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Continental drifters

From their base deep in the Kent countryside, the young cheesemakers of Blackwoods Cheese Co are busy creating cheeses that meld English terroir with an Australian sense of adventure. Viel Richardson pays them a visit


Images: Joseph Fox

“As the cows are being milked, some of it is fed directly into our milk van. We then drive it 20 yards from the milking sheds to our cheesemaking rooms…”

Dave Holton, co-founder and head cheesemaker at Blackwoods Cheese Company, talks me through this shortest of short supply chains as we stroll past a group of contented-looking cows, chewing away in a field. “Once there, the milk goes straight into our cheesemaking vats; there is no storage involved,” he continues. “In fact, it doesn’t even have time to cool down. All we do is add the cheese starter cultures and the cheesemaking process begins – we don’t have to apply heat to get things going. It is one of the many lovely things about being here.”

‘Here’ is a converted farm building deep in the Kent countryside. The cows belong to a small-scale organic dairy farmer, and Blackwoods Cheese Company’s cheesemaking facility is conveniently located in a red brick farm building on the same country estate.

“As a cheesemaker, everything starts with the milk: you can’t make great cheese with poor milk,” Dave explains. “The farm has a three-way breeding programme which uses Holstein Friesians, the classic black and white dairy cows we all know; Montbéliarde, a French breed traditionally used to make comte in the Alps; and Swedish Reds, which add a bit more butterfat to the milk. This produces beautiful milk, which is perfect for us to work with.”

The spectacularly short journey from udder to cheesemaking facility keeps the solids and proteins in the milk in perfect condition, lending Blackwoods’ finished cheeses their clean, highly defined flavours.

Standing here, looking out across the lush green fields of the Garden of England, it is difficult to imagine a more bucolic setting for an artisan English cheesemaker, creating classic English cheeses. But not everything is quite as it seems.

Far from being a man of the English countryside, Dave grew up in the Yarra Valley, near Melbourne – about as far from this green and pleasant land as it’s possible to get. His was a region with a rich dairy tradition. “I did a degree in environmental earth science, but soon realised that it wasn’t the field for me,” he says. “One of my mates was a cheesemaker at the local dairy, and I mentioned at a party that I was looking to work in food. It turned out that the dairy had a job going. I started three days later.”

Dave (left) and Tim

It was his desire to experience cheesemaking in other parts of the world that brought Dave to England. “Learning to make cheese is both an art and a science,” he says. “You have four ingredients: milk, a cheese culture, rennet and salt. The process is as much about working with time, temperature and the environment as it is about manipulating the ingredients. It may take weeks, months or even years to see how changes in your process affect the final cheese. I was really curious to see how other people worked.”

Together with his good friend Cameron Rowan, Dave planned a trip to Europe. The idea was to visit cheesemakers and cheesemongers in France, Spain and the Netherlands, as well as Britain. They would eat cheese, make friends, drink wine and generally tour the continent, picking up what they could from the artisans they met along the way. They would then return to Australia, laden with this new-found knowledge, to start making cheeses of their own.

“Before leaving Australia, I had set up 10 days’ work here in London, so my first experience of European cheese was working behind the counter at Neal’s Yard Dairy in Borough Market during the Christmas rush – which I can only define as bedlam,” Dave recalls.

Those 10 days at Neal’s Yard Dairy somehow turned into three years, during which time Dave also managed to fit in an internship with the Mons affineurs in France.

While their plans for a European tour may have been shelved, the urge to make cheese was still strong in Dave and Cameron, so they joined up with another childhood friend, Rory Holwerda, and Tim Jarvis (the lone Brit), all of whom had worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy, to make their first tentative steps into production. “We named the company after the road I grew up on.” Blackwoods Cheese Co was born.

The gang’s first experiments were with ‘Persian fetta’, which according to Dave is a style of cheese developed by an Australian cheesemaker who had travelled through Iran in the 1970s and fallen in love with the local feta-style cheeses. Hugely popular in Australia, Persian fetta had proved impossible to find in the UK.

“We thought that if we missed that taste, then other Australians might feel the same,” Dave explains. “We adapted our process to work in local conditions and made a couple of tweaks, the main one being the use of raw milk, which is illegal in Australia. It is still recognisable, though, which is really gratifying to hear from Australians over here who have found us.”

