By Jakob Anderson
Stephen and George Fletcher, 5th and 6th generation farmers, make the wonderful ewe’s milk cheese Berkswell. The father and son duo guided a few of our cheesemongers through a comprehensive tour of the operations at Ram's Hall. Stephen also took us through the village of Berkswell, a place near and dear to his heart.
Stephen’s mother Sheila was responsible for the original cheese recipe, along with the intuition of a family friend. Sally Hubbard, the daughter of a local farmer, experimented with the Fletcher’s sheep milk in their kitchen before going on to take a cheese course herself. The initial interest by Hubbard sparked the inspiration for the now legendary raw ewe’s milk cheese.
The village of Berkswell, the cheese’s namesake, is located in the West Midlands. A large well, situated outside the 12th century churchyard in the village centre is where the name truly originates from. Stephen also showed our team the infamous stocks, a place where petty criminals were publicly humiliated. The stocks still remain today, a reminder to how far legal proceedings have come! We passed the local school, one that has seen all generations of Fletchers pass through. These landmarks lead to the main event. A large, diverse pasture upon which the family’s herd of Friesland and Lacaune sheep graze upon. Stephen was quick to display his love for the area. “It is a privilege to be here”, he said with sincere wonder and admiration.
This passion for the land made it even more difficult to realise that no more than a few kilometres across the field, is the mega HS2 development site’s main hub. A sign of the ever developing and challenging time for the local farming communities that inhabit these areas.
Back on the farm, Stephen passed us on to his son George to tour the dairy, barns and milking parlour. It felt like a quite literal passing of the torch. Innovation, progression, adaptation, these were all themes felt with our time spent with George. He explained the decision to invest in Lacaune sheep, a well known breed in France, used to produce some of the world-class cheeses we have come to love, such as Roquefort. This decision was made to ensure and heighten the quality of Berkswell for years to come. “Cheesemakers who milk sheep,” as Stephen put it.
A happy ewe
George walked us through a day in the life in the dairy, from the make, to the signature colander moulding, up until the affinage done in their ever so vertical cellar. It was spectacular to see such a savvy wooden design, which was of course, designed by a local. While the recipe has yet to undergo any change, the process has been experimented with over the years. Efforts to improve texture and consistency have been on the forefront of George, Julie (head cheesemaker) and the team’s mind for a while. We tasted through a few experimental batches, which provided a very promising sneak peek to the future of Berkswell.
Berkswell in their signature colander moulds
Perhaps a story for a different day (or publication), but George has recently turned his eye to the world of pastured pigs as well. This is why the brilliant lunch Stephen prepared for our team was even more thoughtful. Roast Tamworth Gammon, house-made spiced apple jelly, a half wheel of Berkswell and all the bits. A truly generous, delightful gesture.
We were also lucky enough to observe afternoon milking just before departing. Smooth as ever, these lads (and ewe’s) had done this before. It is always amazing to see the efficiency.
The ever-efficient milking process
There is something to be said about that word, “terroir” in the case of Berkswell. A cheese that truly can only come from one place. A cheese that is steeped in history. One that has remained relevant for well over 30 years. Stephen’s passion for his beloved Berkswell, that cannot be duplicated. George’s care and attention over all aspects of the farm cannot either. One comes away from a day at Ram's Hall with hope for the future of British cheese. The kids are alright.