A Visit To Sparkenhoe

By Sarah Sambrook

Red Leicester has a bad rep.
It’s fair to say most of us grew up with shiny, sweaty Red Leicester – something to bulk out the sarnies and inoffensively melt atop a burger. Cheap, sharp and very orange. But Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, well it’s something else entirely…
The first raw milk Red Leicester to be crafted in Leicestershire for decades, 

David and Jo Clarke turned their hand to cheese making in 2005, using milk from their 150 head herd of pedigree

 Holstein-Friesians. They’re the black and white beauties we’re so used to seeing out in fields, but these ladies have a pretty impressive lineage.
The story goes that David was at the pub, complaining to his pals that a decent Red Leicester didn’t exist, so they dared him to make one himself.
And so a British Classic was reborn – the Clarkes are now the only people to make unpasteurised Red Leicester with their own milk, on their own farm, in the world.
But how is it actually made?
We headed off to visit the team at Sparkenhoe Farm, home of the Leicestershire Handmade Cheese Co, to find out.

Nestled in the quaint hamlet of Upton (on the Leicestershire/Warwickshire border) you’ll find David, Jo, Will and their small gang of cheesemakers and herdsmen.

As we leisurely waltz in at 7:30am, the team are already well into their day. The cows have been milked and the good stuff pumped from the parlour straight into the dairy just across the yard, still warm. The smell in the air is intoxicating, like sweet banana milkshake.
As the milk does its thing in the huge vat, we crack on with one of the final stages of their make – wrapping yesterday’s cheeses, which have been pressed overnight, in cloth. A traditional technique when making hard cheeses, wrapping each wheel in muslin helps the cheese age properly for the perfect texture, flavour and rind, whilst also letting the cheese breathe a little.

Back to today’s milk. The starter cultures, rennet and annatto (a natural pigment from Achiote seeds which gives Red Leicester it’s beautiful golden hue) have been added to the milk and we see it starting to separate into curds and whey. The whole lot is then cut, scalded (the vat is heated up to help drive moisture out of the curds) and the whey drained off to leave beautiful little blobs of cheese curd.

These gorgeous nuggets of cheese, which naturally start knitting together, are then cut into blocks and turned by hand again and again, to force more moisture out. Eventually they are milled and salted by hand, before being scooped into their huge moulds and pressed in slightly terrifying looking hydraulic presses, to push out any remaining whey.

To say that cheese making is a physical task is a wild understatement. The weight of the cheese, mixing the salt through kilos of curds, bending over vats… there is no need for a gym membership if you’re a cheesemaker. And the heat!

Then for a tour of the aging room. Oh my goodness, a true cathedral of cheese. We’re greeted by a handmade fountain to keep the humidity in the space just right – David is a true handyman. Huge wooden racks filled with cheese after cheese, each in different stages of maturation. 
Their Red Leicester is aged here for 8 months, giving a mellow citrusy flavour with a touch of nuttiness. A few selected cheeses are then moved to a different aging room, to continue ripening into the deep caramel flavour of their Vintage Sparkenhoe.

In between each of these processes we chatted to David about the farm, their push towards sustainability and the difficulties this sometimes brings. The Clarkes are passionate about ensuring their farm, and all they do, helps to ensure their corner of the countryside has thriving biodiversity – they are true guardians of their land. He tells us that when they decided to start making cheese, they wanted to create the very best they could. A sincere labour of love, their beautiful wheels reflect the care and passion the Clarkes and their team have for the land and herd.
Not only that – they’re just the loveliest people! They were patient with us as we asked a million and one questions, tried our painfully slow amateur hands at the make and invited us to their farmhouse for tea and a cuddle of Bridget the pup.

We could wax lyrical about Sparkenhoe for days… as you can probably tell, we’re pretty head over heels in love with their cheese. But why would you listen to us waffle on when you can taste their incredible goodies instead!
For the next month we’ll be showcasing 3 very different cheeses, each made on the farm by the Clarkes – Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, Sparkenhoe Blue and Bosworth Field.
So get yourself down to the bar, order a glass of something cool and tuck into a flight of some of the best cheese in the UK.

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