Food by VICE

The Last Bite: Lancashire’s Only Surviving Raw Milk Cheesemakers

Most of the cheese sold in the UK is single curd but Mrs Kirkham’s make double curd: a blend of young “alive” curds and two-day old richer, nuttier curds. Combining the two matures the cheese and deepens the flavour.

by Gareth May
Aug 27 2016, 9:00pm

This story originally appeared on MUNCHIES UK on August 27.

Welcome back to The Last Bite, our new column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up? Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold. Today, we visit the only surviving raw milk cheese makers in Lancashire.

It's 3.30 on a Tuesday afternoon and I'm in a Lancashire dairy dressed like a Crime Scene Investigator. It's not a fetching look. My face is besieged with a hair and a beard net (the kind of makeshift balaclava someone with a fetish for stockings would wear) and the paper-thin disposable overalls I've got on are two sizes too small, riding up in the groin every time I take a step.

The things people do for cheese.

Not that Mrs Kirkham's is the usual served-with-crackers fare. Oh no. This cheese is a dying breed.

Mrs Kirkham's is the only surviving raw milk Lancashire cheesemakers in the UK. The chap who runs the show is Graham Kirkham—and cheese is in his DNA. Grandma Kirkham (the eponymous Mrs) made cheese way back in the 1930s. She finally retired in 1978, passing the cheese-shaped torch on to her daughter Ruth, who would later pass it on to her own offspring Graham.

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Inside the Mrs Kirkham's cheesemakers.

Most of the cheese sold in the UK is single curd but the cheese they make here is what's known as double curd: a blend of young "alive" curds and two-day old richer, nuttier curds. Combining the two types brings something unique to the party; maturing the cheese, deepening the flavour, and tenderising the texture. Kirkham says the process is similar to hanging meat.

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When I arrive, he's turning the day-old curds in a large, metal bath-style tub. The curds have set like a blancmange and as he cuts into them he frees up the whey, which drains off and out of the bath in streaky milky streams. Each time the scoop hits the base, there's a portentous thud and I should know better when I step in to get a feel for the workload. I last about five minutes before my arm goes limp. Kirkham must have biceps like cantaloupes and it takes all my self-reservation not to ask for a squeeze.

"We're trying to make it as old fashioned and as traditional as we can," he says in his cheerful Lancashire accent. "Bigger dairies have buttons and levers. We've just hands."

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Graham Kirkham turns the cheese curds.

Kirkham and his crew make 25 ten kilogram cheeses each day. Big dairies bang out thousands. And the work seems endless. Up since six, he'll be in the dairy for a few hours yet.

"It's got to be good if you stand behind your name," he says.

Kirkham's raw, unpasteurised milk comes from the dairy's own herd of Holstein Friesian cows, literally grazing just yards away. Cows have never had it this good. They're pretty much treated like celebrities. In the summer, they're outside munching on a diet of grass silage, oats, wheat, barley, maize, and the odd spoonful of treacle. In the winter, when inside, they have a huge bean bag-style bed to sleep on. I want to ask if they have Netflix.

But away from hands-on approach and bovines that could star on MTV Cribs, it's the double curd method that really sets Mrs Kirkham's apart.

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The herd of Holstein Friesian cows at Mrs Kirkham's.

As with so many other slow foods, the double-curd method isn't tasty by design; it's simply a by-product of practicality. Centuries ago, farms in the Beacon Fell area were traditionally small-scale, having only a limited number of cows on their land. Such un-commercial herds were unable to produce sufficient milk to make a whole ten kilogram cheese so—in the days of pre-refrigeration—the milk was preserved in the form of curds and stored after several days milking until there were enough curds to be blended in order to make a cheese. In fact, sometimes double curd was actually triple or quadruple-curd cheese.

So why isn't this method as common now as it was then?

Double curd cheese has a super a crumbly texture and because the pre-packaged food era of the 1980s onwards demands cheeses that are easier to slice, outside of artisan sellers, it's fallen from favour.

"Supermarkets have trained people to see foods in a certain way, in certain styles," Kirkham says. "Lancashire cheese is not how most people think it tastes."

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Not like this stuff that's for sure. This is the real deal. The taste goes on forever—and it develops with each second, from nutty to creamy to buttery. It's like a narrative unfolding in your mouth and the story's one you want to hear over and over again.

"The texture and flavour you get from the curds. They're living that's the thing," Kirkham says. "We've got big lingering flavours, that start quite slow, and then light up your mouth. A lot of cheeses are a big up front flavour, a big bang, but using raw milk, the way we make it, we trap the caseins and proteins, the slow-releasing flavours, keep them in the curds, and let them naturally do their thing. The sign of quality cheese is that."

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He's beaming. And I realise that this isn't just a dairy: it's a room in someone's house. It's the place where he first watched his grandma teach his mum how to mould cheese, where he let his kids play in the whey bathtub while he mopped up night after night. It's hours after dark working the curds, it's early starts, it's limited time with the family. And the whole time Kirkham must know he could do something else with his hands, throw the towel in, and go commercial. But as he says, when your name is on it …

"It's a way of life, not a job. I have two sons and sometimes I think, 'Do they want this burden?' But if I cut corners I can't say I'm making true Lancashire can I? I won't get that 'wow' flavour," he says. "I am the last unpasteurised raw milk cheesemaker doing Lancashire cheese. There's no one else. If I stop this, it's gone. Raw milk Lancashire is done. Dead. There's only us doing what we do."