Mary Quicke: Upholding 14 Generations on the Farm

Continuing her family’s tradition of making clothbound cheeses on and off for 14 generations, Mary Quicke reveals the history of her family’s namesake company, the traditions it adheres to and her dedication to the cheese industry.

Mary Quicke: Upholding 14 Generations on the Farm

The Brits take their cheddar seriously, and this is definitely the case at UK clothbound cheesemaker Quicke’s.

“Our philosophy is to see farming as a great responsibility,” says Mary Quicke, who runs her family-owned company. “Not only are we committed to doing right by the land, but we take great pride in creating things for the enjoyment of others. Our cheese is the perfect expression of this; it is our crown.”

For Quicke, cheesemaking is more than a career, it’s a tradition she is meant to carry on.

Mary Quicke samples her wares.

“My family had been on the farm for 14 generations,” she says.

It all started when her 12 times great grandfather, Andrew Quicke, married an heiress from the Reformation in 1540.

“This is way back when Henry VIII wanted to change marriage plans and religion,” she explains. “He persuaded people by redistributing monastery land. That’s when my family came on the farm; Andrew’s father-in-law got the land, and Andrew married his daughter.”

The Quicke family has been on the farm ever since, through all its ups and downs, and there were quite a few in the early years.

If there ever was a story about the trials and tribulations of cheesemaking, Quicke can wax poetic on her journey.

Here, Cheese Connoisseur provides insight into the family’s legacy, struggles and ultimate successes in creating cheeses across the ages.

CC:  There were many struggles prior to the farm producing cheese. How did it all begin?

M.Q.:  When the Canadian Pacific Railway brought prairie grain and cheese to Europe in the 1870’s, UK farms couldn’t compete. As a result, half of our farm was put down to oak trees. When my father was little, he remembered talking to the cobbler in the village who was in his 80s. This man recalled leading the cart horses that sowed acorns to turn farmland into woodland, because it wasn’t worth farming. At the same time, U.S. cheese priced British farmhouse cheese out. My grandfather was told back in the 1920s that no one wanted his milk. My father, as a little boy, decided when he was grown up, he would make something people wanted to buy. In the 60s, my father decided to fulfil that aim and applied for a license to make cheese. At that time, milk and cheese production were tightly controlled by the state, which had been focused on feeding the population in the two World Wars. The license took about eight years. By now, my father was off the farm and involved in agricultural politics and projects that benefitted the environment. It was my mum, a trained artist with six kids, who decided to build and run the cheese dairy. She’s 90. now and still a extraordinary woman.

CC:  Was that your goal from the beginning, to take over the farm and cheese making operations?

M.Q.:  I have three brothers, so I assumed one of them would take over the farm. My middle brother spent all his time as a child messing around on the farm. I went for my Ph.D. in English literature at King’s College in London, which was set up to promote church and king. I didn’t appreciate that before I went there. By the time I came to finish and submit my Ph.D. thesis, I was farming and became argumentative with my professor. So I’m one of the few whose Ph.D. failed. I was studying “Female Characters in the Elizabethan History Play” and trying to find a way to talk about female characters that wasn’t narrowly feminist. I had set up a farming organization and attended a meeting in London before my viva. A glass or two of wine made me argumentative. Looking back, I was being an idiot, really. It was interesting work and had I submitted it at another time, the outcome maybe would’ve been different. In the meantime, my dad had been off putting about the farm, because he wanted to make sure it was a choice for us. The rest of my brothers and sisters were duly put off. But while I was living in the city, I’d always come home on weekends to hang out on the farm. My dad talked about growing crops, making milk for the cheese, how the whey goes to the pigs and manure goes back on the land to grow crops and grass. I thought it was a beautiful, natural machine and asked my dad if I could come back to farm. He said of course, but with a stipulation that I work at another cheese farm and go to ag college first. I then went to make Cheshire cheese in Shropshire and studied farming and farm management. Although we as a family all share the business, I run it on behalf of my family. I came back to the family farm in 1984, and my father retired in 1987. I’ve been doing this ever since.

CC:  You did take a brief detour before committing to the family farm. What happened in that period?

M.Q.:  When I was living in London during my studies, I was doing radio and at one point sold news photos for magazines and newspapers. Yet, I so missed Devon and the farm. By that time, I’d married my husband, Tom Langdon-Davies, who was brought up and lived in London and imagined his future there. Once I’d spoken with my dad, about coming back to the farm, I told my husband my plan. He said, “Oh no, no way”. When I met Tom, he was Western Europe’s only electricity-generating windmill salesman. He was an early innovator in natural energy and very passionate both about the environment and that energy should be available to everyone. He’s an amazing, funny guy and was my best friend before we started dating. When we decided to come to Devon, what became crystal clear is our cheese needed someone to sell it and tell its story. Farms didn’t have brands then; instead, we had to sell milk and cheese to the Milk Marketing Board. No one knew our cheese from anyone else’s. Tom saw we needed to create a brand and name for ourselves. The fact that people know Quicke’s Cheddar is due to him. He started selling around Britain, and then some people we sold cheese to emigrated to America and Australia and wanted to take our cheese with them. That’s really how we started selling our cheese abroad.

