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Blessed are the cheesemakers

Jayne Robinson meets the Kirkhams and says whey to go...

Published on September 2nd 2010.

NOW a favourite amongst chefs and cheese connoisseurs, Mrs Kirkham's Tasty Lancashire has come a long way since Ruth Kirkham and her husband John separated their first curds and whey over 30 years ago.

"I was dragged to Manchester kicking and screaming – because I'd never been there in my life. I came straight out of the dairy in my apron and wellies!

The cheese that we see today at Liverpool Farmer's Market – and on the shelves of countless upmarket supermarkets and fine food delis – is the result of decades of hard work and investment by the Kirkham Family. And of course, their 80-strong herd of beautiful Holstein Fresian cows at Beesley farm in the Lancashire village of Goosnargh.

As Ruth's son, Graham, is keen to point out, the cows are more Fresian than Holstein, bred for their quality of milk which is high in protein and butter fats. "That's the style of milk that makes our cheese like it is," he says. "It's the same old story; if you've got fantastic ingredients you'll get a great product. Our cows don't produce the most milk in this country, but they'll produce amazing quality milk."

Graham Kirkham got involved in the family business in 1993 and has worked relentlessly to build the brand by taking the cheese out to various farmers markets and food events all over the UK – and even as far as Europe and Canada. In 2008 the work paid off, and Graham was able to build a brand new, million pound dairy at Beesley Farm, where he's now able to produce 20 cheeses a day.

Although Graham's mother, Ruth, has hung up her full time dairy apron, she still oversees the business and lives on site at the farm. "Oh aye, she still likes to stick her nose in!" jokes Graham.

The dairy is still very much a family business, with Graham steering the ship. His 15-year-old son Mike helps out by working in the dairy, while 'tractor mad' 18-year-old son Sean helps on the farm. Honorary Kirkham, Fiona, also works hard on all aspects of the cheese's production.

The day starts early at Beesley Farm, with the cows being milked at 7am. And despite the farm itself being an idyllic Hardy-esque vision of traditional dairy production, the milking parlour at Mrs Kirkham's Dairy boasts state-of-the-art facilities.

The cows are milked at night and in the morning, with the two batches of milk being combined in the morning and pumped into a vat where it's treated with cultures to set the milk and separate the creamy, cheesy curds from the watery, milky whey (the whey is used to feed the young livestock). The curds are then hand cut with curd knives, the whey drained off and the curd stored for the night.

Something which the Kirkhams do differently, adding to the cheese's distinctive flavours, is to mix the previous day's curd with half of the fresh day's curd. It's a traditional technique, with the acid which develops in the curds overnight giving the cheese its sharp flavour.

The mixed curds are then salted, put into moulds and pressed overnight.

The next day, the cheese is knocked out of the mould, wrapped in cloth and dated. It's then placed on shelves and dried out for a couple of days, before being coated in butter to seal the outside.

Buttering in the traditional way rather than waxing the cheese as many modern producers do, is something that sets Mrs Kirkham's dairy apart.

"Most people wax, but we've gone full circle," says Graham. "They would have buttered years ago – it was either butter or lard, whatever they had in the farmhouse to seal the outside. It means that the cheese can breath and develop a rind, and allows them to lose some moisture so they mature a lot better. If whatever they're trapped in holds in moisture, they won't age very well."

By this point in the process, the cheese has already been on a four to five day journey from the cow's udder to the storage shelves. It's a process which takes patience and a seven day a week commitment to keeping the cycle running smoothly.

After they've been buttered, the cheeses are taken through to the warehouse where they're stored on shelves and matured for anything from four weeks to six months, being turned once every two weeks to keep the moisture running through them.

The length of time that the cheese is left to mature is what determines the strength of its flavour. From a four-to-five week mild and creamy Lancashire to a really mature six-month-old cheese, Graham hand selects and sells a variety of strengths.

It was Graham who, 11 years ago, first (albeit unwillingly) took Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire cheese to a farmers' market.

"I was absolutely clueless," says Graham, recalling how he first started on the market. "I was dragged kicking and screaming – because I'd never been there in my life. I came straight out of the dairy in my apron and wellies!

"In them days it was absolutely phenomenal. If you weren't set up by eight o'clock you were in trouble, because there were just hordes of people. By one o'clock we'd sold out. It was unbelievable and I just thought 'this is the future, this is where we want to be going'."

Since then, Graham has been a regular on the farmers' market and food festival circuit in Liverpool and the North West. The cheese is also stocked in Waitrose, Booths, Neals Yard, countless delis, and is used by many chefs at high-end restaurants.

With the company doing so well, it might be tempting for Graham to give up the markets and focus on the wholesale aspect of the business. But he's adamant that the markets are a vital aspect of Mrs Kirkham's success.

“It's very important for us," he says. "It's very good to listen to what people are saying about the cheese. And if you find that your cheese is flying off the counter on a market then it's doing that all over the country because it's really on form.

“But if you see them thinking 'I'll just have a little bit today' or 'I'll leave it 'til next time' you think 'hmm what's wrong there', and it makes you look at what you're doing. It's a very useful tool."

It's clear that Graham's passion for his cheese is a big part of what makes the market aspect of the business so successful. “You need to be really involved to be able to go out there and do it – because you've got to be able to talk about it. You've got to be the genuine article."

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CheesySeptember 2nd 2010.

I didn't know you curd.

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