Deep in the Gloucestershire countryside is a small farm where time seems to have stood still.
Its fields are filled with Gloucester cattle, grazing under apple and perry pear trees. Old Spot pigs nose about in the orchard, and geese wander outside the dairy, which takes the milk from the parlour 20ft away across the yard and every day turns it into cheese. It feels almost like the 21st century might have bypassed this corner of England.
Except Laurel Farm, Dymock, is very much in the 21st century. It’s the home of Charles Martell, “food hero” and artisan cheesemaker – and the man approached by agricultural marketing agency Whisper.pr to “design” and produce the FW 75th Anniversary Cheese.
A stickler for food and farming tradition, Charles is the man often credited with saving the Gloucester breed from extinction in the 1970s.
Originally bred as a dual-purpose beast, its milk was ideal for cheesemaking: small fat globules made an even-textured cheese.
But in 1972, when the last herd of 68 cows came up for sale, he set about buying as many as he could.
Only then did he think what he would do with them.
Cheesemaking was the obvious answer, giving the breed valuable publicity by reviving the on-farm production of Single Gloucester cheese and eventually securing protected designation of origin status for it, taking it into the same league as Parma ham, Stilton and Cornish clotted cream.
Thirty-seven years later, Laurel Farm produces about a tonne of cheese each week – including what’s now widely regarded as the first “cult” cheese, Stinking Bishop.
“Even someone who’s never tasted it has probably heard of it,” he says. Four years ago, he was thrust into the limelight – and received requests for interviews from all over the world – after the pungent cheese was chosen to feature in a Wallace and Gromit film.
“Our orders rose 500 per cent once word broke it was in the film, but there’s a difference between taking orders and being able to fulfil them. We simply didn’t have any expansion capacity. Even now, we sell all we produce and, in the run-up to Christmas, no doubt we’ll have to take production into the weekends, too.”
Charles doesn’t sell to supermarkets, because many won’t accept seasonality – he says they don’t like any troughs and peaks in production, nor the subtle changes that occur during the year, for example when the fat/solid balance changes at spring turn-out.
He has accepted a commission from the Prince of Wales, however, to regularly produce a special version of Stinking Bishop for the Royal Household known as Starvall Royal – but he rarely makes cheese for anyone else.
“I was delighted when Whisper.pr approached me with this commission for the FW Awards,” he says. “My brief was something that would aptly celebrate British food and farming, and mark the 75th anniversary of a magazine that’s become something of an institution. It gave me an opportunity to allow my imagination to run free – I like experimenting.”
Appearance, texture and taste are key to a successful cheese, he says. “Appearance is the most difficult to get right. Cheese is very ‘wilful’ and very often won’t do what you want, for example, growing mould at inconvenient times.
“Texture is all about how it’s been made. The only way to get this right is experience; know-how makes the whole process more controllable – and when you get clever, you can tweak it in all sorts of ways. But you also have to learn how to try to compensate for the seasons, although spring cheese – made as we make it – will always be a little softer.
“Finally, the taste – and of course the smell, which is very closely connected. Well-made, with healthy milk, cheese will do its own thing and do it properly. ‘Off’ flavours come from sloppy hygiene or poor attention to detail.”
Stinking Bishop, which he started producing in 1986, is the epitome of good cheesemaking, mercilessly exploiting these three factors, particularly the striking contrast between odour and taste.
“The Bishop’s bark is worse than its bite!” laughs Charles. “You have to tell that to someone who’s about to taste it for the first time!
“The Bishop is something of a connoisseur’s cheese,” he says, “and not to everyone’s taste. So for the FW cheese we decided to produce something which is less controversial and which wouldn’t generate the Marmite reaction – love it or hate it – but which will, like Stinking Bishop, still be a rind-washed cheese. They have such exquisite flavour.”
What he’s come up with for the 1000-plus guests attending the Awards dinner is Yellow Peril – a cheese designed to showcase British cheesemaking at its best (in a French cheese competition, judges once refused to believe Stinking Bishop could have been made in England) and a variety which Charles believes will have wide appeal.
“Not too dry, not too strong, not too mouldy. Just full of flavour, a unique and satisfying cheese, capable of satisfying every palate, oozing Britishness and ripe for celebrations.”
And available for one night only.