There is a little bit of Italy
in rural Sussex as
Tessa Gates found out
when she visited Twineham
PARMESAN cheese. Nothing could be more Italian so it comes as a surprise to find it being successfully made in Sussex to be sold at home and abroad – including Italy.
But then Twineham Grange Parmesan is as authentic as the cheese can be without being made in its home country. Technical manager Rob Bookham – who purely coincidentally has an Italian great-great-grandfather – explains: "Twineham Grange Farms have been owned since 1974 by the Stabiumi family who make Grana Padano Parmesan in Italy. The 340 acres here in Twineham are all arable but in 87 they wanted to expand the business and decided to make cheese here too, to take advantage of the high quality milk available in England."
The whole creamery was imported from Italy, complete with Italian workmen to install it and an Italian cheesemaker to start production. Now seven staff work in the creamery producing a gold medal-winning vegetarian Parmesan, butter, and several other cheeses made to special order.
"We buy in 5000 litres of milk/day. This is allowed to settle out and we take the milk off the bottom for the cheese and the cream off the top for butter which mainly goes for butter oil," says general manager Mark Humphrey.
The milk is fed into copper-lined stainless steel vats with a steam jacket between the two skins, and agitated as it is heated to 32C. Then the rennet is added and nine minutes later the curd develops. The curd sinks to the bottom of the vat. The cheese, weighing 75-80kg at this stage, is pulled up on a wooden paddle and caught in a cloth then suspended in the whey. "The way the cheese is cooked will affect the yield. We have one cheesemaker, John Barber, who cooks every vat. He checks the dryness of the curd between his fingers and knows just when to turn the heat off. He was born in the UK of an Italian family and before he started at the creamery, Italian cheesemakers were always brought over to work here," explains Mark.
* Divided in two
Once out of the vat, the cheese from each cloth is divided in two and wrapped in a fresh cloth for half a day. Then it spends a day in one mould before being moved to a concave mould where it settles down. After the third day, it goes into brine to soak for just under a month. Then it starts the maturing process. The best cheeses are sent to Italy to mature for 12-18 months as planning restrictions at the farm mean they do not have enough space to mature all they make.
In Italy, Twineham Grange Parmesan was sold as a table cheese until the strong Pound made it very expensive. Here it is sold in 300 delicatessens in SE England and is just entering the supermarkets but they feel that there is an opportunity for other creameries to carry it. "It has a long shelf life and good profit margin and could be distributed to delicatessens alongside their own products," says Rob, (tel 0402 912014 for details).
It is also in demand by manufacturers using Parmesan or needing a sachet of vegetarian Parmesan for ready prepared dishes like Caesar salad.
"We shout about it being vegetarian but not everyone cares," says Rob, who also sells at farmers markets, where he tries to educate people away from the "sweaty sock" image of parmesan.
* Anything you like
"But it is not just for grating on pasta – you can do anything with Parmesan as long as you know how to use it."
Rob and Mark are looking to new markets. It has already found customers through food shows in Hong Kong and San Francisco and they are looking at hot countries where dehydrated, it will keep without refrigeration.
They are also considering making an organic Parmesan which will retail for 50% more than their regular cheese. "We know it is wanted but is there a market for it at that price?" asks Mark. If there is you can be sure Twineham Grange Farms will be pitching for it.