C.C.: You have a more old school approach where the cows are concerned. Talk about how this works and why it’s important.

M.Q.:  There are two great ways of running cows. The American system has high yielding Holstein cows in the barn most of the year and feeds them the best food possible, including corn silage and soya. These cows then produce a lot of milk, but running the cows is very labor intensive; they are spoiled like ladies you’d wait on hand and foot. They sit around leisurely, eating a lot of feed. We employed this system up until the 90s, but the cows were not producing the right milk for our cheese. It wasn’t a good color or flavor. It was clear that grass-fed cow’s milk worked much better. So we adopted the New Zealand method, where the cows graze outside as much of the year as possible. We are more interested in the cows harvesting the grass than the yield from the cows that arises from the natural processes. Unfortunately, our high yielding Holstein cows didn’t like that system. These were Olympic athlete cows, like a race car, so we started cross breeding the herd with Friesian, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde. This also gave us the opportunity to think long and hard about the milk we wanted for our cheese. We wanted the proper ratio of fat and protein, but also active protein and small fat globules. This cross breeding gives us more fertile animals that are smaller, hungry, hearty cows. Some eat and spend all year outside. They grow amazing thick coats like mountain cows. The grass-fed milk the cows make creates more delicious cheese.

C.C.:  You also took a more traditional yet labor intensive approach to the cheesemaking process with starters. How does this work?

M.Q.:  We began focusing on the starters, the bacterial mix that turns the lactose in milk to lactic acid. Industrial starters tend to produce acidic, sharp and bitter flavors in cheese and are the reason Americans (and now industrial Cheddar makers across the globe) add Lactobacillus Helveticas for a sweeter cheese. By contrast, our heritage starters originally came from whey starters from the best dairies in the southwest of England in the 60’s and 70’s. They originally came from wild fermentation—from cows’ udders. There’s a beautiful library of 400 starters with this more diverse microflora. It’s like if you fermented milk on the farm yourself. This provides highly complex flavors that are less reliable, but make much more interesting cheese. As cheesemakers, we nearly lost them in the 1990’s.  Cheesemakers at that time didn’t want to fund all the work involved in maintaining this library. It went to a management buyout, which didn’t work any better;  cheesemakers wouldn’t pay any more. The starter library eventually went to the French cheesemaking company, Mauri, which wanted us to use their industrial starters. They told us they were going to destroy our cultures so we would have to use theirs. That was terrifying, as our cultures are special and make our cheese what it is. The English microbiologist who was looking after them, Ray Osbourne, couldn’t be with that, so he put them in his car and took them to Barber’s in England. You could say that all of our heritage starters are a result of this act of theft. They give our cheese complex and rich layers of flavors.

Quicke’s Cheddar had quite the journey.

C.C.:  Your family came up with a unique way to deal with cheese mites that is environmentally friendly. How did that come about?

M.Q.:  Cheese mites became a big issue with natural cheeses back in the early 2000’s. The fumigant used to eliminate them was damaging the ozone layer and was banned in most of the world. Aged cheeses natural rinds then became problematic. Some people use plasticoat to protect the cheese, while others put cheese in vacuum bags. There are those who tolerate blueing, and some put a lot of work in hand vacuuming or brushing cheeses. In 2010, a distant cousin of mine from Australia invented a solution for us. He had worked with the biggest machines on the planet and, at his suggestion, I got a hold of dust extractors from our local co-op grain store. He recommended I build a chamber and attach dust extractors to create a strong flow of air, and then blow the mite off with compressed air, essentially getting the mites airborne and sucking them away. With this system, we can age naturally-rinded vintage Cheddar longer than anyone on the planet. I shared this method widely, but other than us, as far as I know, only one cheesemaker in the Midwest currently uses it.

C.C.:  Quicke’s prides itself on hand Cheddaring. How does this process work and why is it ideal?

M.Q.: Once we’ve added our heritage starters and then rennet, the milk makes a junket. We cut the junket to release the whey, and we heat the curds and whey.  Then we’ll ‘pitch’, or take the whey off. We heap the curd up on each side of the coolers, and then cut the curd into blocks and start piling them up, one on top of the other, moving the blocks top to bottom up to six times. This presses moisture from the curd and is called ‘cheddaring’, giving the cheese its name. At our scale, it’s all hand work. We have the attention and intention of people on that milk. It’s like Michelangelo getting the most beautiful statue out of a piece of marble; we’re trying to get the best cheese out of that day’s milk.

C.C.:  What are the components of your cloth-wrapped Cheddar?

M.Q.:  After pressing in molds, we dress the cheese and mature it in muslin cloth.   Unlike cheese matured in a vacuum bag, cloth-wrapped cheese loses some moisture through the cloth. Moisture drives maturing, so we get different cheeses being created in a single wheel because there’s more moisture at the center than at the rind. Molds grow on the rind. This creates a mold garden that is specific to our farm. We swapped cheese with cheesemaker Jamie Montgomery and found the flavors on cheese from the same vat matured on each other’s farm were completely different. Each farm’s microflora is unique.

