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Cheesy does it, behind the scenes at Belton Farm

By Mark Andrews | Whitchurch | Business | Published:

Peter Young takes a sample from a 44lb slab of cheese. First he examines the colour and texture of the two-inch slither, then he takes a sniff. Finally he puts a bit in his mouth to taste.

"I do like cheese," he says. Which is just as well, because in a typical day the production manager at Belton Farm in Whitchurch will taste more than 100 different samples.

Doesn't he ever find that a bit too much?

"No, I really like cheese, I will eat it at home, I really like the Red Fox cheese that is produced here. I have worked in cheese all my life, and I love coming to work."

It seems he is not alone in his love for Belton's cheese. The farm, which has been kept by the Beckett family since 1922, now churns out 8,000 tons of the stuff every year. Tesco is the latest store giant to stock its award-winning Red and White Fox "contemporary" cheese brands, and echoing the Government's call for more of our food and drink to be sold abroad, between 12 and 15 per cent of its production is now destined for export.

Peter Young tastes a sample of the cheese to see if it is up the mark

And while the majority of the exports go to the US, Canada and South Africa, Belton recently pulled off something of a coup when it started exporting cheese to France through Waitrose.

"When you're selling cheese to France that is pretty good going," says account manager Mike Hutchins.

"Belton Farm has strong relationships with all the major retailers in the UK supplying award-winning Great British cheese.

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Justin Beckett, the present custodian of the family business, says today's operation would be unrecognisable to that from the time when his grandfather Stanley moved to Shropshire from Manchester 96 years ago.

Mike Hutchins with the Belton Farm cheese range

"I grew up here, and have been working on the farm since I was a boy," says Justin, who is 52.

"The cheese-making side was very much a cottage industry, we had the vats downstairs in the farmhouse, and the press room upstairs.

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"Whitchurch used to be a major cheese town, they would take the cheese up to the market, and when a lot was somebody would put some hay on it to indicate it had been sold.

"It would then be taken by barge up to Liverpool or Manchester."

The Red Fox cheese – which takes its name from farm's animal-shaped weathervane – has been one of the Belton's big success stories in recent years, and was developed in response to the growing demand for continental-style cheeses with a sweeter flavour.

"It's a hard-pressed cheese with a very complex blend of sweet and savoury flavours, says marketing manager Alison Taylor.

The Belton Farm cheese range

"The first thing to hit you is an almost Bovril-like flavour, but then the caramel notes come through and, it is quite chocolate-like."

She says Red Fox is loosely based on the recipe for red leicester cheese, but for those who like something a little lighter there is also a White Fox brand.

"We relaunched our award winning Red and White Fox brands into the market in July 2017 and have secure listings in Waitrose, Morrisons, Booths and most recently in Tesco where Red Fox prepack has launched nationally in over 570 stores and vintage Red and White Fox gained listings on the deli counter in 40 regional Tesco stores," adds Mike.

"We are also ranged in local farm shop’s and deli’s throughout the UK with particular focus in Shropshire, Cheshire and the Welsh border."

Stanley Beckett would struggle to believe the scale and sophistication of the farm today. Ninety people are employed on the 450-acre site, and 16.5 million gallons of milk are used to produce 7,500 tons of cheese every year.

Mike Hutchins and Justin Beckett with some of the awards Belton's cheese has won

While Belton still farms pigs and beef cattle, there have been no dairy herds at the site since the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001.

"That was a hard decision, but we decided it wasn't sustainable," says Justin, who took over running the farm from his father John in the early 1990s.

"The dairy farm was right next to the cheese works, and having to deal with the state veterinary service just made it untenable."

These days, milk is sourced from 81 separate farms, all within a 25-mile radius of Whitchurch, and delivered to the site by a fleet of tankers. Each tanker carries 4,000 gallons of milk, and it takes 20 minutes for each tanker to empty its cargo into the huge blue-green silos which tower over the farm.

"It is important to pump it out slowly because otherwise it breaks down and separates," says Chris Bradbury, who manages the milk supply. A former dairy farmer himself, Chris has more than half a centurys' experience in the field, and has very specific requirements of what he is looking for in the milk.

"It needs to be 4 per cent fat and 3.3 per cent protein," says Chris, who is 67.

Tony Powell works at the whey plant, which ensures that the by-product is not wasted

Once it has been pumped into the silos, it is transported into the pasteurisation plant, which first heats it to 72C (162F), before being cooled down to 32C (90F).

It is then pumped into a neighbouring building where the real action takes place. As the freshly pasteurised milk is pumped into the huge vats, bacteria which is known as the "culture" is added to the liquid.

"The culture is the bacteria which gives each cheese its own distinct character," says general manager Ian Luxton, The precise blends of these cultures are a closely guarded secret, but Ian says the majority of them are brought in from abroad.

"It's a fermentation process, very much like wine production," says Ian, who is 57 and lives in Oswestry.

Chris Bradbury looks on as the milk is pumped into the huge silos at Belton Farm

"Once the culture has been added to the milk, the idea is that it will multiply to create the curd," he says. "Thirty degrees (centigrade) is the optimum temperature for bacteria growth, and it will feed off the lactose until it has reached the required condition."

Lactic acid is a by-product of the cheese-making process, and the cheese-makers know when the desired rate of fermentation has been achieved by testing the rate of acid production.

The length of the fermentation process varies from cheese to cheese, but it is no something that can be hurried, typically taking between two-and-a-half and four-and-a-half hours.

After the desired period, the milk will have separated into two components, the solid curd and the liquid whey, the latter being drained away through a filtration bed.

The curd, which is used to make the cheese, is separated from the whey which is sent to the neighbouring whey plant

"The whey used to be a complete waste product, we used to feed raw whey to our dairy cows and pigs," says Justin. However, advances in technology mean that whey protein can now be sold to the manufacturers of sports drinks, reducing the waste and providing a useful second source of income. Lactose permeate, another by-product of the process, is now sold as animal feed or for use in anaerobic digesters which turn waste into energy.

As the whey is removed, the proteins of the curds begin to link together to form solid pieces. These are then broken up for them to be salted by hand – the salt puts a stop to the fermentation process – and the cheese is sent by conveyor to be pressed into large blocks and left to stand overnight before being sent to the cold store.

Peter, who briefly worked in a bank before deciding he wanted to follow his family tradition by working in the cheese industry, says the cheeses will be kept in store for anything from two weeks to two years before they are ready to be sold.

"The crumbly cheeses, such as Cheshire, are the ones that only take a couple of weeks, whereas the contemporary cheeses such as Red Fox or White Fox can take a couple of years to mature."

As the saying goes, good things come to those who wait.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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