Dave Holton and Tim Jarvis have drawn on Dave’s Aussie heritage for their ‘convict’ series of cheeses and their best-selling Graceburn feta-alike in a jar, says PATRICK McGUIGAN
They didn’t do gap years in the 19th century. The way most Brits got to Australia was in chains after committing what were often petty offences. People like poor old Edmund Tew, who was convicted of stealing cheese in 1829 and sentenced to seven years on the other side of the world.
It wouldn’t have been much consolation to the unlucky cheese pilferer, but his exile wasn’t completely in vain because nearly 200 years later Kent-based Blackwoods Cheese Co named a wrinkly rinded cows’ milk cheese after him.
The story makes more sense when you find out that cheesemaker Dave Holton is a native of Melbourne, who reversed Tew’s journey (without the chains), arriving in the UK in 2010.
“We found an ancestry website where you can search for convicts sent to Australia by the crime they committed,” he explains as he and British co-owner Tim Jarvis taste several experimental versions of the raw milk cheese in the company’s new dairy at Commonwork Organic Farm near Edenbridge. “We typed in ‘stealing cheese’ and lots of names came up that we liked and it went from there.”
The so-called ‘convict’ series also includes a super-fresh lactic cheese called William Heaps (a cheese thief from Lancaster), but Blackwoods is probably best known for Graceburn, which is named after a river in Holton’s home town. A raw cows’ milk feta-style cheese, it is marinated in olive and rapeseed oil with peppercorns, thyme and garlic, and is sold in glass jars.
Cheese in oil is a familiar sight in Australia – Holton spent several years at a dairy in the Yarra Valley making a similar product before he came to the UK – but it still raises eyebrows at Blackwood’s stalls at Borough and Brockley Markets.
“We get people saying, ’What the hell is that? Some kind of pickle?’ But once you get them to try it, they understand it much better,” he says.
A very different product to the salty, sour plastic-wrapped feta you find in the supermarkets, Graceburn is a gentle milky cheese with a nice balance of aromatic notes from the marinade and a long salty kiss at the end. It’s certainly won over chefs, who buy it in bulk to use in salads, soups and as a starter with bread, but also on cheeseboards in little ramekins. Retailers such as Fortnums and Selfridges also appreciate its smart packaging and three-month chilled shelf-life.
Holton initially worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy when he came to the UK, maturing soft cheeses at the company’s Bermondsey HQ, and set up Blackwoods with two Australian friends as a side project. They started as urban cheesemakers with a unit in Brockley, South London, from where they would make three-hour round trips to collect organic milk from Commonwork. The two Aussie friends stepped back from day-to-day operations and fellow Neal’s Yarder Tim Jarvis joined the business, which soon developed to the point where more space was required.
A crowd-funding initiative to move to new premises at the farm was launched last year and with the help of a slick video and promises of cheese rewards for investment, they raised £14,000 and moved in last October. “We did a lot of stuff on social media to get the word out and we’ve found that it’s helped us in ways we weren’t expecting,” says Holton.
“We’ve had shops around the country getting in touch because they heard about the crowd-funding from their customers.”
Last year, the company produced four tonnes of cheese, but the move means Holton and Jarvis hope to double this in 2017, and plan to reach 20 tonnes in five years.
The new dairy has also helped build a better relationship with the farm, which has a 240-strong herd, giving the cheesemakers new insights into the milk. “We’re getting a better idea of how the lactation cycle and changes in diet affect the milk and the cheese,” says Holton. “It’s also allowed us to experiment more. We can walk over to the parlour and get 60 litres of milk in a few seconds. Before it took several hours.”
Which brings us back to the different styles of Edmund Tew we are taste-testing at the leafy Kent dairy. Blackwoods previously made these as simple geotrichum-rinded cheeses, but Neal’s Yard has also washed them in brine to create a Langres-style version. Now that the company has bedded in to its new home, Holton and Jarvis are keen to tweak the recipe further and start rind washing for themselves. The cheeses under scrutiny today have been made in different shapes and with varying levels of salt, rennet and starter. “I’m breaking my golden rule of only making one change at a time, but it’s interesting to see how much they differ with quite little tweaks,” says Holton.
The one that stands out has been made with a whey starter and a decent seasoning of salt, giving a smooth almost fluffy texture and a rounder flavour, which really shows off the subtleties of the raw milk.
“That’s a good one,” says Holton with a broad Australian twang, as he and Jarvis chew thoughtfully.
Maybe Edmund Tew’s cheese crimes were worth it after all.