Why is Extra Mature Shipcord so well liked by visitors to Slate? It is a delicious cheddar-style cheese with robust flavours and a long tangy tail to its taste but perhaps most significantly it is one of our very local East Anglian cheeses, rarely tasted outside the region.
With this in mind, Clare and John set off to meet Susan Richards and her husband Robin who run Rodwell Farm just a few miles outside Ipswich. The farm is intersected by the B1113. On one side are the fields where the cows graze and the farm's milking parlour. On the other side, in a former calving shed, is the cheese making room where Susan has been making cheese since 2006. The Richards family have been farming this site for over 75 years during which time the original farm has been divided between several branches of the family.
Robin oversees care of the farm's herd of Holstein-Friesian cows, 120 of which are milked twice daily. The majority of this milk goes to the local dairy cooperative. Susan uses just a small portion to produce her handmade cheeses. The family take great pride in caring for their cattle, growing much of their own feed to complement pasture grazing. The sileage clamps hold a nutritious "sandwich" of hay, maize and wheat. It almost smelled tasty!
Susan makes two cheeses: her cheddar-style Shipcord and Hawkston, a younger crumbly cheese similar to a Cheshire or Caerphilly. Both cheeses are named after river meadows on the farm. Susan uses only their own unpasteurised milk. She told us that unpasteurised milk allows the flavours of the farm to be expressed in her cheese. She believes the combination of control over the milk from cow to cheese room, coupled with high standards of hygiene make the cheese flavoursome and safe.
Cheese making is a combination of science and judgment. This year’s variable weather from the "Beast from the East" in early spring to the very hot summer has offered its challenges: the grass has been scorched; cattle feed scarcer and more expensive. Susan has also found the hot weather made the rind on her cheeses more fragile as it started to develop.
With the view that Shipcord is a big cheese for Slate we were perhaps surprised to find on arrival at Rodwell Farm that no cheese was being made that day. There is no enormous cheese-making vat. No extensive maturing room. In fact, Susan makes cheese (without help) only two days each week and the quantities are truly artisan. After pressing overnight, Shipcord is matured for 5 months, and the larger wheels intended to be "Extra Mature" are aged for twelve months. As for Hawkston, Susan was not even able to give us a taster – making the next batch was top of her "to-do" list!
We left the farm with a better knowledge of the limited supplies of Shipcord and a commitment to get our orders in early so that Slate customers can continue to enjoy this fantastic cheese, in particular for those East Anglian brides for whom we create wedding cheese cakes and who invariably ask for the wide base layer to be a truckle of Shipcord.