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Blessed are the cheesemakers: Stawley

Categories: Product stories

A herbal, honey and hoppy-flavoured British goat’s cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy

Small, squat and luminously pale with a peachy hue—by looks alone, the Stawley cheese stands out like a thumb that’s been in the bath too long. Its rind is as wrinkly, and its cylindrical shape is more reminiscent of a French goat’s cheese than the type you might normally associate with an old Elizabethan farmhouse in Somerset.

Its ingredients—milk, rennet, cultures—are obvious enough, as is the process: goat’s curd, formed slowly over 24 hours from evening and morning milk, hand-ladled into cylindrical moulds then drained, salted and moved between dry and humid environments. But there’s something about Stawley: something subtly different in taste and texture that marks it out from the rest of the British herd.

“When I started here 12 years ago we only had four or five British goat’s cheeses, most of them white, smooth-rinded and uniform looking,” says Martin, the manager of Neal’s Yard Dairy. There was a gap in the market, but not one which consumers or even cheesemakers were necessarily aware of, Britain’s dairy industry being historically cow-centric.

Stawley cross section

Budding cheesemakers
If there’s a tradition of goat’s cheese-making in this country we’re yet to find it, so when Caroline Atkinson left Neal’s Yard Dairy to fulfil her dream of making her own goat’s cheese, her first port of call was France’s Ivan Larcher. A renowned consultant on raw milk cheese, he taught Caroline and other budding cheesemakers at the Centre Fromager in Carmejane, France.

There she built on the knowledge she had picked up from Mary Holbrook, a pioneering goat’s cheese-maker in Britain, and from her time in Neal’s Yard Dairy. “She worked here in the maturing rooms while she figured out what cheese she wanted to make. It was to be a golden, cylindrical goat’s cheese in a Charolais style”—a salty-sweet artisanal soft cheese from Bourgogne, France.

“She wanted to keep her own small herd of goats and she wanted to move to Somerset with her husband, Will,” Martin continues. “Our first year at the farm was spent learning how to keep the goats and building a new barn, a milking parlour and a dairy,” they say. It was, Martin comments admiringly, “a pretty brave thing to do.” Brave, yes—but not foolish.

Stawley

Champion small producers
Caroline was well-versed in cheese by this point, and the pair received staunch support from her former employers. Ever keen to champion small producers, when Caroline and Will revealed their first batch of Stawley to the team at Neal’s Yard, “we wanted to buy as much as they could make,” continues Martin. “And we have since found that each year Stawley improves.”

It improves in flavour, it improves in texture—and because it is so versatile, the guys at Neal’s Yard Dairy can work with it to ensure each batch is matured perfectly. “If our tasters Jacob and Sarah at the arches (our cheese maturation rooms in Bermondsey) try it and determine it’s fit for sale, then we’ll put it out. If the rind is poorly formed, we’ll dry it for a few days. If it’s too mild, we’ll leave it a few weeks.”

Herbal, honey flavours—“almost hoppy, though not overwhelmingly”—are its defining notes, though they can be less or more intense according to how long it’s matured for. It’s a question of taste, as usual. And for serving? “Honey, or fine English cherries, a damson paste or another fruit—and a glass of cool riesling. It is a cheese that really cries out for fruit.”