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In July of this year, while the artisan cheese industry was reeling from the impact of Coronavirus, two bastions of the British cheese sector - Sarah de Wit, dairy industry expert and consultant and Nigel Pooley, cheese grading and quality development manager at Wyke Farms - launched The Virtual Cheese Awards with a mission to support the struggling industry and award its most impressive makers with much deserved recognition. The awards were a runaway success and dubbed ‘a taste of things to come’; hundreds of cheeses were judged live on the internet by experts positioned remotely across the UK, offering a truly transparent awards scheme whereby the winner would unanimously be labelled a deserving winner.
Feltham’s Farm, the team behind the winning cheese, Renegade Monk - the official holder of the Best British Cheese accolade - spoke to Speciality Food to share their story.
The multi award-winning Renegade Monk is made by husband and wife team Marcus Fergusson and Penny Nagle on a smallholding near Wincanton in Somerset. Having both worked in the music industry in London for many years, after Marcus was made redundant in 2015 they decided to start a new life in the West Country and to pursue Marcus’s dream of making his own cheese. He attended a cheesemaking course at the famed River Cottage, home to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s empire, and applied the skills he learned there to create his own cheese inspired by those the couple had experienced while in the south of France.
The resultant product, an Epoisse-style cheese, merges the best of French cheese with some uniquely British characteristics. It is rind washed in local ale rather than the traditional Marc de Bourgogne, and boasts unusual blue tones - making it “very much a renegade cheese,” according to Marcus. It’s punchy on the nose as you’d expect from a rind-washed cheese, but has a moreish soft texture and gentle sweetness which pairs as well with bread and a salad as it does oven-baked with garlic and potatoes - “it melts just like the best Camembert,” says Penny, adding to its versatile appeal.
A labour-intensive process
While Renegade Monk is a versatile cheese to serve, its creation is very labour intensive. As the smallholding is too small to run a dairy herd - it covers just 22 acres - and the pair “didn’t have the headspace” to learn both dairy farming and cheesemaking skills simultaneously at the start of the venture, they source organic cow’s milk from their neighbouring farmers, Steve and Geraldine Gould, and from Bruton Dairy (who also process Godminster’s milk) just four miles away from the smallholding. From that point on, every aspect of the cheesemaking process is done by hand, from the moulding to the piercing and washing. The piercing promotes blue veining, although this happens rarely due to the soft texture of the cheese - instead, the rind sometimes develops a blue hue in parts. The cheese is then washed in local ale four times within its first fortnight and matured for four weeks.
A new era
Thus far, Marcus and Penny have been “enjoying this moment tremendously,” they say. “We know it’s a ‘moment’ and that there’s a lot of hard work to come, but it’s terrific to go to bed exhausted at night and say, “We’re the best British Cheese!’”, says Penny. The digital nature of the awards only adds to the pair’s appreciation of the moment. “We loved the transparency of the virtual format of the ceremony,” she continues. “You can see experts tasting and talking very knowledgeably about all the cheeses, and we learned quite a lot about how judges respond to cheese, both individually and as a group. For example, one judge reflected that there was blue mould on our cheese, which he thought was a mistake, but another judge came in later to comment that it was deliberate, so you could see him come round and judge that actually Renegade Monk was rather good… that was lovely to see.”
The innovative style of the awards allowed the Feltham’s Farm team to live stream the judging process. “It was tremendously exciting to watch the judges talking about Renegade Monk through the various heats of the competition. It was all live on Zoom so very immediate, very real, and even our children became obsessed with the various stages of the competition with our daughter Ottilie noting all the points awarded, so she was actually the first one who said - in a very surprised, quiet voice - ‘I think we’ve won”!
One of a kind
The uniqueness of the cheese aided its success, and prior to the Virtual Cheese Awards win Renegade Monk had been featured in Ned Palmer’s A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles, where it was described as ‘post modern par excellence’ as ‘it fits into no previously existing category of cheese’. “Certainly,” says Penny, “nobody but rookie cheesemakers would be crazy enough to make a soft rind-washed cheese which is also blue, however, in a crowded market, making a genuinely new cheese won us some early attention and it seems to be paying off.”
Sustainability at its core
Sustainability is at the forefront of Feltham Farm’s philosophy. In defiance of advice which proposed that their whey could only be removed via fossil fuelled lorries, Marcus and Penny welcomed rare breed Oxford Sandy & Black pigs to eat it - a byproduct of which is that this makes their meat sweeter and even more delicious when transformed into charcuterie. The farm is also a pioneer in its use of the cooling element of its ground source system to chill the refrigeration pumps in its maturing rooms. The system also heats the cheese vat and the make room, and is powered by 40KW solar panels installed on the barn’s roof. Local cheese deliveries are made using an electric van powered by these panels.
What’s behind the name?
The village ‘next door’ to the smallholding is Templecombe, once an important site for the Knight’s Templar, the original renegade monks. Washing cheese in alcohol is also a medieval monastic technique. The ‘Renegade’ part of the name is inspired by the hybrid nature of the cheese, being both a rind-washed and blue cheese.
True to form, the Feltham Farm team are keeping it creative for their latest launch, named La Fresca Margarita - a queso fresco with tangy, lemony notes, “inspired by the cheeses one would buy in sunny markets in Spain and Portugal,” says Marcus. “It literally means ‘fresh daisy’, although in Spanish ‘Fresca’ can have slightly saucy connotations when used in conjunction with a girl’s name, which of course we love!”
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