Packing up their reasonably normal existences in London, Caroline and Will moved to a sixteenth-century farm in Somerset only five years ago. With no farming experience but a smattering of confidence, this duo has built a thriving dairy and cheese making business from an initial herd of just 33 goats.
We had a chat with the Atkinsons and found out about their connection to our featured supplier, James from Cabrito, their thoughts on the importance of supporting your local farmers and producers, and why they use raw unpasteurised milk…
ABOUT BEING CHEESEMAKERS
Tell us about yourselves – who you are, what you do?
Caroline and Will Atkinson; we run Hill Farm Dairy, milking goats and producing goat’s cheese from raw milk.
What are your backgrounds? Did you have any cheese making and farming experience prior to buying Hill Farm Dairy?
Caroline working in marketing before becoming a cheesemonger in New Zealand, Ireland and then London, where she worked for La Fromagerie and then Neal’s Yard Dairy. Will was a lawyer in London for 10 years. When we left London, Caroline made cheese with Mary Holbrook in Timsbury for a year, and Will continued as a lawyer in Bristol. No farming experience!
Can you tell us about your connection to James from Cabrito. – where did you meet, how many kid goats do you raise for him?
We met James by chance; some bakers who had a stand next to us on Taunton Farmers’ Market also had a stall at River Cottage in Axminster, where James worked. They gave him our number when he got talking about wanting a couple of goats for an acre of rough land he had. When I delivered the goats, I started chatting about the problem with the billies going to waste. James started taking all of our boys, and the rest is history as he starts to sell to Ocado and soon Waitrose!
Can you share your thoughts on the importance of shopping locally and supporting your farmers and producers?
For us, it’s about supporting a cheese that is made from milk produced on the farm. There are very few places where this is still done. Much as with wine, a raw milk cheese made on site strongly reflects the identity of the farm where it is produced, and this can’t be replicated anywhere else, even with exactly the same recipe. We can’t use the efficiencies of a large production line, or else we wouldn’t produce a cheese of the kind that we – as a result, our cheese has to be more expensive. We need people who care about what their food tastes like to support small producers like us, or else all food will become cheap and mass produced, with no differentiation. There is obviously a place for cheaper, more straightforward food; but life’s luxuries are important as well! Supporting small livestock farms, where the number of animals allows a high level of husbandry, and where extensive grazing allows the animals to live a free-range life, is also important.
ABOUT THE FARM
Tell us about Hill Farm Dairy – location, size, conservation practices?
Our farm is located in Stawley, Somerset, on the edge of Exmoor/Brendon Hills. There are 20 acres of pasture. Our conservation practices involve the preservation of permanent pasture, we do not use of pesticides, and our animals graze outside.
As you look at what you have achieved with the farm, what has been some of the challenges you’ve encountered – physical or managerial challenges, time management, space etc.?
A disastrous marriage of late builders and early goats meant lots of kids and full udders before the milking parlour had been finished. So, among other tribulations, we spent an uncomfortable first summer milking 33 goats by hand twice a day. Having come through that rather testing early period with our enthusiasm only marginally challenged, we suddenly found ourselves staring down at our first curd, somewhat dazed. Prodded into action by a falling pH, we began to ladle scoops of curd. At first it wobbled, then it drained and magically grew a geotrichum rind, and suddenly we had cheese on our hands. Even better – having gained approval from the Parish Council to call it Stawley (the name of our village) – we began to sell it. The work had paid off, the sun was high in our sky, we celebrated with flat cider, and life was better than ever.
And then the curd blew; and then the goats got squits; and then the rinds slipped; and then the parlour broke; and then we had too much milk, and then not enough, and then the tractor collapsed, and then the starters wouldn’t work, and so on, and so on; and then in our third full season and it seems like yesterday when we were dazed by that first curd.
We felt that we were beginning – emphasis there – to understand the cheese. Every week something (or someone) needs tweaking and all the time we grapple with all the variables to achieve consistency in the cheese. The butterfats went through the roof in our third year, the dairy was overflowing with cheese, and we didn’t have enough moulds or vats or hours in the day. But then the texture was lovely and fluffy, which it hadn’t been before, and that seemed to go down well.
The past few years have seen plenty of testing moments, but there’s a terrific sense of accomplishment when you get something right. And then there’s the rest of the life we’ve moved to: a river that doesn’t have shopping trolleys in it; walks that disturb a red deer or a kingfisher; the complete silence and darkness outside the back door at the end of the evening; new friends; and, of course, the cider that comes out of the bathroom taps in Somerset.
ABOUT THE GOATS AND THE CHEESE
What British goat breeds do you raise? Why did you choose these breeds?
Anglo-Nubian, British Toggenburg, British Saanen. The three main British dairy breeds; although we are reducing the number of Saanens, who produce volume milk, rather than milk high in butter fat.
Why do you choose to make your cheese from raw unpasteurised milk?
Unpasteurised milk is fundamental to the type of cheese we wanted to make; pasteurisation removes crucial flavours from the cheese.
What types of cheese do you make?
A soft, mould-ripened goat’s cheese; a hard goat’s cheese, natural rind; and fresh goat’s curd.
Can you briefly step us through your cheese making process?
Soft cheese: pre-ripen the milk with starter culture overnight; add rennet the next day; and then ladle by hand the following day into moulds, in which the cheese drains until ready to turn out. It’s then salted and matured in our ripening rooms, and is ready to eat after about 10 days.
The hard cheese is heated to a higher temperature, coagulates much quicker, and is moulded, drained and salted over a shorter period; however, it takes about 2 months to ripen.
Describe some of the ways you sell your cheese?
Most is sold through Neal’s Yard Dairy; they are the only place in the UK that has a serious affinage operation, which is crucial to the ongoing development/ripening of the cheese. Otherwise, we sell to our local shop; to Cheese & Wine in Wellington, Wiveliscombe Market, and Scarlett’s Garden. You can also find it on the pizzas at Tracebridge Sourdough pizza nights. We also sell to Country Cheeses in Devon, and Hanson Fine Foods in Cornwall.
What’s next for Hill Farm Dairy?
Just about getting to the model that we originally designed this year! So maybe a year or so of consolidation. Although we are experimenting with using our own starter culture, which is producing some stunning cheeses – so that’s the current project.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT HILL FARM DAIRY