As a cheese lover, I was delighted to be invited to Barwheys Dairy in Ayrshire to learn how the award winning Barwheys cheese is made. Each week, owner and cheese maker, Tricia Bey along with her small team make no more than 45 truckles of the hard Ayrshire cheese, using milk from the Dairy’s own special herd of pedigree Ayrshire cows.
Tricia’s skills in cheesemaking were quickly recognised and within two years of production starting Barwheys Cheese was an award winning cheese with Golds at the 2012 at the Royal Highland Show and the Prestigious British Cheese Awards. Success continued in 2013 with another Gold and the award for Best Speciality Cheese Made in Scotland at the Royal Highland Show.
Unlike many commercial brands of cheddar, Barwheys Cheese is truly a handmade cheese and it was a fascinating experience to be a part of the cheese making process at every stage. Cheese making is a craft with many factors affecting the the process and throughout the day I was enthralled watching Tricia work. It was clear that despite the scientific elements involved, such as temperatures and acidity, Tricia’s experienced hands and intuition played an enormous part in bringing the milk to the stage that would go on to make this high quality cheese.
Like all cheese making the process starts with milk and at Barwheys, the milk is delivered directly into the dairy from Tricia’s herd of Ayrshire cows. Milk from the Ayrshire cattle breed is known for it’s superior creamy rich quality, making it ideal for cheese making, resulting in the long complex flavour and creamy texture of Barwheys cheese. Of course, there are natural fluctuations in the volume of milk available from the herd and Summer milk differs in quality to Winter milk. During the Summer months the cows graze outside on the lush grass in the countryside around the dairy and in Winter that changes as they are housed and fed indoors.
Barwheys Cheese is unpasteurised and with the milk delivered, Tricia got straight to work, heating the milk and adding the starter culture, to start the production of lactic acid in the milk. The acid is needed to create the conditions required for the addition of the rennet enzyme at the next stage. Although I had a very basic understanding of cheese making I had little idea of how important the acidity would prove to be in final cheese.
Rewinding from the start of the cheese making process, my first task of the day was to help bandage the cheese that had been made two days earlier. These had been in the cheese press and it was time for the next stage, bandaging in traditional cotton cheesecloth. After a quick but informative lesson from No 2 Cheese maker Alison, and under her watchful eye,I managed to successfully bandaged a few of the large truckles. From there, the cheeses are transferred to the store where they are looked after by colleague Angus during the ripening process. The truckles mature on wooden shelves for between 12 and 18 months, before being sent out to hotels, restaurants , specialist cheese shops and delicatessens throughout the country. A small number of truckles are matured for longer and produce the the wonderfully complex Barwheys Beastie which is usually destined for Burns Suppers throughout Scotland and beyond.
With the starter process well underway, Tricia moved onto the next stage of adding the rennet to the warm milk. Even with my basic knowledge of cheese making, this is a fascinating stage of the process to watch as the rennet acts on the milk to form the curds. As well as being responsible for the coagulation of the curds during the early stages, the enzyme in the rennet also has a direct effect on the changes in the texture of the curd and the flavour, both during the manufacture and storage of the cheese. The change from milk to curds starts to happen quite quickly and it was during that stage of watching and listening to Tricia that her intuitive skills as a Cheese maker were so apparent.
Despite the use of a thermometer and an acidity meter, I could instinctively see that I was watching a true craftswoman at work. Yes, the science was important but so was the experience of the Cheese maker, hands on, the touching and watching the milk and curds during the process. The rate and action of the rennet is controlled by rate of the acidity and the temperatures achieved during these early stages. Acidity will also contribute to the flavour of the finished cheese. I could see that this was not a definitive process. The recipe was the same, the milk was from the same herd, Tricia was making cheese in the way she always did, but the acidity levels were developing slowly that day.
There could have been numerous explanations for this, possibly even the presence of a stranger in the room. I knew from my own breadmaking experience different environmental factors, even the weather, can have an influence on the alchemy of proving and making bread. Cheese making was proving that it could be just as tricky.
Regardless of how fast or slow the curds progress, the processes involved in making the cheese follows a set order. Once the curd had set, it was onto the next stage of ‘Cutting’. The cutting at Barwheys Dairy is really the only mechanical part of the process and two very sharp cheese blades make short work of the task. The cutting separates the whey from the curds and this is followed by ‘Scalding and Stirring’. Every stage is important to the process and temperature and acidity levels are continually monitored as this will determine the final moisture content of the cheese. Scalding involves gently heating the curds and whey until the final temperature is reached and while this can affect the acid level, with the finished cheese in mind, it also allows the Cheese maker to control the acid development.
Discussions between Tricia and Alison about the acidity levels, relentless checking of the curds, and their highly skilled experience of previous cheese making sessions, led to the next stage, ‘whey off’, separating the curds and whey. The nutritious whey is not wasted. It goes full circle and is returned to the farm as feed for the cows.
The next stage, is known as ‘cheddaring’, the curd is piled into blocks on each side of the vat and cut into blocks. For the next few hours the the curd is turned and piled and this really was hands on and quite a strenuous task, but it made the term ‘handmade’ all the more real. It was interesting watching the changes in the curd texture as it changed to become more homogeneous. This was alchemy at it’s very best, but I was in no doubt that Tricia’s expert hands had ensured the curds safe progression to this point.
The continual turning and piling of the curds continued and as the texture changed and the correct acidity level was finally achieved. The large mats of curd had reached a rubbery consistency, almost like dough and the next stage was in sight. I should add, that at that point, I pledged to never eat a piece of Barwheys Cheese without saluting the incredible skill and effort of Tricia and her team as they produce this fantastic handmade cheese.
With the texture and the acidity level correct, the next stage of ‘milling and salting’ the cheddared curds began. The mats of curd were milled to the required size, salt was added and mixed through, again a task that is done by hand. The final stage had arrived and the salted curd was packed into large lined moulds to be pressed and shaped.
We were back at where we started, although the compressed curds would remain in the press for a day or so to form the cheese. Once removed, like the start of my day, the bandaging would take place and batch 129/13 will spend the next 12 months in the store maturing. The batch will be ready to go out for sale next Christmas, and I’m hoping it will be in a nearby cheese shop. Please watch out for it and if you’re fortunate enough to taste my batch, please let me know what you think. Meanwhile, if you’re planning a cheeseboard, then I recommend a nice piece of mature Barwheys Cheese.