Homage2Fromage have been massive fans of Shepherds Purse for years. Their cheese is sublime, and their story is inspiring. They epitomise an approach and a passion that makes artisan, handmade cheese the thriving and wonderful industry that it is.
So, imagine our excitement when we were invited to go up to the creamery and have a look around – and actually see the cheese being made, Well, we didn't need asking twice.
Vickie brought baby Felix along for the ride, and we headed off at about 9am. Felix went to sleep straight away (bored with the cheese-based conversation probably) and Vickie and I made reasonable time up to Thirsk. We were hampered only by the Steven King SatNav which seemed to insist that we follow a narrow track right up to a weird abandoned bridge over the railway line. After a short detour we were there.
The farm is beautiful, set among grassy, tree-lined fields, with a windswept, bracing view over the flat lands stretching out towards a wide horizon.
Once inside we were all three welcomed with warmth by Caroline and Judy and ushered up to the spacious reception/open plan office where baby Felix immediately became the centre of attention. After some Yorkshire Tea and rather good biscuits, we signed the forms to say we were clean and healthy, and swapped Felix for some rather strange white coats, crazy hats and those things you put on your shoes. Leaving Felix to entertain Caroline, and then suitably attired, Judy, Vickie and I descended to the creamery floor.
The main room s large and has a raised area where the milk is heated and the initial starters are added before it flows, via a cunning series of large pipes. into the many vertical, cylindrical moulds – 20 or so, about 8 inch in diameter - stood on wheeled steel tables. We arrived as the curd was getting the first of several turns – all by hand – to allow the whey to seep out under its own weight.
This is quite large scale, but in no way automated. There is real skill in turning and checking the moulds as the process runs its course. Further over in the same room was a table of cheeses that had already been turned out of the moulds to be rubbed with salt – again by hand. The subtle difference in size of the cheeses showed the very hands on approach. Judy was keen to point out that each batch is created as much with feel and care as with meticulous measuring and precision. The milk is always changing and so each batch needs an expert eye to make sure the finished result is up to their standards.
Moving through to the smaller rooms, we entered a massive chilled room keeping the cheeses at a very specific temperature (about 5 degrees centigrade). There was rack upon rack of cheese, each batch numbered and dated, in various states of maturity – Harrogate Blue, Yorkshire Blue, and a smaller rack of Blumin White.
Rather intriguingly there were a few racks of cheeses labelled 'Experiments'!
Once out of the cold, we entered a room where a man was operating some kind of medieval torture device that stabbed long knitting-needles repeatedly into each cheese in turn. This is to allow air to enter the cheese and allow the blue to form. Nothing whatsoever to do with copper etc, which it turns out is a kind of cheesy urban myth (rural myth?).
Finally we saw the finished cheeses being wrapped for sale. The workers hands move with precision and speed, wrapping each cheese into neatly foiled half-wheels in a single perfect manoeuvre, ready for collection and delivery all over the UK and the world.
We were struck by the cleanliness, the calmness, the confidence and look of satisfaction on everyone's faces. People have been working here for years, people wait for years to get the chance to work here. As we kicked off our silly shoe protectors we were more than a little bit amazed. We were struck by how such a simple process could create such extraordinary, complex, delicious cheese. There was no mystery solved, nothing exposed, no magic potions or secret ingredients unearthed. Cheese is a wonderfully simple pleasure – and making great cheese is a simple process – but it is not easy, and it takes great skill, attention to detail and passion. Shepherds Purse prove that.
Once back upstairs and reunited with baby Felix, we sat with Judy and Caroline, and chatted over a lunch of (what else) bread and cheese- plotting, and planning some potential collaborations, then left the busy team to get on with their work and headed home.
Shepherds Purse creamery is a wonderful place where genuinely good people make world-class, award-winning cheese. It was fun, awe-inspiring and somewhat humbling to watch them at work. No wonder the cheese is so good.