseproof paper in a low oven, or covered with a tea towel and put in a warm place, and cube and roll in sugar to make sweets; both jelly and sweets make lovely presents, which are great to eat with Quickes Traditional Extra Mature or Vintage Cheddar.
I met the global cheeserati at Slow Cheese in Bra, Italy in September, the best cheese party on the planet, where cheese lovers from all over Italy, and all over the world, congregate to adore cheese for four days every other year. Jordan Zimmerman, Manager of Education at Murray’s in New York, one of the best cheese shops anywhere, said she had been enjoying our cheddar with Whistle Pig Vermont Rye Whiskey aged 10 years. I’d never thought of spirits working with cheese – thanks Jordan for opening up another avenue to explore. Let me know other pairings that work.