Behind the Scenes – Whey to go

Family-run Lye Cross Farm near Bristol produces nearly 5,000 tonnes of cheese a year. The finished products are sold at Uk supermarkets and exported to more than 40 countries. ANNA POINTER found out about the art of cheesemaking

Cheese is big business in the UK – with 98 per cent of households regularly buying it, and a staggering 700 different varieties on the shelves. Set in 4,300 acres of rolling pasture, Lye Cross Farm in Redhill, Somerset is one of the country’s most prolific small producers of Cheddar and Red Leicester and four generations of the Alvis family have been at the helm since its humble beginnings in 1952.

Today, 74-year-old John Alvis Snr is company director while his sons, Johnny and Peter, are chairman and MD respectively. “All the family have the business at heart,” explains John. “We’re lucky that no one has gone off to do their own thing. We’re all farmers, principally.”

With a staff of 130, John first began working at the farm with his father as a teenager “I’ve never looked back. I still feel huge satisfaction when I see our cheese in the shops.” The secret of the company’s success is simple, according to John, “We look after our animals, and we treat our staff well. I’d never want to be involved in something we’re not proud of.”

Milking it


All cheese begins with fresh milk, and Lye Cross dairy cows are milked at 4am and 2pm daily, producing 12,000 litres per day. The 1,200-strong livestock are looked after by Johnny Alvis and wife Jo, who have been married 25 years.“We use an Irish rotary machine, which can milk 60 cows at a time,” explains Johnny. “The cows get fed when they get on, so they like it. They appreciate the same things we do; nice food and drink, and something nice to lie on.”

Cow care 

“There’s no typical day,” explains Johnny. “Sometimes I’m feeding, sometimes milking or sometimes calving. Whatever needs doing. The cows are part of the family – they even have names like Dave the steer and Delilah the heifer.”

Jo is in charge of record keeping. “I log births, deaths, medicines and arrange vet visits. She comes in every Thursday and mainly checks fertility matters, digestive problems or those with a bad foot or eye.” Welfare of the livestock is taken seriously and, Jo adds, “Apart from the fact sick cows don’t produce enough milk, we always ensure they’re as healthy as possible. We work with a nutritionist to ensure each cow gets exactly what it needs.”

 

The white stuff

As early as 4.30am, the first fresh milk of the day arrives at the factory from the farm and is pumped from a tanker into large vats in the dairy. Around 45 million litres flow in annually, and Polish-born cheesemaker Lucas Klepacti often oversees the process. “From here it goes into pasteurisation,” he says. The milk is heated to 74oF to kill off any bugs while vegetarian rennet is added to help separate the milk into solid curds. Liquid colouring can also be poured in to create Red Leicester, which is being made today. “The mixing stage is my favourite part because there’s a lot of responsibility.”

 

Curds and whey

The curdled milk solids are hand-stirred on a long cooling table, with a leftover liquid called whey draining away down the middle section. Then the curds are turned by hand and bound into blocks in a process called ‘cheddaring’. “It takes around three and a half hours from pasteurisation to get a finished block of cheese,” says cheesemaker Graham Goodliffe, who regularly checks the acidity of the whey. Having been at Lye Cross for 34 years, he adds: “It’s a rewarding job. I was 17 when I started – I always say if you start here young, you die here!”

 

Testing, testing


Another long-term employee of 32 years is dairy manager Rob Wells, who is involved in quality control. “Monitoring the PH level of the whey is so important. If it’s not right, we do some alterations in the dairy. I’ve got 19 guys working for me in there and they’re a hardworking bunch.” The production line can be subject to hold-ups, however. “The vats do occasionally break down and yesterday we had a power cut. That means we’ve got to make lots more cheese today to catch up.”

 

Suited and booted

In most areas of the factory, wellies, hair nets, white gowns and masks are routinely worn. “Hygiene is extremely important to us,” explains Graham. “The first shift starts about 10.30pm when we scrub everything down, ready to start again early next morning. It’s pretty much 24/7.”

 

Cutting it

Once formed, salt is added to preserve the cheese and it is pressed into blocks. It then travels down long towers into a vacuum-packing area, where another cheesemaker, Lucas Grzempowski weighs and dates each. “We’re producing about 100 tonnes every week,” he says. “It’s hard work and very noisy in here, but it can be fun. My favourite type is the Red Leicester we’re making today.”

 

On the move

The cheese is then stored in slatted wooden boxes before being transferred to the warehouse to mature. “We pack up 900 of these in a 12-hour day,” says packer Vic Merchant. “They come through on a conveyor belt constantly – there’s no time to rest! When I first started here, 22 years ago, this company was a small operation. Lots of places have gone under in that time, but it’s really grown here.”

 

Making the grade

The giant chilled warehouse, where 3,500 tonnes of cheese is stacked floor-to-ceiling, is a cheese-lover’s dream. Operations Manager Dave Millett is tasked with checking each batch in a procedure known as ‘grading’, where a cheddar iron is inserted through an opening in the box. “Grading determines whether a cheese will be mild or mature. We check the texture and firmness as well as the all-important taste.” However, Dave is not a cheese-lover himself. “Probably because I eat so much of it! I like the family aspect here though – everyone is very hands-on. Each day is different, which makes it fun.”

Ready to eat

After up to 18 months of maturing, the finished product is cut, sliced or grated and then packaged and labelled. “The cheese being wrapped today is nine months old,” says Dave. “Huge amounts come through – if we’re doing mini-portions we’ll package around 40,000 per day.” The packaged items are sent out to supermarkets including Waitrose, Aldi, Lidl and Asda – as well as around the world.

By all accounts

Karen Gilbert (left) and Janet Stuckey both work in the Accounts office. “I sort out documentation for our exports, dealing with different government departments and customs clearance,” says Karen, adding. “It can be a bit of a minefield.” Janet offers sales and customer support for both UK and foreign markets. “It’s frustrating at times with quite a lot of red tape, but we work around it as best we can.”

 

Global affairs

With Lye Cross products sold internationally, sales and marketing director Ben Hutchins is responsible for satisfying global demand. “We export most to the US, then South Korea. They like our cheese because it’s handmade. Getting to travel far and wide is a lovely part of my job.” However, the uncertainties surrounding post-Brexit trade are proving tricky. “It’s causing massive stress and a few sleepless nights – we just don’t know how we’ll be affected.”

 

All aboard

The farm is also home to a cafe housed in a quirky vintage bus. Popular with the locals, it mainly serves breakfasts and lunches and uses the farm’s produce in its ingredients. “The Ploughman’s lunch, using our cheeses, is really popular,” says marketing executive Alice Brown. The cafe’s supervisor Daniel Stewart says, “I do a bit of everything, from preparing food to clearing up. I’m a cheerful chap and take pride in what I do. Customers always get service with a smile – even if I’m having a bad day!”

Keeping shop

The public can also visit the on-site farm shop, which is overseen by sales manager Sarah Welsh, who chooses and orders all the stock. “As well as selling our own cheese, manufacturers use it in things like quiche and crisps, which customers can also buy here,” Sarah explains.

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