Women have traditionally always been involved in cheesemaking. Famers wives and daughters were passed down cheese recipes and would control the dairy, making the butter, milking the cows and making the cheese. These women have inspired a new generation of quality, artisan cheesemakers and in celebration of their achievements we have explored the history and lives of three of Devon’s own women cheesemakers and the excellent cheeses they produce.
Mary Quicke is the 14th generation of the Quicke family working on Home Farm, Newton St Cyres. Managing the cheese business since 1987, Mary has become a leading voice on traditional cheese production and in 2017 launched the Academy of Cheese; a not for profit organisation promoting cheese knowledge for both the industry and the wider public. She has also applied her cheese expertise to judging at the World Cheese Awards, British Cheese Awards and the American Cheese Society Awards. It’s no surprise that her cheeses have been award winning themselves; Quicke’s Traditional Mature, a rich, complex cheese with flavours ranging from buttery caramel to sharp and grassy, won 2 stars at the Great Taste Awards earlier this year while Quicke’s Oak Smoked, a well balanced mature naturally smoked over oak chips for four hours, scooped Gold at this years Artisan Cheese Awards. A passion for creating beautiful cheeses and an undefinable link to the land her family have worked for generations makes Mary Quicke a woman to be reckoned with.
Curworthy Cheese was originally owned by Farmers Weekly, who were publishing a column on the everyday workings of dairy farming; on launch day Rachel Stephens was asked to help out as a ‘cheese cutter’. When it came time for the newspaper to sell the business, Rachel took a chance and moved the dairy to a purpose built creamery on her own farm a few miles away. For the first twenty years of production the milk used to make their cheeses came from their own herd, however it is now bought in ‘raw’ from local dairies and pasteurised themselves. As well as making the cheeses four days a week Rachel and the team also sell their cheese at various local markets and on a Tuesday this brings them to The Cheese Pantry, their small cheese shop in Hatherleigh market full of both their own cheeses and other locally made delights. A firm favourite of ours is their Devon Oke, made to a recipe dating back to the 17th century, it is mellow and creamy with buttery flavours and firm texture. In contrast to this classic recipe is the relatively new Dartmoor Chilli; made using Ring of Fire chillies from nearby Dartmoor Chilli Farm and encased in distinctive red wax it has a slight mellow sweetness which is in contrast with the hot chillies. Cheesemaking can be a tough, physically demanding job, the cheeses are heavy and at Curworthy they are regularly turned to ensure even maturation, however it must be incredibly rewarding making and selling handmade cheese to the public. The cheese industry is full of interesting people and Rachel is certainly one of them.
Cornish Yarg was first made by Alan Grey in 1984, the story goes that he found the original 17th century recipe in an attic which was then sold and eventually ended up in the hands of Catherine Mead who formed Lynher Dairies, the sole producer of Cornish Yarg in the world. Today, Catherine leads one of the most successful artisan cheese producers in the world and not only that, she is also investing in the future of cheesemaking. She has designed an apprenticeship in cheese-making with Duchy College and is Chair of Jamie Oliver’s charity Fifteen Cornwall – a project aimed at developing understanding of raw ingredients, the science behind food and the importance of locally sourced produce. Her cheeses have been multi-award winning; the original Yarg won Gold at the 2017 World Cheese Awards while the Garlic version won Silver at this years British Cheese Awards. The fresh, creaminess of Yarg is complimented by the subtle mushroom flavours imparted from the nettle leaves wrapped around the cheese. These nettles are harvested in Cornwall by a team of gloved pickers before being rinsed and steamed ready to be used for wrapping. The Garlic Yarg is made to the same recipe as the original and it is the nettles that impact so significantly on the different flavours. The wild garlic leaves impart a gentle garlic flavour and provide a slightly firmer texture than the original. Catherine has built up a thriving business from a traditional recipe, her cheeses are now world renowned and she is involved in training the next generation of cheesemakers, ensuring that the artisan cheese industry continues to survive.
These three women have risen to the top of their field and all have had an impact on the cheese industry, from experimenting with new flavours and methods, deciding the big cheese winners and inspiring the next generation. Their own cheeses are superb and we hope they will continue to be made for years to come.