I got in touch with these guys a few years ago and I must admit, my timing was awful. Just after we had finished our jobs in the vineyard we were winding down for winter. However, the team at Lyburn were preparing for Christmas sales. So, the long and short of it, they were super busy.
I tried my luck again this year (2019). They were very kind and obliged to have me come and visit the cheesehouse. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was just expecting to have a chat and see what collaborations we could come up with. Though, I was also keen to increase my knowledge of its production and meet a fellow Wiltshire producer.
So I rock up on a rainy November day expecting to sit in a meeting room and chat with Mike. Mike Smales is the founder and owner of Lyburn Cheese. My meeting with Mike was thorough and to the point. He seems like an extremely busy bloke. Very nice though. I walked into the reception area where he greeted me after a few moments as he was held up in the office. He immediately goes on to say “Right then Nat, we have got you in to make cheese with us for the day”.
At that point I was thinking “hell yeah!”. I had no idea that I was going to get the chance to actually make cheese. Next, I find myself reading procedures and sifting through protocols and signing my name to accept health and safety responsibilities. You know, the really fun stuff… I am then presented with clean, sanitised boots and lab coat for me to wear and of course a beautiful hair net. Food production standards are extremely high here as one would expect.
Following a thorough hand washing, with the use of my knees to operate the taps, I was ready to crack on and make some cheese. Mike continues to show me around the equivalent of a wine cellar, but for cheese!
I don’t know which is better… The cheese cellar was a fun place to be. Temperature and humidity controlled rooms with wheels of cheese lining the racks running the length of the cellar rooms. This is where the cheese is matured. Satisfyingly neat, everything in its place. I felt at home with the straight rows of cheese, everything extremely clean and tidy, much like our vineyards ;)
After seeing soooo much cheese and the tour of the cellar coming to an end I try and quickly wipe the drool away from my mouth before Mike turns to say goodbye. He has meetings in Cardiff you see. Probably super important cheese meetings. At least that’s what I like to think. He introduced me to the team in the packing room who were skillfully cutting the big wheels of delicious cheese and preparing smaller packs for their retailers, local farm shops, delis and Waitrose and some Co-op outlets.
The Lyburn cheesemaking team consists of Amy, Andy, Steve and James. All wonderful people who welcomed me to their place of work with open arms.
We chatted whilst they packed the cheese. We were waiting for the first milk to come into the cheesehouse, around 3000 litres of it. The cows had been milked that morning by Phil the head heardsman. The milk is then transported to the cheesehouse. It comes into the cheeseroom after being pasteurised and cooled to 28C. I think I’m making up a few cheese related words here just to build more substance into my cheese fantasy. Can you imagine a cheesehouse with cheeserooms… ? Mmmmmm.
James is the equivalent of the Chef de Cave or head winemaker. He is the master cheesemaker. He holds the key skills to make the cheese, much of which are born out of instinct and honed with experience built up over time. He will add the starter culture to the milk and then the rennet when conditions are right. Proteins in the milk start to coagulate and fall out of solution and thus, the solids separate from the liquid giving us the curds and whey. When the milk starts to become solid, it can be cut which helps release the whey from the curds. We then have to get in with our hands and scoop out the curds from what is essentially a giant bain marie to make the Stoney Cross. The Stoney Cross is currently one of the cheeses we use for our Vineyard Walk and Wine Tasting experiences. The Stoney Cross moulds are led out on stainless steel tables expertly prepared by Amy and Steve. They have blue cheese cloths in them, which I have to get to grips with later on.
The moulds are slightly overfilled so that the curds can settle down leaving little gaps, not large gaps, inside the cheese. You then fold the cloths over the top of the curds and you have to flip it over and place back into the mould so that it can settle into the correct shape ready to be pressed. This is tricky. Well, it was for me who was quite nervous as I didn’t want to waste or ruin the cheese or slow the guys down. Steve, Amy and James were brilliant with me. Patient and encouraging and just let me crack on. So there we have it. The Stoney Cross in the mould ready to be left in the drying room to then be moved into its very own special “cellar” where the temperature and humidity is different. This is a mold ripened cheese and is brushed with a bacteria culture to form the rind and left for 8 weeks to mature.
The cheeses in the moulds then get pressed to give the cheese solid shape and remove excess whey. From the press they then get moved into a brine bath where the cheese will take on some salt where, traditionally, the cheese would be dry salted. After 24hrs in the brine bath the cheeses are moved to the drying rooms where they sit on wracks to drip dry. From here they are moved to the cellars for ripening.
Lyburn makes 6 different cheeses. All from the same recipe, which is astounding as they are all so very different. The flavours, the textures and the smells. Quite incredible. By far their most well known and famous cheese is the Old Winchester. This is aged for a minimum of 16 months. The Winchester is aged for 9 months, the Lyburn Gold is between 2 and three months. Tasting these three against each other is a fascinating and tasty experience.
Their other cheeses include the Stoney Cross, which is ripened differently and is quite a different style to the gold and the winchester cheeses. The other two are the lightly oak smoked and garlic and nettle. These are equally as tasty and more playful but do come away from Lyburn’s core offering.
I derobed from my lab coat, hair net and boots - ah back to normality - and was treated to a lovely tasting of all of their cheeses with Andy, cheese extraordinaire.
I left with a huge grin on my face having had a wonderful day and meeting very passionate and kind people. I cannot wait to bring in more of their cheese to share with our guests at Bluestone. It is a thing of beauty with our wine.
Now I can tell you all about Lyburn Cheese, the people, the place and the product. The first step in bringing amazing Wiltshire produce to the people!