The history of ashmore cheese

Ashmore is emblematic of the random way in which most British cheeses have come in to being. It began as a recipe designed for smallholders published in a textbook by the North of Scotland College of Agriculture and has undergone enough twists and turns to fill a Trollope novel, Anthony or Joanna.

Twenty-something years ago, David Doble, a Sussex dairy farmer, thought he would have to start making cheese when he woke up to the fact that he had ninety cows and a quota for sixty. Also a beekeeper, he outlined his intentions with a fellow enthusiast who owned a copy of the Scottish book and was making cheese as a hobby. She invited him to watch her. He accepted, observed her efforts with a saucepan and the kitchen range, decided that the process couldn’t be much harder than agriculture and made his first attempt.

He bought himself a length of plastic drainpipe that, sawn up, would be his moulds, and a four-gallon bucket for the milk. He borrowed his daughter’s sterilised terry cloth nappies to drain the curd, hanging them from the ceiling in satsuma bags. At three months he had what passed for cheese.

The next stage involved ‘massive’ expansion. He travelled to Wales to buy a second-hand fifty-gallon vat from a fellow farmer and took one of his cheeses to have it appraised by the vendor. Although it gathered polite approval from the Welshman, David gathered that he had not grasped the faintest inkling of what he had let himself in for. He hadn’t kept records of the acidity of the curd. Nor had he realised how vulnerable a farmhouse cheese was to the most minute circumstance.

The lessons were learnt the hard way. He had been maturing cheeses in his spare bedroom on a board placed across the bed. In winter, with the central heating on, the cheeses dried out and cracked. In summer flies managed to get into his making room. They laid their eggs in the curd, filling his cheeses with maggots. He was, though, making progress, winning a prize for the Best New Cheese at the International Food Exhibition (IFE) at Olympia.

For eight years he continued making and selling. Growing more professional, he brought larger vats and increased the volume, but unfortunately it coincided with a time when he realised that his farm wasn’t making money; that he would have to close down.

At this point, Mrs Vigor, recently widowed, comes on the scene. She was running a neighbouring farm, across the Surrey border, which was larger and more economic. Her grown-up son wanted to join her. Having learnt from her sister, an employee of David’s, that he was packing up, she thought she might be able to acquire the redundant cheese making equipment, borrow some of David’s know-how, and fill the gap in the market that he would be leaving.

Mrs Vigor, later to become Pat Doble, picked up the baton and after some hands-on training from David, converted herself to a cheesemaker. The two of them are convinced that the quality of any cheese is tied to the milk. Pat helped her son switch from a herd of 120 English cattle to 60 Friesian, bought in Brittany, that supplied the same amount of milk. Her cheeses went to Neil’s Yard Dairy. The herd was assessed as one of the country’s top ten.

What the French call a success d’estime, a moral triumph, wasn’t adding up to a financially secure position. Neither the cheese nor the dairy farm was failing, but Pat’s son convinced her that they should quit. By now, Pat and David were living together. After the sale went through, they decided that they would start afresh, doing what they both understood: making cheese.

They moved to Ashmore, a village on the Wiltshire-Dorset border near Shaftesbury, and they married. Their new landlord rented them a dairy. He also supplied them with milk from the herd. The arrangement should have suited both parties, but instead it lead to conflict. The landlord wanted to go into partnership with the Dobles. He felt they should be creative, devise never-done-before cheese such as ‘red Gorgonzola’. They were purists. Even the idea of mixing in chives gives them the shivers. They wanted to retain their independence, so they turned him down.

They had already registered their business name, but soon afterwards they were contacted in an official letter from the National Business Register warning them that someone was applying to trademark their name, Ashmore Farm Cheese. They put two and two together and concluded that their landlord, who wasn’t making any cheese himself, was behind it.

It was time for another move. Ashmore is at the northern edge of Cranborne Chase, the ancient royal hunting ground that until the nineteenth century had severe laws to deal with poachers, including execution and mutilation. It’s divided up, much of it, into estates belonging to the landed gentry. One of the largest, owned by Lord Salisbury, is centred around Cranborne. Its biggest asset is property, but it runs shoots and manages woodland and farms.

At a farmers market, by chance, Pat met Lord Salisbury’s farm manager. She inquired whether he might have any spare buildings into which she could transfer the cheesemaking business. Once there had been three dairies on the estate, but all had shut down. Most of the 4,000 acres under cultivation had been turned over to arable crops. However, Lord Salisbury does have a personal interest in livestock. With shades of P.G. Wodehouse’s Blanding Castle, he extensively rears breed pigs: large blacks, middle whites and Tamworths. These are sold as meat in the Cranborne food shop owned by the estate. As there was an indirect synergy and since there was a hanger available just outside the village, the Dobles were invited to move in.

