Standing at the door of the dairy on a farm in the peaceful Surrey Hills, John Brown is offering tasters.
‘The cheese you’re eating has travelled less than one food mile. Now that’s really local.’
It’s a far cry from his previous line of work. A chemical engineer turned eco-construction expert, John is now owner and cheese-maker-in-chief at Cheese On The Wey.
He says everything he’s learned in a lifetime of work still comes in handy.
‘I took over a barn that was used for storing beer. Things you can get away with in a brewery like dust, a few cobwebs and a bit of mould, would be disaster for cheese. So the dairy is a full conversion. I had to set up equipment and storage from scratch.’
The dairy is tucked away down a narrow winding lane in the village of Frensham. King Alfred’s Way, a 350 mile walking and cycling track, runs right past the window and the peaceful River Wey is a short stroll away.
The surroundings are idyllic, but a cheesemaker’s days are long.
Time and cheese wait for no man
‘Working in the construction industry I’m used to early starts and late finishes. Making a single batch of cheese can take around six hours and some cheses can take a good 14 or 15 hours. They say that making cheese is really just a cleaning job, at the end of which you get a bit of cheese!’
It’s true. The slightest change in bacteria can alter the taste. Get the temperature of the milk wrong and you have to throw it away and start all over again.
And as cleanliness is next to cheesiness, we’re dressed in style for our visit – white wellies, blue hairnets and clean aprons.
As we discovered on our visit to Ellena and her delightful goats at Chillies Farm, a cheesemaker’s life is ruled by time.
Our conversation and tastings are punctuated by beeping alarms and flurries of activity.
Making sure the milk is at the right temperature for pasteurisation, stirring for just the right length of time.
Adding ingredients, washing the moulds, removing the curds and draining off the whey are all done to a strict timetable.
It’s a big commitment. But, like many artisan projects, Cheese On the Wey started as a hobby.
‘My partner bought me a cheese-making day as a present and I had a wonderful time. I came home and read up everything I could and started experimenting with cheese recipes in my own kitchen. Friends came round, liked what I did and it just grew from there.’
John started with a 100 litre vat but soon expanded to a 300 litre tank.
‘Ebay has been my friend, especially during lockdown. So much can be bought second-hand. You have to be patient to get exactly what you want, but most of the dairy’s been set up with re-used equipment.’
On the Wey’s cheeses
There are only so many ways you can make cheese. But there’s so much that can alter the final outcome – the milk, the type of rennet used, the amount of carefully controlled yeast and cultures. Whether it’s going to be a soft cheese or firm. A rind or no rind. To wash or not to wash.
The options are endless and each alteration makes a subtly different cheese.
And then there’s that indefinable certain sort of something – what wine-makers call terroir – that makes a cheese unique.
As a small dairy John concentrates on producing a few, consistent types of cheese.
‘I have around 8 core cheeses ranging from mild and creamy to stronger varieties. And I love experimenting to produce something a little different. For example for our washed rind cheese Weywood we started by using beer from Craft Brews, the excellent micro-brewery here at Pierrepont. When we realised that people with a severe gluten-allergy couldn’t eat it, I had a chat with their brewer and we switched to cider. Perfect.’
What makes Cheese On the Wey different?
The starting point is the milk which comes from the herd of 140 Jersey cows grazing the fields of Pierrepont Farm, a 200 acre farm run by the Countryside Restoration Trust
John says when he was starting out experts told him that cheese from Jerseys was not a good idea.
‘In some ways they are right. Jersey milk is very rich and creamy with about 30% more fat than other milks so it isn’t the easiest to work with. But my Weywood just took gold in the national virtual cheese awards and I have two other silver award cheeses, so I’m doing something right!’
Another unique aspect is the fact that everything is truly local. Blackfriars is an alpine style cheese coated with grape pips and skins from the nearby Greyfriars vineyard. Alfred’s Yellow Jersey (a nod to the historic cycle way) is a dutch style cheese flavoured with fenugreek.
And so to taste those cheeses
Although Cheese On The Wey uses vegetarian rennet for all their cheeses, my cow’s milk allergy left me watching from the sidelines. These tasting notes are all Pork Belly’s thoughts.
Every cheese has its own distinct character and have names that have something to do with the dairy, the area, John’s family or the farm.
The Colwey is a fresh and creamy young cheese with a slight citrus tang which goes well with fruit and nuts. It has a short shelf life, around 5 weeks, but let it mature and you’ll get something similar to a Wensleydale.
Millie is a medium hard cheese with a buttery taste, rather like Caerphilly. But John also gave Pork Belly a taste of one that had been left to mature a whole lot longer. It was much closer to a good strong cheddar and left Pork Belly asking for more!
Blue Millie. A firmer cheese with varying degrees of blue, depending on its maturity. As John ruefully remarks, ‘All cheeses want to be blue cheese. The trick is stopping them from doing it!’
Pork Belly’s thoughts? ‘Not as sharp as Stilton. Not as salty as Roquefort.’
And John’s found that Blue Millie is popular with people who don’t usually like blue cheese.
Weywood. This is the gold award-winning cheese with the cider-washed rind. A lovely pinky-golden colour with a distinct twang. You can eat it young or let it mature for a rounder, fuller flavour.
Guess which one Pork Belly went for – he likes things that mature well!
Cheese On The Wey – staying local
John has plans to expand slowly and steadily with a bigger cheese storage area but it’s clear his focus is on quality not quantity.
‘I make Surrey cheese for Surrey people!’
So if you’re ever over Frensham way, drop in for a cheese tasting session in peaceful surroundings.
More information about Cheese On The Wey
You can find Cheese On The Wey at Surrey markets including Ripley and they do have plans to move to online sales soon.
They open their dairy to passing trade every Saturday and whenever they’re making a batch (and you can watch the cheese being made). Just ring the bell.
Cheese On The Wey website
The final verdict?
Pork Belly kept returning again and again to the extra mature Millie.
He’s still raving about it!
All photographs copyright ©rosemaryandporkbelly
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