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Farm Profile: Young couple builds raw sheep cheese business

With a passion for cheese and producing it in a traditional way, Martin Gott and his partner Nicola Robinson have built their business from scratch.

 

Emily Ashworth visits their Cumbrian farm to find out how they have done it.

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Young couple build raw sheep's milk cheese business

They say where there is a will there is a way, and that is certainly something Martin Gott and partner Nicola Robinson have adhered to. With a passion for food provenance and more specifically cheese, the couple have managed to successfully grow their business, St James Cheese, by using artisan inspired methods and creating a unique, raw sheep’s milk product.

 

As new entrants, their journey has taken them from Lancashire to Somerset and back to Cumbria, where they have now settled at Holker Farm after securing a tenancy on Lord Cavendish’s estate 14 years ago. The route to get to Holker, South Cumbria, though, was one of luck, playing to the old adage of it is not what you know, but certainly who.

 

Martin and Nicola have taken on various positions, including a stint at Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire Cheese, before heading down to Somerset to work with the late Dr Mary Holbrook, farming on a shared agreement where the couple would look after her goats in return for some land to build their own sheep flock and make cheese.

 

Chef

 

Previously, Martin’s father had kept pigs and wild boars, butchering and selling them at London’s Borough Market. Having worked alongside his father for four years, Martin took a guest pitch at Borough Market too, and struck up a conversation with one of the family’s previous customers and infamous TV chef, Clarissa Dickson Wright. On hearing that Martin and Nicola wanted to set up on their own and ideally move north, Clarissa put them in touch with Lord Cavendish.

 

Martin says: “Clarissa had been working with the Cavendish family, and the next thing I know I got a call from Lord Cavendish’s secretary who said they’d like more artisan food producers on the estate and might have something for us.

 

“The milking parlour which had been there was taken out and the equipment gone, so we could see huge potential there. And there was grazing on what was the old parkland which had been run organically and fit nicely into our story of cheesemaking.”

 

They moved to the site in 2006, with their first baby on the way, and 120 Friesland sheep. But they hit their first hurdle just a year in.

 

“The first year was total chaos, and in the second year we said let’s drill down and get some milk out of them,” says Martin.

 

“But we weren’t getting the yields we wanted and we were losing sheep left, right and centre and couldn’t understand why.

 

“We sent off some blood samples and it was confirmed the flock had maedi visna disease.

 

“It wasn’t well-known at the time and we ended up culling the whole flock and starting again.”

 

The pair decided to take a chance and change to a breed more suited to cheesemaking, buying sheep from the south of France, as they could not find anyone in the UK who could sell them maedi visna-tested Lacaune sheep and headed to France’s Roquefort region.

 

“They were really different to the sheep we’d come across in the UK, so decided to import some,” says Martin.


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Respect

 

“We had to convince the Chief Vet to let us bring some over. “The Lacaune breed is highly protected, as it’s the only sheep you can use for Roquefort cheese production and it’s the sole employer for one entire region in France. They treat it with serious respect.”

 

In autumn 2007 they brought back 20 females and four tups, only to find a rare flock of Lacaune milking sheep in Hampshire. They managed to purchase these too and put them to their tups. But the hard work had only just begun.

 

Although having secured a contract with Neal’s Yard Dairy, London’s high-profile artisan cheese shop, Martin and Nicola still had to find a way to fund themselves through the winter season. To do so, Martin set up a cheese shop in Cartmel with Nicola’s father, Ian.

 

In 2017, Martin sold his shares in Cartmel Cheeses to concentrate on St James cheese and used some of the contacts they had built up. Now they are in a position where they can have control over the cost of cheese and production.

 

Martin says: “Neal’s Yard Dairy say if the cheese is good we’ll buy it, and if it’s really good we’ll buy lots of it – and pay you what you want for it.

 

“If you ask for an obscene amount of money and they then put on their margin and can’t sell it, that’s your tough luck. But ultimately, we set the price we charge.

 

“I’ve almost come at farming from more of a food perspective and we can see market trends, what the consumers are buying and have a clear view of the market we are selling in to, which many farmers don’t.

 

“Some of our stock goes through the auctions, but the main bulk of the business is selling to distributors, delicatessens and artisan cheese shops.

 

“We are farmers, but we set prices. We’re a small farm, it’s all our own milk and there’s no family money or legacy propping us up.

 

“Whatever we do and build here on-farm has to be paid for through the cost of the cheese.

 

“We didn’t want to sell to a business where we couldn’t talk to the person who owned it and to somebody who can give you the top and bottom of an issue. That shut the door to supermarkets really.”

 

And the proof is in the sales figures, having sold 70 per cent more than last year. But that, says Martin, is down to slowly growing the herd over the years and building a relationship with the Courtyard Dairy at Settle, which takes St James cheese on the same scale as Neal’s Yard. Milking 236 Lacaunes, with some Lacaune cross Friesland plus 100 followers, the couple aim to build the flock to about 280.

 

The Friesland crosses came as they cannot easily get hold of pure Lacaunes, and Nicola says she has noticed increasing foot problems which they attribute to Friesland genentics. Currently they have access to eight hectares (20 acres) at Holker and buy all the forage in, feeding hay in a concentrate.

 

Hay, says Martin, is important for the microbes in the cheese. In the milk, they are looking for a balance of fat and protein, and for raw cheesemaking, ‘everything you do at farm level affects the cheese, from feed to the management of the pasture. It all has a part to play in the final flavour’.

 

Sheep are milked once-a-day, this year lambing in both January and May to ensure a more continuous supply of milk to equal the demand for their cheese.

 

Cultures

 

And the science behind the process is a huge part of the business for Martin, who last year applied for a Nuffield scholarship to research raw cheesemaking and the benefit of farmmade cultures. He travelled to America to further his studies, but in fact started using his own cultures about six years ago. There are only four other producers who use their own cultures, and it means they get a unique flavour to their cheese.

 

But how do consumers react to the taste of raw, sheep’s milk cheese, given that the main bulk of the cheese market is taken up by standard Cheddar? “Sheep’s milk is sweet and very creamy,” says Martin.

 

“People are always surprised, as they expect it to be like goat’s cheese and once they eat it they quickly take it.” The work doesn’t stop here, though. Having invested in a milking parlour and cheesemaking unit, they are under no illusion they need to continue to expand.

 

“As new entrants and young farmers, it’s hard to get investment from the banks and competition for land is tough,” Martin says.

 

“We are limited by our size, but land is not the easiest to come by.”

 

But it is the customers who Martin knows are the key to the longevity, and with their cheese selling at Neal’s Yard for £60/kg, they know they have a product which intrigues, sells for what it is worth and keeps the public coming back for more.

 

“Our cheese is known for not being shy and it’s full of character. We have die-hard fans,” says Martin.

 

“The public will pay for quality food if they understand it, but also, doing things this way, there is value in the chain for everyone.”

Cheese making

To make the highly soughtafter St James cheese, the milk goes straight to the cheese vat. It is brought up to 34-40degC and the homemade starter culture is added. Next, the rennet goes in, and Martin has chosen to use traditional animal rennet, adding that this also gives an extra depth to the taste. They then must wait for the curd to set, cut it and put it in the moulds. It will then get turned about three times before being salted the next day. The cheese is matured for up to six weeks.

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