Earlier this Spring a team of our cheesemongers visited Highfields Farms in Thorpe estate, Staffordshire. Stella Bennet started Innes Cheese on the farm in 1987 when she converted a stable into a dairy, they then gained notoriety in 1994 when their Innes Button won 'Supreme Champion' at the first ever British Cheese Awards.
Today the farm and dairy are still very much a small family business, now run by Stella's son Joe and his partner Amiee. They make Bosworth Ash Log, Chilcote and fresh goat's curd from the raw-milk of their own goats; our team were excited to get a better understanding of these cheeses and people behind them.
The farm is set in idyllic countryside and upon arrival it's clear that Joe and Amiee are a very modest, humble people. The visit begins with a tour of the dairy, Amiee talks us through the cheesemaking process and we are introduced to the other two cheesemakers, who are hard at work. Within moments their approach to farming and cheesemaking is outlined: simple and holistic. It's obvious that there is a great deal of care and attention put into each stage of the process, which remains very hands-on throughout.
While the milk is still warm, whey is added as a starter culture and it is left to ripen overnight. Morning milk is added and the mix is gently poured into small buckets (ideal for producing excellent curd). When the right acidity is reached, they add a small amount of animal rennet and allow the curd to form slowly until the next morning. The curd is then hand ladled into moulds; bricks for the Chilcote; logs for Bosworth Ash. The cheeses are left to drain, before salting and turning. The maturation takes a few weeks, the cheese develops its natural rind, texture and depth of flavour.
As it's the middle of kidding season, there is a lot of activity on the farm. Joe explains that while owning your own herd is a lot of work (especially at that time of year), it has also allowed them to have more control and resulted in the highest quality milk for cheesemaking. As a result of the daily demands it only made sense for Joe and Amiee to set up home on the farm itself; so a short stroll later and the team are welcomed into a picturesque farmhouse and treated to some tea - the pairing of Bosworth Ash Log with home-made banana bread goes down especially well!
Before departing Joe takes the cheesemongers on a tour of the farm, where he speaks in more depth about the goats themselves: a crossed-breed herd of British Saanen, British Toggenburg, British Alpine and Golden Guernsey goats, they've grown from 100 goats in 1987 to 350 today. The team are delighted to witness a mix of milking nannies, newborn kids and the billy-goat himself. It's lovely to see how much care and attention is also paid to each goat in the herd; a testament to real farmhouse cheesemakers.
Filled with new insight, greater appreciation (and copious amounts of cheese!) the La Fromagerie team head back on the train to London; excited to share their experiences with the next customers to visit the Cheese Room.