However, if you head over to Blackwoods’ Borough Market stall, there won’t be a jar with the name ‘Persian fetta’ anywhere in sight. “As we are in the EU, the name ‘feta’ is protected, so we called it Graceburn after the river that flows through the town where we grew up,” Dave reveals.

“Being made from cow’s milk, it is less salty than a traditional feta, with a deeper, more rounded flavour. The olive oil we use is flavoured with peppercorns, thyme and garlic and you get some of those flavours coming through as well – it is a lovely cheese.” A bronze medal at the British Cheese Awards in 2015 would suggest that Dave is not alone in his assessment.

Dave’s plan was to have some fun with his mates making cheese in the frozen north, then head back home to make even more cheese in the Aussie sun. But life – as it so often does – had different ideas. While Cameron chose to fly back to Australia, and Rory – clearly deciding that London wasn’t quite far enough away from Melbourne – moved north to Scotland, Dave met and married an English girl and England became his permanent home. So, while Cameron and Rory still have a share in the business, Dave and Tim are now Blackwoods’ driving force and full-time cheesemakers.

In contrast to their current rural idyll, Blackwoods’ first dedicated production space was in the far more prosaic surroundings of an industrial estate in Brockley, south London. The move to Kent was a logical step: the team used to drive down here a couple of times a week anyway, loading 500 litres of milk in the van before driving the 40 miles back to London.

As well as its proximity to a supply of superb milk, what this converted farm building offered was a space in which the cheesemakers could truly express themselves, creating cheeses that reflect their characters and sense of craftsmanship. “Our core ethos has become one of not interfering in the process too much.” Dave explains. “It is all about following their development and seeing where they take us. We don’t want to end up with cheeses that are clones of something else.”

Dave points out that all artisanal cheeses are quite literally a product of their environment, so the new surroundings allow the cheesemakers to explore new tastes and textures. “Everywhere you go there are microbes in the air that will interact with cheese as it is being made, and these will vary in different areas,” Tim interjects.

Dave wholeheartedly agrees. “It is like making wine, but we have a different vintage every day – the milk and environmental conditions will never be exactly the same two days in a row. Working with these changes is at the heart of any artisanal production. It means we have the chance to create something that is entirely our own.”

The pair are particularly fascinated by soft cheeses. “It is a very involved process which works over a much shorter time frame than the hard cheeses,” says Dave. “Because things happen quickly, you have to pay constant close attention to things like humidity, temperature, air quality. You have to judge just the right time to wash the cheeses with brine, which we do to encourage the types of moulds we are after, and create the environment they need to thrive. This level of involvement gives the cheesemaker a real connection with the cheese.”

The process involves plenty of trial and error. “You just have to accept that some things are not going to work. But you learn something from every batch, and knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does. For each new batch, you tweak different elements. You build on the good bits, then start again.”

“But never make too many changes at once,” Tim adds with a wry grin. “The worst scenario is to have a batch that turns up with a wonderful texture and lovely flavours, but then you struggle to recreate it because you can’t define what changes were key to the improvement. Communication is key. With so many variables, it is vital each of us knows what the other is doing. That’s why there are notebooks everywhere.”

While he may be firmly ensconced in the Kentish countryside, in two cheeses with the unlikely names of Edmund Tew and William Heaps, Dave is able to demonstrate that he has not entirely lost touch with his Aussie roots.

“They are part of our ‘Convict’ series – cheeses named after convicts who were transported to Australia for stealing cheese,” Dave says with a huge grin spreading across his face. “The chance for an Aussie to make cheeses in the UK that are illegal to produce in Australia, and name them after convicts sent to Australia for stealing cheese in Britain, was just too good to pass up.”

Given the enthusiasm that British judges once had for dishing out this particular punishment, there is certainly scope for a few more cheeses in the series. With such wonderful milk, in such a beautiful place, and with a sense of adventure that constantly pushes them forward, the likelihood of other unfortunate cheese-stealing miscreants finding themselved immortalised in the tastes and textures conjured up by Blackwoods Cheese Company seems high.