By Josh Crowe
It was a beautiful, sunny day as we pulled up to idyllic Golden Cross farm in Lewes, Sussex. We stepped out of the taxi into the crisp spring air and were greeted by a beaming Kevin Blunt, who proudly informed us that a new baby goat had been born just minutes before we arrived. The adorable shaking kid was a sweet reminder that Kevin, Alison, and their son Matthew, are out here taking care of every stage of running the farm, raising the goats and making the cheese. That’s the way it’s been ever since they started their farm 30 years ago.
Their farm is fairly small, only around 220 goats, but as Kevin pointed out, it’s the perfect manageable size for them. Their herd is a mix of British Saanen, Toggenburg and British Alpine. The goats are fed home-grown hay all year (never silage) and in the summer months are allowed to roam around and graze in the fields. They never pasteurise their milk, so this requires a greater amount of love and care for the animals to ensure the milk is safe. As we walked around the farm, I noticed the animals were clean, their bedding looked fresh and they certainly looked happy.
Before they started in the dairy business, Kevin and Alison were both in very different vocations. Kevin studied biochemistry at university, while Alison was studying human biology with a nursing option. However, after a summer working on the farm of a friend of Kevin’s mother, they realised where their true passions lay. For a few years, Kevin worked as a farm hand on various dairy farms around the country, learning as much as he could about the industry, while Alison would work as a nurse at the nearest hospital to help support them. Eventually, on a trip to visit Alison’s parents in Eastborne, they discovered a 6-acre plot of land that was up for sale. All of a sudden, what had once seemed like a pipe dream was finally within reach. Soon afterward, fortune struck again when a local Frenchman decided to sell off his dairy equipment and goats, as well as a couple of his recipes. One of these recipes, for a Sainte-Maure de Touraine-style ash goat log, would be refined and perfected in the decades that followed, to become their most famous and well-renowned cheese - Golden Cross.
Kevin led us into the building beside the barn, where they produce their cheese. He warned us to watch the uneven floor – a sign that it had been annexed and extended many times over the years to accommodate their growing business. They’ve come a long way since their humble beginnings living out of a caravan and aging goats cheese in old wooden cabinets. Their cheese has won award after award, one of the latest being ‘Best British Cheese’ and ‘Super Gold’ for Golden Cross at the World Cheese Awards, 2018-19.
First we were shown how Golden Cross was made. This is by far their most famous product - an ash goat with a distinctive bloomy, penicillin-mould rind. This cheese is unique beyond appearances; it has a dense, chewy texture in the middle, often breaking down nicely around the rind, and its flavour is buttery, mushroomy and nutty (almost sesame-like) with a very low acidity for a goat’s cheese. Depending on the time of year, it can take roughly 80-100 litres of milk to produce 40 of these delicious cheeses. Once they have collected the milk, it is inoculated with the penicillium candidum fungi, which will give the cheese its characteristic bloomy rind as it matures. The milk is then mixed with the starter and vegetarian rennet and left in a warm room for 24 hours, until it has coagulated. Once the curds have formed, they’re ladled by hand into the moulds, where they will sit for another 24 hours to drain, being flipped once in their moulds. The next morning, the cheeses are very carefully removed from their moulds and put onto racks. They are then salted, before being put into drying rooms. After one or two days, they are lightly dusted with the charcoal by hand, using a sifter. As they mature, and the rind begins to form, the rinds have to be lightly patted down so that they don’t become too fluffy. After 11 days of maturation in the drying room, they’re ready to be packaged and sent off to cheese shops across the country.
The other cheese of theirs that we sell in the Cheeseroom is the lovely Flower Marie. It was originally developed by the late James Aldridge, a pioneer of British artisan cheese-making and close personal friend of Kevin and Alison. He passed on this recipe to Kevin and Alison, safe in the knowledge that they would be able to use their skills and expertise to nurture and refine his creation. The cheese as it exists now is a cubic ewe’s milk cheese with a bloomy rind similar to the golden cross. Its pate is similarly dense and chewy in texture, occasionally breaking down beneath the rind. The flavour too has some of that cloying tahini-like nuttiness of the golden cross and a slightly citrusy tang but with a more pronounced mushroominess on account of the thicker rind. The unpasteurised sheep’s milk used is sourced from a herd of Friesland-Dorset at Wayfield Dairy Sheep, Stratford-upon-Avon. To produce the cheese, firstly they have to warm the milk and add the cheese starter, vegetarian rennet and penicillium culture are added. Then the milk is transferred into buckets and placed in a warm room overnight to form a curd (this takes roughly 14-16 hours). Next the curds are ladled into the square moulds and left to drain, being turned every few hours. The next day they are removed and placed onto mats for a few hours to drain further, before being placed into a brine solution for a few hours. Once drained again, they are placed into the drying rooms where they form their white mould rind like the golden cross. After 12 days they’re ready for distribution.
One of the things that this trip really brought home for me was how much respect artisanal farmhouse cheese producers such as Kevin and Alison deserve for what they do. While theirs may sound like the good life on paper, they have to work non-stop, year-round, to do what they do. They only get about three days of holiday a year. This isn’t just a job for them, they’ve committed their whole lives to cheese-making, and it was only after meeting them that I began to truly understand what that entails. This is why it’s so important to support people like them who are brave/mad enough to do it, in order to keep British cheese-making alive and thriving. We need people like them for the future.