If you mention Yorkshire cheese – most people would immediately think of the crumbly Wensleydale cheese made famous by Wallace and Grommit in the early 90’s.
But more recently, a number of artisan cheese makers have started making delicious cheese around the region. On a recent stop at The Courtyard Dairy & Cheese Emporium just outside settle, run by Master cheesemonger Andy Swinscow, I purchased a chunk of Stonebeck Cheese. On hearing it was made up in Nidderdale, I put two and two together as my friend Ian Walker who runs Studfold Farm in Lofthouse had already mentioned I should pay a visit to the local farmers making cheese further up the Dale.
I was lucky enough to head up to Low Rigg Farm in Nidderdale AONB to meet Sally & Andrew Hatton, the makers of this wonderful raw farmhouse cheese at a very remote location outside Middlesmoor.
You may have seen them on the recent TV show Remarkable Places to Eat with Nadia Hussein and Fred Sirieix. In the show they visited the farm and Nadia heard about Andrew’s herd of Northern Dairy Short Horn cattle whilst Fred sampled the cheese.
It was a good job I had a 4x4 vehicle, as the track to their farm was long and bumpy, but I eventually reached an old farmhouse, parts of which dated to the 1600’s where Andrew and Sally were waiting to greet me. As the weather was stunning we sat outside with a big pot of tea and they told me the story of their journey into cheesemaking.
But first about the cheese…
Unlike its modern-day Wensleydale counterparts, Stonebeck is made to a much slower hands-on recipe. It is made seasonally (only spring-autumn when the cows are out at pasture) with milk from the Northern Dairy Shorthorn, a native breed of cow fed on the diverse pasture and wildflower hay meadows that abound in the area.
The end result at three months old is a gentle cheese that has a rich, long, complex and multi-layered flavour, with a pliant-yet-crumbly texture.
Andrew and Sally Hatton are first generation farmers. Andrew had studied Agriculture at Edinburgh University, leading to a career in Farm Management and Consultancy whilst having also taken a PhD in Dairy Cow Nutrition. It was always a dream of Andrew’s to run his own farm.
Sally works on the farm but also works part time for the NHS as a specialist in Special Care Dentistry. They explained it was always the plan to combine their scientific background and love of the environment.
They were lucky enough to find a farm to rent from the Middlesmoor Estate and so set about restoring the old farmhouse and lands at Low Riggs Farm. The farm has 460 acres of severely disadvantaged meadow, pasture and moorland, with high rainfall, short seasons and long winters.
The land is not fit for arable crops, so their model is to graze low numbers of animals across a wide area of land with little mechanisation or artificial fertiliser.
5 years into the project Andrew and Sally realised that the farming of sheep and cattle on a remote hillside was not creating enough income, so their only option was to diversify. As their farming is on a small scale – they could not compete with milk or meat production against larger scale operations.
What they had to do was think about “adding value”. So they looked at the possibility of cheesemaking and went out to seek advice.
Andrew explained that “the artisan cheesemaking community has warmly supported our journey with invaluable mentoring by Bronwen Percival of Neal’s Yard Dairy and Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy”. After securing a Rural Development grant, the Hatton’s set out on their “field to fork” mission to produce a new Wensleydale type cheese from their cattle.
Their herd of cattle is a breed called Northern Dairy Shorthorn, also known as Dales Shorthorn. They are dual purpose for both milking and meat. With the popularity of black and white friesian cows from the 1940s onwards, the Northern Dairy Short Horn fell out of fashion and by the 1980’s there were only 40 breeding females left – putting them on the endangered species list. Andrew now has over 20 of the animals at Low Riggs farm which now accounts for over 10% of the world’s population of the breed!
As a native rare breed, the Northern Dairy Shorthorn is ideally suited to the location and can survive in wet, windy conditions where grazing is poor. This has the advantage that the Hatton’s don’t have to bring in much additional feed to their remote farm location.
Andrew and Sally have encouraged diversification in their meadows and the number of species increases each year. Their pasture is well suited to diverse herbal and floral grasses, and on part of their farm they have restored and improved several traditional wildflower hay meadows. These diverse and varied grasses impart a rich flavour to their milk and the cheese.
Andrew explained that they make cheese 3 days a week between spring and autumn. It is a long day with work starting at 4.30am.
The cows are milked once a day and two days milk goes into each batch of cheese. The cheese is made from this raw, fresh milk and uses recipe’s from the Dale dating back to the 1920’s. Once the cheese has been made it is pressed over-night and then a cloth is sewn to the outside to help preservation. It is then matured for 2-5 months.
For more information on the recipe and how the cheese is made click on the link below:
After hearing this fascinating story it was time to sample the cheese again and I can vouch it is wonderfully flavoursome. I have visited Low Riggs Farm since on some of my Yorkshire Dales Food Tours and my guest have delighted over the delicious cheese, the fascinating story, the great hospitality and the stunning views.
Not just a fantastic cheese but fantastic people with a fantastic story. It’s great to see small scale cheesemakers making a success in Yorkshire.
To buy and sample their cheese visit:
To read more about Andrew and Sally’s story – visit their website at: