Mary is sitting on the stone steps of the farmhouse bagging up some of the fruits she’s just picked from the garden. She looks up, smiles and welcomes us in. This farm has been in the Quicke family for 14 generations which Mary tells us dates back to the 1540s.
Mary grew up on the farm but in her teenage years headed off to London. She hadn’t planned on returning, but by her mid-late twenties she was back in Devon. “I’d spoken to my dad who described this beautiful mechanism, he said, ‘It’s really simple Mary; we grow the crops and the grass to feed the cows, they produce the milk, we make that into cheese, the remaining whey is fed to the cows, then the cows manure goes back onto the crops and the grass and the whole things starts again.’ And I thought, I want to be part of that again.”
“We may produce less cheese but we produce consistent quality with a happy team. The people here provide the attention and intention to produce world-class cheese.”
We head out to the fields to see the cows. They are spread out over a large area, just one of the many permanent pastures on the farm. When Mary first came back she changed the farm from an American dairy system, to a grazing system developed in New Zealand. This meant changing the breed of cows and introducing a rotational method for ten months of the year.
“We did this in pursuit of this perfect milk to produce the perfect flavour for our cheeses.” This method results in very high quality milk that yields a more flavourful cheddar. It also ensures the cows enjoy a long and happy life out in the fields. They even get sixty days’ maternity leave prior to calving, when they’re not milked at all, to give them time to relax and recuperate. As well as looking after the fields for the cows they also have one of the largest Countryside Stewardship Schemes. They maintain and restore one hundred and seventy acres of hedges, orchards, beetle banks, bankside trees and ponds, footpaths and have educational access so people can enjoy the countryside.
Back on the farm we head to the production area. At Quicke’s they make as much cheese in a year as a big dairy would make in a day and they have lots of people on hand to lovingly produce the different varieties. The cheese production takes place by one of nine skilled cheesemakers. They individually craft every cheese by hand and the recipes date back generations; each batch of cheese is started using a culture that has remained unchanged for decades. It is then wrapped in muslin and matured slowly on wooden shelves to give a real depth and complexity of flavour.
Mary takes us into the ‘Cathedral of Cheese’, a vast area with cheese moulds stacked nine high on purpose-built wooden shelves all around us. The rinds look like individual ‘Pollock-esque’ pieces of of art, camo colours and and unique mould patterns surround each of the wheels of cheese. Mary tells us “It’s this mould garden that grows on the clothbound cheese, that gives that distinctive, rich, horseradish flavour under the rind, the hallmark of a well-matured traditional cheddar.”
The team are always tweaking and changing production to get the perfect taste, constantly questioning everything: the cows, the grazing, the cheese making, the flavours. Mary says, “My job is to let people fly, I need the best people around me to produce the best product. Everybody on this farm matters.” Historically they used to produce cheese seven days a week, but Mary found this system meant shift patterns broke teams up. She wanted to keep her best teams together and ensure consistency so moved to a five-day working week. “We may produce less cheese but we produce consistent quality with a happy team. The people here provide the attention and intention to produce world-class cheese.”
Mary judges cheese competitions all over the world and it was on her travels that she had an idea. “Over in America there is a certified cheese professional qualification and I got to see first-hand how much that was doing for the artisan cheese market. So I wanted to create something similar here.” Mary and the highly-skilled team at Quicke’s have introduced the “Academy of Cheese”. It officially launched in 2017, aiming to improve knowledge and provide career development, both within the industry and amongst the wider public. The training culminates in the highly qualified and industry-accredited role of ‘Master of Cheese’. Mary says, “We want to continue to create conversations around the world about cheese. I don’t want cheese to be elitist; I want everyone to enjoy it as a treat and appreciate proper flavours.”
The introduction of the Academy of Cheese will hopefully build an understanding, knowledge and an excitement about the world of cheese, and in doing so continue to build the reputation of a quality traditional British cheddar. Mary’s passion for her farm and what they produce is obvious. Her enthusiasm motivates her similarly passionate team of professionals, who look after the all-important cows, develop production methods and continue to craft award-winning cheeses.