Down on the farm, a visit to Denhay, creators of classic cheddar and brilliant bacon
More quiche? I don’t mind if I do and perhaps some Dorset Ale? Wonderful. As lunches go this one is pretty near perfect, eaten seated beside a snugly warm Aga in a cosy old farmhouse kitchen while the West Country rain comes down in ropes.
The farm is Denhay Farm and you’ve no doubt seen the name on packs of bacon and cheese in Waitrose. Far from being an advertising invention, like the rather creepy Aunt Bessie or avuncular Mr Kipling, it really is a genuine farm and one that’s belonged in the same family since the 1950s, the latest descendants of the Streatfields having just cooked our quiche.
Outside are big barns full of lazy-eyed cows taking shelter from the rain while eating their fill of pasture and maize grown on the farm earlier in the year. Their rich milk makes the brief journey each day to the farm dairy, a short walk from the farmhouse, where it’s turned into award winning farmhouse cheddar.
After we finish the quiche, made with Denhay bacon and cheese of course, I go to visit the dairy, which despite having modern equipment is still very much a charming, seemingly unregimented, collection of aged buildings with sections that appear to have been tacked on at random over the years. The full cream milk comes to giant holding tanks here before being pasteurised, ‘it’s the only way to guarantee a consistent product’ explains chief cheese maker Mike, ‘when you’re dealing with supermarkets you can’t afford anything else’.
Mike shows me how his team cut congealed curds into ‘loaves’ or blocks which are stacked one on top of the other and then turned to release as much moisture as possible, the ‘cheddaring’ process. These blocks are then milled into small pieces in another trough and salt added until the trough is full of rubbery pieces of not-yet Cheddar cheese. These are then placed into moulds and compressed to begin the ageing process that will end in farmhouse cheddar ready for the shops.
‘I’m here from around 4 a.m.’ says Mike suppressing an understandable yawn, ‘the day goes fast though as it’s hard work but it’s work with clear set stages. We finish around lunchtime and then the dairy is cleaned, every square inch of it, ready for the next day.’
I leave the steam filled dairy to go to the maturing rooms, which smell deliciously of wood and cheese. Up at one end is Keith an independent cheese grader whose job is to visit farms like Denhay and assess the progress of the cheeses and their quality.
He inserts his tester into a wood-clamped block of cheese, all the blocks are clearly labelled and dated so each one’s provenance can be traced back, and pensively mashes a piece of cheese between his fingers until it resembles BluTac in texture. ‘This, as well as what I see and what I smell, is as useful as tasting,’ he says.
If he thinks the cheese has a problem then the labelling is used to track back and to help Mike see if other cheeses of that batch are affected. Conversely if the cheese is excellent, that’s also information that can be leveraged to create even better cheeses. The passed cheeses stay here, maturing quietly until their time to be sold.
Bringing out the bacon
Denhay bacon is created at Honiton a short drive away. Here in a small modern building outdoor reared pork loins from approved RSPCA Freedom Food farms are hand sea salted to slowly cure them. This is so much better than injecting saline solutions, the residue of that being what you see leaching horribly out into the pan as your bad bacon shrinks down. Everything here is done naturally, the loins when ready being only fast chilled to make them firm enough for accurate, consistent slicing by a machine that employs a laser measuring system.
The packs are all hand loaded, the bacon looking good enough to eat raw, but that’s not recommended. Up in the offices earlier we’d cooked it in a pan to a glorious crispness and greedily shoved layers of hot rashers into thick slices of buttered white bread. A shot of sauce and we had Britain’s great culinary gift to the world – slayer of hunger, killer of hangovers, ruiner of would be vegetarians. The Denhay bacon is so very good, still roughly the same size as when it was uncooked and not greasy
In 2012 Denhay bacon and cheese won Gold and Silvers across the Great Taste Awards, the Taste of the West Awards and many others, proof that their slavish adherence to doing things right is the way to create a superior product. It’s all good down on the farm.
All photos by Al Stuart
Denhay Dorset Drum
Available to buy online. Visit the shop.
Available nationwide in most Waitrose and larger Sainsbury’s stores
Available nationwide in most Morrisons and larger Tesco stores
Available nationwide in most Morrisons stores
West Country Farmhouse Cheddar
Available in all Waitrose under their own label West Country Farmhouse range and on their deli counters
Available in Waitrose throughout Dorset
All Denhay bacon, cheddar and butter is also available through Ocado.