Chat with Chris, Neneview Dairy, Northamptonshire

Tell us a bit about you

Chris in her dairy

In a former life, I was a teacher for 35 years. My main responsibilities as a team leader were for music and ICT, but being a primary school teacher, I taught everything.

I took early retirement because I wanted to take care of my mother who had Alzheimer’s. I come from a farming family, and our son was going in to farming and needed some more grassland. Some land where we are came up for sale, so we bought it. We knocked the house down; it was like walking back into the 60s, we touched the roof and it caved in, so we rebuilt it and added a single storey to care of my parents. Sadly, my father died shortly after we moved in, then my mother deteriorated to such an extent, we had to make the dreadful decision of putting her into a home.

The site we are on was so run down, someone said, ‘do you want some goats?’ We found three goats: Misty, Mo and Winston and we fell in love with them. We say it is all Winston’s fault! We realised we had to something with the milk and we thought about making cheese and came to see Iona and did a commercial cheese making course with her.

We are based in Northamptonshire which is synonymous with the shoe industry.

All of our cheese is pasteurised goat cheese. Our EHO won’t let us make an unpasteurised cheese, she is not aware that if we get the ph right, it will be safe anyway.

If not making cheese, I am really not sure what I would be doing, I don’t have time to think about that!

What do you make and why?

After going on the cheese making course, I continued making a bit on the kitchen table and then realised we needed to think of a way to expand. We had been to a farm diversification show and saw The Little Cheesery, with a 250 litre vat that makes approx. 25kgs at a time.

The Little Cheesery

I should explain, The Little Cheesery is a mobile dairy, in fact, it is a small, self-contained dairy with a vat, within a converted horse box, on a Williams trailer. When we bought it, we were recommended to get in touch with John Knox, who is a well-known dairy scientist and a former director of Kerrygold.

John came up and helped put together our first recipe, which is a cheddar style, called Cobblers Choice, which won a Silver at the Global Cheese Awards 2017. He also suggested that we make a goat version of a Red Leicester because he said there were no red goat cheeses around. I tried experimenting, making a blue, but these were our first basic cheeses to start with.

Once I got into it, and started to feel more confident, I started to experiment. I was determined that the blue I was making (which was initially not very good, it was too hard) was something I was going to perfect. I started to experiment more and I made a Double Gloucester style, which is called Skyver.

We have named most of our cheeses after the boot and shoe trade, to give our cheeses a Northamptonshire identity. Skyver, which won the Northamptonshire Food and Drinks Award new artisan product in 2015, is named after a ‘Skyver’ who has the job of reducing the cut edges of a shoe, so the shoe can be sewn together more neatly. The process to do this was much quicker than the Clickers’ work: people who cut the pattern of the shoe out, and use a tool that makes a clicking sound. Hence the term ‘skiver’, as they were hanging about waiting for the Clicker to do their bit, who worked more slowly.

I then developed a Wensleydale style of goat cheese called Togglers; a toggle is used to stretch the skins out to dry, by clipping the skins to a rack to dry out and a Toggler is a person whose job it is to do this.

I kept experimenting, and the types of cheese continued and I came back to the blue, which is modelled on a Shropshire Blue. It is semi soft and I am really pleased that it won a gold at the Global Cheese Awards 2017. Our blue cheese, Stanwick Blue is our best seller, I just can’t make enough of it; it is named after the area where we are based.

Later, a local brewer at Phipps Brewery asked us if we could make a goat cheese with him. We duly did and this won a bronze at the World Cheese Award in 2016. I called it Phipps Firkin, named after a beer barrel.

The range keeps growing, and our latest bit of new product development is called Firefly. It is a Wensleydale style goat cheese with chilli – we are making this because it is something our customers keep asking us for. We wanted to call it Firecracker, but that name is already taken, so we named it after our cat, Firefly! You can see our full product range here.

Some of Chris’s goats

We make entirely goat cheese, 100% of the milk from our own goat herd. We are currently milking around 40 goats and are slowly increasing the herd. We have just delivered 108 kids, more girls than boys, so at the moment, we have 150-200 goats on site.

Tell us about your dairy

Chris’s vat

We are a bit spread out because The Little Cheesery is next to the milking parlour to make it easier to pump the milk into. We have a maturing room at the other side of the parlour area which is an old refrigerated lorry body. Initially, we used the original refrigeration unit but in the summer that caused us a few problems, so we have now converted it to a proper refrigerated unit. Next to that we have a portacabin where we do all our cheese packing, cheese painting using plasticoat which works well for us. Operations are a bit spread out, especially on cheese making days.

My ideal world would be to have a purpose built unit with a lovely big vat in one place so I am not going from one place to the other. I would like a 750 litre vat – if anyone has one out there for sale, please get in touch!

Everything is done by hand, I find the most monotonous thing is the scald, stirring the curd, I feel totally mesmerised sometimes, I come out hypnotised. It is just so laborious, but I don’t have room for a stirrer and I have a very simple press.

Pots in the press

Inside The Little Cheesery, I have a vat, press, sink, a curd table where I put my acidity meter. I have a small, portable peg mill; I put the curd at one end and mill it back into the vat, salt in the vat, pot up in the vat and then it goes straight into the press. If I stack the moulds in the vat, then it helps them to settle and I can top the pots up where needed and put them in the press.

How has the dairy industry changed since you started making cheese and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of being a cheesemaker

I have not really been doing this for too long, there are only two of us (two cheese makers) in Northamptonshire, so I can feel quite isolated in a way, as there are no cheeses makers to get in touch with and talk to.

I never stop learning and some days the make will go really fast and will get done in no time and other days it goes slow and I would love to know why. I know that the milk changes, in the autumn, the fat goes up, and it can be so soft and difficult to manage, and it can take a while to dry out, the ambient temperature always makes a difference; you are constantly experimenting.

There are a lot of cheese makers out there – so a lot of competition – and it has been very difficult for us to get into the wholesalers.

I discussed the question, what advice would I give to someone thinking of starting a cheese business with my husband, Geoff. My answer is: don’t! Seriously, though, if you are prepared to work hard, and long hours, it is very rewarding, especially when you make a product which people enjoy and win an award for. The hardest thing is making your cheese consistent and maintaining the quality you want it to be. I think it took me about two years to become confident in what I make and become consistent.

Where can we find your cheese?

We attend a lot of food festivals and food fairs, and we are going to be at Countryfile Live, August 2nd to August 5th 2018 at Blenheim Palace. We sell to local farm shops on the Leicestershire border, Wharf Distillery, we are regulars at the Higham Ferrers Farmers market, and we are in Castle Ashby Deli.

Favourite cheese making music?

Because it is so small in the cheesery, I don’t have any music on, but if I did, I would listen to a bit of Bach, maybe a Brandenburg concerto.

Name: Chris Twell, Neneview Dairy (Chris says ‘we pronounce Nene to rhyme with ‘then’’)

Website: Neneview Dairy

Twitter: Neneview Dairy Twitter

Thank you so much Chris, for your time, it has been a really interesting discussion, thanks, and great to see you winning so many awards! Just goes to show that small cheese makers too can compete with the big guys and win well recognised awards. If anyone has a spare/surplus 750 litre vat going, do get in touch with Chris, she would love to hear from you!

On a similar note, I know someone who has a peg mill for sale and a large vac packer.  If anyone is interested, please get in touch and I will pass on the details.

Coming up, Simon from Weardale Cheese and Larry from Galway Goat Farm.  If you would like a chat with Ribblesdale Cheese or know a small dairy who would, drop us a line!

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