No longer made in Ashmore, Ashmore Farm Cheese was now produced on his Lordship’s land. This is quite confusing since another cheesemaker trading as Cranborne Chase Cheese is making three soft cheeses, Filly Loo, St Nicholas and Win Green at Ashmore.

The couple brought with them the equipment that they had collected over twenty years – the original fifty gallon vat, two other large ones, the moulds and a motley assortment of mainly antique presses. When David was teaching himself the rudiments, he had relied on two one ton concrete blocks to weight his cheeses. They served their purpose in the short term, but weren’t an ideal solution in the longer term.

He brought his first press for £5. The father of a local vet acquired it for him at a farm sale near Okehampton in Devon. Listed as Lot No 1, it was damaged and caked in rust, but usable after it was repaired. Actually, it was a snip, because the cast-iron frame, sandblasted and repainted, will last forever. In fact, in the Victorian era a similar press would have cost £2.10.0 to buy new, more than a month’s wages for a farm labourer.

In the Cranborne dairy there are a dozen working antique presses brought from all over England. An 1856 advertisement for their ‘prizewinning’ Rack and Pinion Cheese Press, made by Denings of Chard, boasted: ‘greatly improved by means of a roller being placed on each side of the follower, thereby preventing friction. The pressure can be regulated from 12 to 16 cwt by means of the weight being made to shift on the lever.’ The ‘follower’ in the copy was a circular hardwood disc that fitted between the moulds and the press.

Although their tools may have been antiquated, the Dobles’ dairy would have many of their peers looking on with envy. It’s spacious, bright, impeccably clean, with a view onto open fields where rare White Park cattle graze. Cheeses that have been formed in Caerphilly moulds line the store in ordered rows. At four months, when they are ready to eat, they have a firm texture that retains just a hint of moisture. They have a clean lactic smell and just enough acidity to give them an edge.

David describes himself as ‘mad about cheese’. What he objected to most when his previous landlord had suggested that they join forces was the latter’s readiness to compromise standards, to put commercial expediency before quality. ‘We would never,’ David insisted, ‘think of selling something that wasn’t perfect.’ His is an old fashioned craftsman’s pride in his skill.

That determination is shared by Pat. In a corner of the store she has been experimenting with some semi-hard cheese that she tried to perfect when she was on her farm. She had made it in her cellar and called it Tillingbourne. Once, when James Aldridge had dropped by, she brought him one that she had been ripening, illegally had she intended selling it, in a damp cellar. The Beckenham cheesemonger had tasted it and beamed ‘I am really proud of you Pat. You’ll probably never do it again.’

His backhanded praise hasn’t prevented her trying, although at Cranborne she fears that her store, regulated for ripening the hard cheese, isn’t moist enough for her semi-hard.

Both she and David regret that they no longer own their herd. They have, though, opted for the next best thing by working with a farmer who is ready to share detailed information on what he has been feeding his cows. He’ll take their advice not to add certain foodstuffs to the cows’ diet, for instance kale, which might cause a taint. They have never deviated from raw milk as the basis for Ashmore.

Should they or the public that buys their cheese be frightened of E. coli, listeria or tuberculosis? Listeria has never caused any problems with hard cheese. E. coli, which can cause serious food poisoning, has been spread by contaminated cheese. What is not realised in the general hysteria that is whipped up by the media if a case occurs, is that people are far more likely to suffer an E. coli attack by drinking water from a vending machine, or outside of the UK, by drinking tap water.

As to tuberculosis, the fear of unwittingly making cheese from infected milk has persuaded many specialist cheesemakers to pasteurise. Pat argues that her milk comes from a single herd that is tested monthly. In any event, the disease develops slowly. It isn’t present in the milk until the disease is well advanced, by which time it would have been diagnosed in the herd and the cows put down.

When they go to markets the Dobles feel they are encouraging their customers to distance themselves from the mass-produced product in order to develop a sense of respect for crafted food. Once people set their expectations higher, and taste a little more carefully, they will be repaid by the extra pleasure that the unpasteurised cheese offers them. That is where an accelerating change in the way those who can afford to are eating is borne out by Pat and David’s experience at Winchester Farmers’ market. In its early days they were the only cheesemaker. Now there are seven.

Step over the threshold of Lord Salisbury’s Cranborne Stores and the same commitment to food that has been produced carefully and on a small scale is equally apparent. This isn’t a smart deli. Despite its ownership, it’s the village shop. Yes, it stocks Brillo pads, Mars Bars, Heinz Ketchup and the Daily Mail, but the meat counter is packed with the pork that has almost disappeared from English tables during the lean-good-fat-bat decades of intensively farmed cheap meat, and it also has a counter with Ashmore, Woolsery, Keen’s, Daisy and a dozen more cheeses.

Extract from West Country Cheese Makers by Michael Raffael reproduced by permission of Birlinn Ltd.