Lye Cross Farm is the home of the Alvis family, prestigious cheese-makers who have been farming just a few miles from the village of Cheddar, in Somerset, since 1952. Three generations of the family have worked hard to build the company’s reputation and in 2009 Lye Cross Farm was awarded the gold prize for the ‘Best Mature Block Farmhouse Cheddar’ at the World Cheese Awards! I visited Lye Cross Farm to find out what went into producing such a celebrated cheese.
Before we did anything else, we washed our hands and donned protective clothing – a polythene overcoat, hair net (which had to cover our ears) and shoe covers, which doubled as shoe protectors in the damp environment. We began at the most logical point – the start of the process where the milk is delivered by tanker into four enormous silos. We inspected the pasteurisation equipment before proceeding to a high-ceilinged room, which seemed to me like something Wallace and Gromit would have been at home in – great vats and cooling tables, with pipes and valves in between, steam escaping from junctions and taps and all around the noise of a compressor, which I was to learn more about later.
Within the room, at the foot of each vat, was a wide stainless steel table. The whey had been drained from one of the silos onto the table below it and had had a mixture of enzymes added, to start the process of turning it into cheese. When we arrived, six men with paddles were busy at work, stirring and stirring the curds and whey for twenty minutes, until visible curds started to form. The men then continued to work by hand – mixing and mixing as the consistency of the milk thickened into something that looked like scrambled eggs. The substance was then divided onto each long side of the table, which allowed the liquid to escape to the middle, where it was drained away. All the way through the process, samples were taken and tested for temperature, liquid content and more. After a few minutes, the workers cut the mixture into blocks about a foot long and turned them over – releasing more liquid, the turning and stacking process called cheddaring is the traditional hand craft used to produce West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. This process was continued until the ‘cheese’ was more solid, after which it was milled, salt was added and mixed in before it was pushed to the end of the table.
The process continued as the lumpy cheese-like mixture was sucked up a pipe, which disappeared into the high ceiling above and came straight down again into a compressor. Here it emerged, looking very much like a huge block of proper cheese – though I’m told that at this stage it’s a rubbery, tasteless imitation of real cheddar. This compressing is the only automated part of the process. It helps to give the finished cheese a more creamy texture. In conventional, modern creameries the cheese has a lovely smooth texture but, without the hard work by hand, it lacks the authentic farmhouse flavour of Lye Cross cheese.
The large blocks are now wrapped in protective film and packed individually into wooden boxes, which have the date and vat number written on them – aiding full traceability. Each vat comprises about two tonnes; the relatively small quantity ensures that if a problem occurs, only a small vat is wasted. If at this stage the cheese it tested and found to be sour, or if there are any other concerns about quality, the vat is discarded. Each block is passed through a metal detector and samples are sent to an in-house lab to test for E coli and other undesirable contents. The company takes hygiene extremely seriously and have an excellent hygiene rating. The men on the production line wear heavy duty protective clothing, including white wellies, aprons, hair nets and even beard-nets, which cover their facial hair. I was impressed that even in the busy atmosphere, the highest standards of cleanliness and tidiness were observed.
We followed the boxed cheese, which had been packed onto pallets, as it made its way by forklift to an enormous chilled warehouse. Thousands of pallets rose around me; stacked high one on another, reaching up towards the ceilings far above me and as far ahead as the eye could see. I was stunned to learn that this vast warehouse was one of three, where an estimated three thousand tonnes of cheese are stored. The forklift truck disappeared into the depths of the warehouse – the corridors it travelled along being only just wide enough to allow it through.
Some cheese in here is tasted every single day by a long-serving tester with perfectly attuned taste buds. Each pallet contains a representative block that is used for testing (and is full of the holes made by the tester’s cheese iron). Grading and selection are key to the company’s success and although some pallets of the extra mature cheese have been in the warehouse for years, even the most mild cheddar can be housed here for four months. When the cheese is judged to be ready for consumption, it is removed from the warehouse, given a strength rating and sent for packing.
I followed Scott towards the production line, where more workers were busy cutting the huge blocks into smaller sizes, wrapping it and sticking on labels. For the first time I noticed the smell of real cheese – until now the cheese had either been immature and not very smelly or carefully packed away. Now it was being unleashed from it’s boxes and re-wrapped for a variety of retailers. I immediately recognised Sainsbury’s packaging and learnt that their organic range is in fact Lye Cross Farm cheese – making up 50% of the farm’s business. The company supplies Morrisons and various wholesale suppliers, as well as Mole Valley Farmers.
I quizzed Scott about the size of the company – I hadn’t expected it to be such a large-scale operation. Alvis Brothers employ 130 people on the farms, in the factory, in the farm shop and offices. In the year 2000, the dairy was upgraded and now works at 50% capacity. This means that if necessary, the company could double its output. It’s clear that there has been much investment in the business and it certainly seems to be paying off – it appears to be going from strength to strength. When asked about their hopes for the future, Scott said that they hoped the business would be sustainable for the fourth generation of the Alvis family. And although the premises wasn’t quite the quaint farmhouse I’d naively expected, it was very much farm-based, with the cows kept nearby among the beautifully lush fields.
With my tour at an end, I thanked Scott and wished him goodbye. I would have headed straight to my car but I was drawn like a magnet to the farm shop, which was busy with customers coming and going. Inside it was an Aladdin’s cave of locally produced goodies – everything from fruit and veg, hams and other cold meats to Lye Cross teas, cakes and chocolates. I was intrigued by the goose eggs on sale and beside them a sign giving the names of the geese and details of their antics! I was tempted enough to buy (apart from honey-laced cakes for my colleagues!) a handsome picnic of bread, ham and of course some Lye Cross mature cheddar – after seeing all that cheese it was impossible to come away without any!
Look out for Lye Cross Farmhouse Cheddar in the chiller cabinet at your local branch of Mole Valley Farmers. See our news section for details of the gold award won by Lye Cross Farm Cheese at the World Cheese Awards.