UK Company Ages Popular Goat Cheese in Ancient Cave
By Alan Harman
An award-winning goat cheese is being aged in a 50,000-year-old English cave where a Dark Ages priest is reputed to have used holy water to turn a witch into stone.
The cheese is made by Ford Farm, a commercial dairy in Dorset, and shipped 60 miles to the Wookey Hole Caves in the neighboring county of Somerset.
Ford Farm has been making cow milk cheese since 1983 and added a goat milk cheese four years ago. Farm managers conducted tests on a number of caves in the UK for two years and found that Wookey Hole proved perfect, giving the flavor and the texture the company wanted.
“The caves provide an ideal environment for maturation with their year-round temperature of around 11°-12º C (51.8°-53.6ºF),” said Ford Farm director Mike Pullin. “They maintain the moisture in the cheese and stop it from drying out.” Gerry Cottle, the cave’s owner, was enthusiastic about bringing cheese back to Wookey Hole for the first time since farm house cheddar cheese was stored in the caves 400 years ago.
But people have been using the caves for a lot longer than that.
Archaeologists have evidence people have lived in and around the caves for 50,000 years and they have found the bones of tropical and Ice Age animals, such as rhinoceros, bear, mammoth and lion along with flint tools.
The Celts lived in or near the caves, 135 miles west of London, for more than 600 years and used part of them as a burial chamber.
Today, horseshoe bats hibernate in the caves during the winter and sleep there at other times of the year. Insects such as moths and mosquitoes spend their winters in the caves and are food for the only creature that lives there all the year round—the cave spider.
Health and environmental strategies are in place to protect the cheeses from the critters as they age.
The witch of Wookey is reputed to have lived in the caves with some goats and a dog sometime in the 10th or 11th centuries. The local people believed she cast spells and caused misfortune and everything that went wrong in the nearby village was blamed on her.
Legend has it the then Abbot of Glastonbury sent a monk to exorcise the witch’s spirit. He entered the cave armed only with a Bible and a candle.
He tried to talk to her, but, screaming curses and casting spells, she fled deeper underground. The monk scooped up a handful of water from the river, blessed it and threw it over the witch who instantly turned to stone. Her frozen figure remains in a cavern known as “The Witch’s Kitchen” to this day.
The story was given some credence in 1912 when archaeologist Herbert Balch found the almost complete skeleton of an old woman, the remains of some goats, a dagger, some household items and a polished alabaster ball. Be that as it may, for the ancient peoples the caves were a safe and even comfortable place to live. They were dry, easy to defend, warm in winter and cool in summer.
Ford Farm director Mike Pullin says the caves’ climate makes them the perfect place for aging goat milk cheese.
“We have been maturing our cow milk cheddar in the caves since 2006 and have perfected the art of leaving the cheese just long enough to take on the highly distinctive earthy, nutty flavor of the caves.”
The caves can hold up to 500 whole 59.5 lb. truckles (cylindrical wheels) of cheese at a time in a cavern running close to the public walkway, behind a large barred cellar door, allowing the public to see the cheese as it ages.
The cheese is wrapped in a cloth and coated in lard to protect it—the way it was done before vacuum-packing machines sealed the cheese in plastic bags.
The cheese takes some of its flavor from the production process and some from the surroundings in which it is stored so it picks up a distinct flavor from the cave. The high humidity stops the cheese from losing too much weight during aging.
The mold cave visitors see on the cheese is on the cloth that protects it.
Before the cheese is packed, the cloth is removed and the mold is gone.
Ford Farm began making its Billie’s Goat Cheddar brand back in 2008 and added a Billie Smokey Goat to the mix three years later.
Pullin said the company decided to begin making goat cheeses because a lot of cheeses now offered in the UK have quite a strong flavor.
“We wanted to develop a cheese that was more subtle, designed to appeal to those who haven’t yet bought into the category or are early adopters,” he said. “Our goat cheese is firm and open textured with a mild goat flavor.
It has a variety of uses. It works well on the cheese board as well as an ingredient for a variety of recipes and a toast topper.
“There has been an increasing trend towards goat cheese in the UK due to the rise of cow milk allergies.”
The Smokey Goat variety last year picked up a highly commended award at the International Cheese Awards in Nantwich in Cheshire.
Despite its name, Ford Farm has no livestock. Owned by parent company AJ & RG Barber Ltd., but operating independently, it has 64 employees and a 50,000-sq.-ft. plant located on the Ashley Chase Estate in West Dorset.
It gets its cow milk from nine local farms, while the goat milk is supplied by Bromes Farm, 43 miles away in Taunton, which has a herd of 1,200 Toggenburg and Saanen goats.
Pullin said Bromes Farm is able to supply his dairy with milk all year round and the company has no plans to run its own flock of dairy goats.
“Ford Farm’s specialism is cheesemaking rather than dairy farming,” he said. “We leave the development of high-quality milk to our expert and loyal dairy farmer partners.”
Ford Farm has the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin for its cow milk cheddar which means its milk can only be sourced from farms in Dorset—and other manufacturers elsewhere cannot claim to produce West Country cheddars.
“We only make one variety of goat cheese, which is made in the style of cheddar, the curds undergo the process of ‘cheddaring’,” Pullin said. “We make our goat cheese in both block and traditional (trad) formats.
“The ‘trads’ are pressed into the 27-kg (59.5 lb.) truckles and taken to the Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset for maturing as well as into our own cave which we have built on site here at Ford Farm.”
Only the ‘trads’ are matured in the caves. The block goat cheddar, in both the original and smoked varieties, is aged in stores at Ford Farm.
“We mature the cheeses in the caves for anywhere between six and 12 months,” Pullin said.
The cave-aged goat cheeses cost more. “We have to charge a premium for cave-aged cheddars as there is a great deal of labor involved in getting the cheese in and out of the caves,” Pullin said. “It all has to be transported by hand.”
The cave-aged goat cheddar is sold as a branded product by the 3,140-store Tesco super market chain, while the Billie’s Smokey Goat cheese is available through rival chain Sainsbury’s 1,100 outlets and original Billie’s is widely available through independents.
Pullin said the Billie’s Goat Cheddar also is exported to the United States.
Wookey Hole Cave is a major tourist attraction, although the area where the cheeses are aged is not open to the public.
A sales outlet at the caves does a roaring trade for Wookey Hole Cave Aged Cheddar and Pullin said the company plans to begin selling the Cave Aged Goat cheese this summer.
Ford Farm has a highly skilled team of cheese makers led by Martin Crabb.
“They employ traditional cheesemaking techniques using tried and trusted recipes and making all of the cheese by hand including the turning of the curds,” Pullin said.
“Their ability to create a product which is of a consistently high quality and texture is widely recognized by the UK cheese cognoscenti.”
The company made 55 tons of goat cheese last year and this year’s target is 88 tons.
Consumer reaction to the caveaged goat cheeses has been really positive, Pullin said.
“We are extremely encouraged,” he said. “We knew we were onto a winner when we launched Billie’s back in 2008. Whenever we sample Billie’s at shows, it’s always extremely well received.”
There are no immediate plans to expand the company’s varieties of goat cheese, Pullin said.
“We want to concentrate on perfecting our skills with our current varieties before we turn our hands to anything else.”