How a Yorkshire cheesemaker created the county's first artisanal brie
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 July 2017
Yorkshire Fine Cheese is based just outside of Huddersfield
Words by Jo Haywood
Photographs by Andy Bulmer
Everybody needs good neighbours, especially if you happen to be a brie-maker living within mooing distance of 300 Meuse-Rhine-Issel cattle.
The entente cordiale between Danny Lockwood of Yorkshire Fine Cheese on the outskirts of Shelley and Gordon Dearnley’s herd of pure bred Dutch-French cows at nearby Bark House Farm resulted in the county’s first brie, Barncliffe, named after the converted mill it’s made in and, though the man in charge is too modest to say so, a deeply delicious addition to the region’s already abundant cheese board.
But like any really good cheese, the idea took a long time to ripen, bubbling quietly away at the back of Danny’s mind while he raised a family with his wife, Carole, and enjoyed several successful careers, first as a textile colourist in Dewsbury, then as co-owner of a small quiche-making business and, later, a sandwich bar and corporate catering operation in Elland.
‘When I was younger, I dreamed of making my own ice cream,’ he explained. ‘Carole and I thought it’d be a nice little business for us, but then we had a family and I couldn’t leave the security of what you might call my proper job.
‘Then, when I hit my fifties, I started to look for something new. I’d left it too late for ice cream – everyone was doing it by then – so I started looking further along the dairy chain at cheese.’
So, he did a few courses, spoke to established cheesemakers and discovered that no one was making brie in Yorkshire.
‘Now I know why,’ said Danny, with a wry smile. ‘It’s a really complex cheese, and definitely not one a first-timer should tackle. In fact, I reckon you should be a cheesemaker for about 30 years before moving into brie. Thankfully, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for and just got on with it.’
Brie is a tricky combination of soft and hard cheese. It has to be silky and creamy but still able to hold its shape. It’s also got to be ripe and lightly crusted on the outside, while remaining velvety smooth on the inside. The key, as with any great dairy produce, is sourcing the right milk.
Luckily, Gordon Dearnley and his 300-strong herd are half a mile away (‘you can see the see them from here on a good day’). The Meuse-Rhine-Issel breed, named after the three rivers that form a triangle around their traditional French home, produce ideal cheese-making milk, with high levels of the protein kappa-casein to give it an extra rich creaminess.
‘The flavour comes from the ripening process, but it all starts with the milk,’ said Danny. ‘Our brie is creamier than most, and the colour is very distinctive; a lovely deep yellow. It’s all about the cream from Gordon’s cows – it’s a different colour to anything else you’ll see. It’s partly the cows’ French heritage and partly the Yorkshire grazing. It just produces a naturally richer brie.’
Danny collects the milk six days a week and transports it in a churn a short way across the deep West Yorkshire valley to his small dairy unit at Barncliffe Mill. He then gently stirs the ingredients together by hand until the curd is ready to cut. It’s then poured into individual mould and left to slowly ripen in a special temperature and humidity-controlled room with a filtered fresh air system designed to mimic the conditions in original French cheese cellars.
The result is a creamy, smooth brie with a light white outer crust and rich golden centre. But, as you might imagine, the process didn’t always go according to plan in the beginning.
‘To be honest, my learning curve was very steep and I spent most of the first few months experimenting,’ said Danny. ‘It takes about 12 days to make a cheese and a further six weeks or so before it’s ready to taste, so you can make a lot of cheese before you even realise there’s a problem.’
He had trained as a general cheesemaker and, initially, didn’t quite grasp the scientific alchemy of creating the perfect brie.
‘Some of our first cheeses tasted great but had a strange bubbling and rippling on the surface that I knew customers wouldn’t like,’ he said. ‘So, I decided to ask an expert trouble-shooter for help.’
Danny signed up for a course at the School of Artisan Food in Nottingham with world-renowned French cheesemaker Ivan Larcher, who taught him the intricacies of the process, the science of acidity-regulation and the importance of temperature and humidity control.
Once he’d mastered the process, Danny approached a couple of local farm shops, who stocked his Barncliffe Brie after a single tasting. They were the only two sales calls he’s ever had to make. The local media did his PR and marketing for him – ‘as soon as they realised there was some fool in Shelley making brie, they all came knocking at our door’ – and a wholesaler now handles clients outside the West Yorkshire valley.
‘My problem isn’t selling it; it’s making enough for the people who want to buy it,’ said Danny.
He makes about 120 kilos a week (sold in one kilo or 200g rounds), which equates to about 50 hours work over six days. October to December is a particularly frenzied time in the dairy unit as people stock up for Christmas, but there is rarely a quiet day at any time of the year.
‘It would be nice to have another pair of hands occasionally, but I haven’t got the patience to train anyone,’ said Danny. ‘And, anyway, most of the time me and Carole can manage.
‘If I was 10 years younger, I’d probably be looking to expand and take on some staff, but I’m 62 and, frankly, I’d like to live my life. Demand is definitely there for the product, but I’m happy with my lot.’
And at the end of a busy week, when he’s been elbow deep in curds for up to 10 hours a day, is he still happy to eat a lot of brie, or does he hanker after something harder and sharper, like a nice crunchy cheddar.
‘Daft as it sounds, I still love brie,’ he said. ‘I make it and eat it and never get fed up of it. I like it with figs or pears – that works a treat. Or we might bake it with a bit of garlic and thyme and use some good bruschetta for dipping.
‘You’d think I’d be sick of the sight of it by now, but it still feels like a real treat.’
To find out more about Barncliffe Brie made by Yorkshire Fine Cheese, call 01484 607 257 or visit yorkshirefinecheese.co.uk