CC:  You worked with our publisher, Lee Smith, on a grading for your cheeses. What were the findings with this process?

M.Q.:  We do a grading at three months and a year old by using a tryer to get a core from the cheese. We look at its physical characteristics, aroma and flavor. Within our flavor window, there are a range of different flavors; we couldn’t work out how to characterize them. Lee Smith attended our grading and with her clarity of observation, she immediately distinguished that we have three main flavor families: buttery and caramelly; sharp, oniony and grassy; and meaty, brothy and umami. The three-month is buttery, our Extra Mature has a complex balance with all of the flavors in balance, and our Vintage Cheddar, our oldest at 24 months, has complex caramelly notes. The clarity Lee provided us was really amazing.

C.C.:  You were initially skeptical about the American Cheese Society’s Certified Cheese Professional program, but now are one of its biggest proponents and even began a similar program in Europe. What was it that changed your opinion?

M.Q.:  One of the amazing benefits of judging at the American Cheese Society (ACS) competition in the U.S. is meeting people like Lee. The first time I came to America to judge for ACS was in 2011. Susan Sturman, Kate Arding and others were developing the Certified Cheese Professional (CCP) certification. Initially, I wondered why people needed all that knowledge, I didn’t get it. The next year, I saw 120 excited young people taking the exam. They were inspired by what cheese was and how you could build a career in it. I realized the impact CCP was having on those individuals. The year after that, I came back to America and saw the CCPs working in stores and, with their knowledge and passion, selling a lot more cheese. Over the years, I’ve seen these professionals working as mongers, makers, sommeliers, distributors, writers and bloggers, impacting the whole of cheese, and I got it. I wanted to bring ACS’ program to Europe. In the end, ACS realized that wouldn’t forward their mission of supporting American cheese. By then, I had a group of English people inspired, and we set about creating a UK certification program—the Academy of Cheese. It has four levels, compared to the CCP’s one level. It’s based on tasting. Level One involves 25 cheeses, Level Two has 100 cheeses and Level Three, comparable to ACS’ certification, works with 300 cheeses. We’re launching Level Two this summer. We’ve 750 participants so far for Level One from all over the world, including Canada, Russia, India and Japan. People can study for it and take the exam online. We had help creating the program from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, which has the Sommelier certification program.

C.C.:  What is your vision for elevating the specialty cheese industry?

M.Q.:  In the 70s, the UK wine industry was a barren landscape:  low grade commodity wine, and a few people who knew about elite wines. Now, in the UK, there are 100,000 wine labels, and many wine writers and bloggers. I assert that is off the back of the Sommelier program. I have a vision that people will be just as excited and knowledgeable about cheese and willing to pay for it. Now in Britain, cheese is like wine was in the 70’s. The dominant brands are huge and sell 90 percent on promotion. This strips value out of the whole cheese market. I want people to make a good living on the farm making cheese, or making great milk for cheese. When committed young people work in cheese, and their parents ask when they are getting a real job, they can say, excuse me, I’m a Master of Cheese. I want to be able to eat great cheese in ordinary restaurants and bars, not just high end ones. I want to make a global difference in how cheese is sold, eaten and enjoyed.

Tracy Colley with Mary

C.C.:  What is your favorite way to eat English Cheddar?

M.Q.:  A habit I picked up in Australia is eating cheese before dinner. They would have a cheeseboard to start, similar to putting out potato chips or canapes, and I think that’s a perfect place for cheese.  You’re not yet full, you’re sitting around chatting, drinking wine and waiting for the food to finish cooking.

C.C.:  What do you see in English Cheddar’s future?

M.Q.:  Cheddar is a broad church, not like Parmigiano Reggiano, which is more defined. And like Parm, instead of using mild Cheddar in dishes, people see the value in including some of its most complex flavors in even simple recipes, like cheese scones or shepherd’s pie.

C.C.:  What do you want people to know about English Cheddar?

M.Q.:  There’s a Cheddar for every occasion. Clothbound Cheddar is one of the world’s greatest cheeses like raw milk Brie, Stilton and Parmigiano Reggiano. Because it was the first cheese industrialized in its make, it can be seen as a commodity option,
but the finest Cheddars are up there. Just because it’s Cheddar, doesn’t mean it’s a cheese slice.

C.C.:  Other than English Cheddar, what are some of your favorite cheeses?

M.Q.:  I’ve had the privilege of judging American cheeses, and the first year (so arrogant) I thought ‘why, Americans are really getting the hang of this!’ The last time I judged, there were a multitude of world class cheeses. Varieties like Spring Brook Farm’s Tarentaise, Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Co., Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue and Jasper Hill’s Harbison are extraordinary. I love Colston Bassett Stilton and Kirkham’s Lancashire. There are some cheeses where you just melt and waves of pleasure overcome you!

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Written by Lisa White