Norbury Blue and Dirty Vicar Cheese.
Surrey only has one artisan cheese-maker but their delicious cheese is revered throughout the county. Highly regarded by farm shops, delis and featured on local menus its a product to be proud of.
Michaela Allam started making cheese from her dad’s milk in 2001. Travelling around farmers market to sell her cheese she met Neil a watercress grower and love bloomed over their love of local food. Neil decided that watercress was a lesser love so he married Michaela and her cheese-making prowess and moved to Surrey. Now they work together blissfully making batches of their delicious cheese. Norbury blue is a soft blue cheese with a big attitude. Made with unpasteurised milk from Michaela’s father’s closed herd of Friesian cattle this is artisan food production as it should be. I went to see them in production but sadly had to share the cheese shed with a film crew who were making an educational movie so Neil showed me the ropes while Michaela was transplanted onto the big screen.
First off Neil explained that their milk is a huge element of the provenance of their final product. The cows are grazed on the farms meadows and milked twice a day. They mix the morning and evening milking as the first milking is the most nutritious (this also changes in quality during the seasons, summer milk being of a higher quality than winter milk). The essential element here is a high percentage of buttermilk; it’s the richness of this that adds a creamy mouth-feel to the ripened cheese. Cleaning up on arrival, hairnets and plastic overshoes in place we went into the red brick dairy. In the centre, a huge cooling and heating tank holding 900 litres of milk. Deposited after the milking last night, chilled and allowed to settle. You can see a layer of buttermilk glistening on the surface. In preparation the milk has now been heated to around 30° the prime temperature for the addition of a bacterial culture.
Different cheeses have different bacteria added depending on what flavour and texture you want to achieve. Bacteria that like protein are used in soft cheese making (I studied this at university luckily) which ensure a creamy soft finish. The bacteria used here is also responsible for the blue mould growth that adds the distinctive flavour. After Neil had stirred in the culture the milk is left for just under an hour to allow the bacteria to do its magic here.
Hearing a commotion outside, Neil took me to see the cows being brought down for milking. These are lucky cows living in prime meadows and allowed free range. Norbury Farm is near Box Hill hidden away from the road and hard to find too. I arrived driving down a public footpath which Neil assured me was the only access road to the farm. Nestled at the bottom of the hill the red brick nineteenth century farmhouse and outbuildings create an idyllic environment from the weather vein on top to the lush green fields.
It was time to go back to the milk as at this stage, regular stirring has to take place which Neil has alerts set up on his mobile phone (how did we ever manage without them). Every ten minutes the milk is stirred with a charming pink spade and finally its time to add the vegetarian rennet. Rennet makes the curd and whey separate, as it’s the milk solids that make cheese. Milk has a high water content, which is why you need so much of it. Neil starts to pull a huge circular cheese wire through the solidifying milk. This helps release the whey which is collected into a drainage system and recycled to enrich the soil for winter feed production. The curds are obvious now and Neil used a large plastic jug to pour the sloppy mixture into the waiting moulds. The curds are left overnight then removed from the moulds and rubbed with salt. After salting the cheeses are taken to a holding room, warm and humid to encourage mould growth and then to a maturing room. The cheeses are ripened for 6-8 weeks, hand turned every couple of days after which they are dispatched for sale.
About four years ago Neil and Michaela added a new cheese to their portfolio. This took investment and planning for a new ripening room as its made with a different culture to Norbury Blue. They were struggling to find a name for their soft white cheese with a crumbly creamy texture and Camembert style rind. An incident in the local pub one night came to their rescue as a local vicar was leaving and a fellow drinker muttered under her breath “dirty vicar” a reference to the fact that he had remarried swiftly after the death of his first wife. They had been searching for a whimsical name after seeing the success of Stinking Bishop (a real cheese featured in a Wallace and Gromit movie) and this they decided immediately was it. It’s a lovely cheese with a charming story and great conversation piece for your cheeseboard.More recently Neil and Michaela have added a third cheese to their portfolio, Tipsy Vicar. This is Dirty Vicar that has been marinated in beer to give it a alcoholic glow and richer flavour profile. Its not available all the time but a lovely seasonal addition to their range.
You can buy Norbury Blue and Dirty Vicar cheese from many farm shops and delicatessens in Surrey and farther afield a full list of stockists can be found on their website.