Cote of many colours
The East Midlands is synonymous with a certain style of blue cheese but one Lincolnshire dairy is challenging that notion. PATRICK McGUIGAN speaks to Cote Hill Farm, which makes a spectrum of acclaimed raw milk cheeses on the edge of Stilton country.
Launching a blue cheese on the doorstep of Stilton country doesn’t sound like the greatest of business plans. But that’s exactly what Lincolnshire-based Cote Hill Farm did in 2005 when dairy farmers Michael and Mary Davenport became so disenchanted with low milk prices that they decided to turn some of it into cheese.
Central to the whole venture was a cheese-making course at Reaseheath College with influential trainer Chris Ashby, who taught Michael how to make a blue cheese that was very different to the crumbly, spicy Stiltons being made across the county border in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.
Soft, mild and mellow, Ashby’s blue cheese recipe had more in common with Continentals, such as Gorgonzola Dolce or Cambozola – a style that, at the time, British cheesemakers had not explored in great depth. The Davenports also had the advantage of keeping their own herd and being committed to raw milk.
“Cote Hill Blue is quite distinct from Stilton with subtle blue notes and a squidgy texture,” says the couple’s son Joe Davenport, who now makes the cheese. “The feedback we get from customers at farmers’ markets is that it’s like a blue brie. My dad was always clear when he started that the cheese needed to offer something different to what was already out there.”
The move has paid off with Cote Hill Blue accounting for around two-thirds of the company’s sales today. Cote Hill White (a fresh cheese), Yellow (mild), Red (Alpine-style) and Lindum (washed rind) make up the other third. Around 2,000 litres of milk are used each week to make the blue cheese, which is produced in 1.2kg and 300g rounds with a natural grey rind.
Ashby’s recipe has been adopted by many cheesemakers who have attended her courses down the years, creating an entire generation of creamy British blues, each slightly different to the other as the producers tweak and evolve their approaches. Cote Hill Blue is softer, creamier and more consistent than when it was first launched, says Joe Davenport, who previously worked as a corrosion engineer, travelling the world installing systems to stop underground pipes from decomposing. He returned to help his parents with the business in 2011 and his brother Ross has also joined in recent years to help manage the farm.
The consistency of the cheese, which is still made with raw milk from the family’s 80-strong mixed herd of Friesian, Holstein and Red Poll cows, improved after Davenport attended two courses at the School of Artisan Food where he learned more about the science of cheesemaking.
“We used to use a recipe a bit like one you would use in a kitchen,” he says. “But now it’s more about taking the next step in the process when the milk is ready. It’s not about cutting the curd after 30 minutes because that’s what the recipe says, but doing it at say 28 minutes or 31 minutes because the pH has reached the right level. Those few minutes can make a massive difference in terms of how fast it drains and the amount of moisture in the final cheese.”
Consistency is relative, however. Cote Hill’s cheeses are still handmade, artisan products.
“I don’t think I’ll ever make two batches of cheese that are exactly the same, which is part of the appeal of an artisan cheese,” he says. “You get variation from the seasonality of the milk, but hopefully it’s now not too noticeable to the consumer.”
Some of Britain’s best specialist cheese shops certainly seem happy with Davenport’s labours, including Paxton & Whitfield in London, George Mewes in Scotland and the Courtyard Dairy in North Yorkshire. The company also a saw an increase in sales to the Lincolnshire Co-operative last year, partly because the retailer focused more on local suppliers. Sales across its 80-plus food stores grew by almost 7% last year, but its regional range, under the Love Local banner, jumped by 9%. Just as importantly, Cote Hill invested in new barcode printing equipment, which meant its products could be tracked in the Co-op’s ordering system.
“Stock is scanned when it arrives at the shops and the system knows when it has all been sold and automatically reorders,” says Davenport. “It wasn’t a huge investment, but it’s really paid dividends.”
The dairy expanded in 2011 with the help of a Rural Development grant, doubling capacity with a larger cheese room, as well as new maturation and packing areas. Much of that has now been filled thanks to a rise in sales across the board and the launch of new products such as the beer-washed Lindum and the sweet, nutty Cote Hill Red, which is aged for four months, but there is still space to grow.
“There’s no great plan to expand nationally or supply supermarkets,” he says. “We’re quite happy with our current scale and growing steadily in Lincolnshire and surrounding counties, plus specialist outlets.”
Perhaps taking on Stilton in its own back yard wasn’t such a bad idea after all.