People have strong opinions when it comes to cheese. It’s a food that is loved and loathed in equal measure – a bit like Marmite.
For fromage devotees, however, few things exercise their wrath or pleasure more than the quality (or inferiority) of a restaurant cheese board.
Carol Peacock admits she often finds herself resisting the urge to chase after waiting staff to offer her verdict on the after dinner cheese selections.
But in the 44-year-old’s case, any comments she cared to deliver would be made with a broad smile and words of gratitude.
You see, Carol and her husband Neil, 51, make cheese. Not just one but nine different varieties, of which the best known is probably the award-winning Mordon Blue.
A blue veined soft cheese with a mild flavour and creamy texture, it’s become a favourite of North East chefs and can be found on the menu at the likes of Oldfields Noted Eating House in Durham; Ramside Hall Hotel at Carrville; Lumley Castle at Chester-le-Street and the Michelin-starred Raby Hunt at Summerhouse near Darlington.
Because they support them, the Peacocks like to return the favour by eating out at their customers’ establishments.
Invariably they will finish off their meal with the cheese board (making it hasn’t put them off consuming it in their leisure time).
And four years after setting up Parlour Made on the family farm at Mordon, near Sedgefield, County Durham, Carol admits she still gets a frisson of pleasure when she spots any of the hand-crafted range being offered to diners.
“It’s a great feeling when a cheese board is brought out and you see something you’ve produced taking pride of place. It makes me want to run after the waiter or waitress, tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘I made that!’”
It is something to be immensely proud of. Four years ago no-one had heard of Parlour Made. Now the small artisan business supplies not just the crème de la crème of the North East’s restaurants and hotels but scores of the region’s leading delicatessens and farm shops too.
The still young venture is even making a name for itself in perhaps the UK’s most prolific cheese county, Yorkshire.
Parlour Made is a farm diversification success story.
The outlook for dairy farmers has been bleak for years, and with milk prices predicted to fall even further, it’s a precarious profession to be in.
With eldest son Joe, 18, having set his heart on one day taking over the 240-acre Village Farm, Carol and Neil knew they couldn’t continue pinning their hopes on selling on the milk from their 120-strong herd of Holstein-Friesian cows.
They needed to ensure there was a financially viable future for Joe and the farm his paternal grandparents, Jim and Mary, bought shortly after they married in 1957.
Neil himself started working with his dad when he left school in 1980. In hindsight, the writing was already on the wall for the UK’s beleaguered farmers.
Deep price cuts that have left farmers struggling to make ends meet, stringent regulation and crises like BSE, swine fever and the horrific 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak which saw millions of animals culled, have all taken their toll.
Carol reveals a shocking statistic that shows just how steady and vicious a decline there has been among Britain’s once proud milk producers. A farmer’s daughter herself, she says: “There were 40,000 dairy farmers in the UK when Neil joined his dad here at Village Farm. Now there are only around 10,000.
“We knew that with Joe wanting to come onto the farm we had to find a way of maximising the existing milk production so we could hopefully secure his long-term future.”
Cheese wasn’t the first choice. The Peacocks mulled over the idea of going into yoghurt production and even ice cream.
But Carol says: “We did some research and there were other farms doing that. We thought it would be better to do something that wasn’t being done in the local area. Both Neil and I love cheese and it went from there really.
“We had the cows and we had the milk which could be fed straight through to the cheese vats. The cows are milked at 6am and by 6.30am their milk is being made into cheese. You can’t get any fresher than that.”
Indeed not, especially as the unpasteurised, farm assured milk only has to travel 15 feet along a stainless steel pipe to the cheese vat in a purpose built dairy.
It was on a rare night away over a bottle of wine in a seaside hotel that Carol and Neil had their eureka! moment.
“We hadn’t gone far – only Scarborough,” Carol recalls with a laugh. “We got to the hotel rather late and had pretty well drunk the bottle of wine before our food even came.
“We were chatting about what we were going to do to make the farm more profitable and we both said ‘cheese’. I think the wine must have gone to our heads.
“We came home on the Saturday and said ‘let’s go for it.’”
Carol, a former food technology teacher, enrolled on a cheese-making course at Reaseheath College in Cheshire. She then took up every offer of help and advice made by other farmers’ wives who had taken the diversification route.
The couple took advantage of a 40% Defra grant towards their set-up costs. But a massive £22,000 had to be spent on installing three-phase electricity so they could run all the equipment.
While there are other cheesemakers in the region – Doddington and the Northumberland Cheese Company being perhaps the best known – what makes Parlour Made different is that they have opted for mainly soft varieties, like the original Mordon Blue and Durham Camembert.
Carol and Neil have also gone for a rural marketing approach. Their slogan is ‘From our farm, not a factory,’ and the cheeses have images of the Peacocks cows on the labels.
Each batch of cheese is also unique. What the cows eat can affect the flavour, so there can be a slight difference between the summer when they are feeding outdoors on fresh grass, and the winter when they may have to be taken undercover and given hay.
And because the cheeses are all hand-made and not mass produced in a factory, slight changes to the recipe have to be made individually and carefully logged so they can be properly attributed.
“All the flora and fauna of the area is reflected in the cheeses and we have no control over that,” Carol explains. “All our cows are born on the farm, though. We operate a closed herd policy, which offers traceability and is a way of keeping disease down.”
Parlour Made took off immediately, much to Carol’s surprise and pleasure. “We sent samples to chefs and hotels in the area to get feedback and by the end of the week the phone was ringing off the hook with orders,” she says.
The business has been growing steadily ever since. Both Carol’s parents-in-law and her 15-year-old daughter, Georgia, now help out. A second vat has been installed with a third now a serious option.
Mordon Blue has also been joined by its stablemates, including a new traditional hard farmhouse cheese called Mordon Ruddy which, as the name suggests, is red in colour and takes five to six months to mature.
It means more storage space is needed, although Carol, who is the cheesemaker while Neil looks after the herd and the milk side, is careful to produce only to order.
“We sell everything we make. Because cheese doesn’t have a long shelf-life, every cheese has a home.
“But we are growing year-on-year. We are not looking to be massive. We would quite like the business to remain small scale as we like the fact that the cheeses can only be bought in a few places. We like it that we are an artisan niche.”
But as word is spreading, Parlour Made’s customer base is growing. People now come to them, rather than Carol having to chase buyers.
The cheese production only takes 10% of the 850,000 litres of milk a year produced by the Holstein-Friesian herd. The remaining milk is all sold to the family-run Embleton Hall Dairies at nearby Wingate.
It means, Carol says, there is enormous scope for Parlour Made in the future should they so desire. “The beauty of working with a family-run business like Embleton Hall is that we can just pick up the phone and say ‘is it OK if we only send this much milk today?’
“As we only process 10% of our total milk production for cheese we certainly have the capacity to grow. Who knows how big we can go? It’s like having a baby. It’s a pride thing. You want them to develop and mature and wish the best for them.”
Does Carol think she and Neil have done enough to safeguard Village Farm for another 60 years?
“I hope so,” Carol says with real feeling. “Farming is a way of life; it’s in the blood. And we are doing all we can to ensure it lives on.”
Contact details: Parlour Made, Village Farm, Mordon, Sedgefield, County Durham, TS21 2EY; 01740 622255; www.parlourmade.co.uk