This week we're hopping back across The Channel and up towards the Leicestershire/Warwickshire border, home to Sparkenhoe Farm and one of the most recent arrivals on our counter: Sparkenhoe Red Leicester.
After a 50 year absence, the decision to reintroduce a raw-milk Red Leicester to the UK and bring cheesemaking back to their farm marked a remarkable turnaround for third-generation farmers David and Jo Clarke. Years of picketing for milk prices had left David looking for a more sustainable future for their 160-strong herd of pedigree Holstein-Friesian cows. The Clarkes are the only farmhouse Red Leicester producers to use unpasteurised milk. As such, they are able to showcase a raw ingredient that speaks of a pasture brimming with a diverse, rich flora of perennial rye, clover, dandelions and herbs.
Their raw-milk recipe harks back to that previously made on the farm from 1745 through to 1875. The morning's milk reaches the dairy at 4am and is combined with a small amount from the previous make. Vibrant annatto is then added - a Latin American spice became that became popular in British cheese-making in the 18th Century and lends Red Leicester its distinctive hue. Once a natural animal rennet is stirred in and the milk set, a peg mill is used to break the curds down into pea sized chunks. After pressing into traditional flat moulds, the cheese is bound in cloth and lard. For David, the intrinsic complexity and sociability of this recipe made a welcome change from the more isolated work of solely focusing on milk production.
Though Red Leicester can be aged up to and over 18 months, the cheese reaches our counters at around 7-8 months. Our current batch has a typically long, mellow flavour that carries a distinctive warmth and nuttiness with orange-y citrus giving way to gentle spice. The cheese is available online, at our Lordship Lane site and next weekend - June 6th - at Brockley market.
Since our visit in October last year, a lot has changed for the Clarkes and Sparkenhoe Farm. Speaking to Jo this week, the closure of restaurants and shops has seen their sales drop by nearly half and a dry Spring has made the in-house production of their feed all the more challenging. Still, the cows - distinctly nonplussed by COVID-19 - continue to be milked daily and the longer shelf life of the Red Leicester has seen the family channel the milk into its production. Going forward, supporting the hard work of independent producers such as the Clarkes can be a crucial difference-maker.