Cheesemaker Mary Quickecelebrates the seasons, month-by-month. Here she reflects on December on her Devon farm.
How quickly the autumn seeps away, the sun drops, the leaves fade, days become dusk then long night. Look carefully and new growth, the promise the earth will turn, the light will return, is everywhere. The hazels start growing flower buds, hardy plants like chickweed and shepherd's purse provide a green nibble now there aren't more interesting wild things to pick. Half grown deer, deserted by their mothers now pregnant with next year's young, hang around in familiar places uncertain about what to do. Now two younglings have come together, both daft, but now with the confidence that two bring. Leaves are off the trees, they shed this year's to start developing next year's, visible under tight buds.
In the fields, next year's crops are already growing – too strongly, in the case of the winter barley we sowed in early October, bitten by the previous year's difficulties. Their leaves are lush and straggly, with some disease coming in – could do with a little grazing, if only we could direct the deer to eat what we want. In the silage pit, the cows are eating the stored maize and grass at an alarming rate, as we bring them in, first at night, and then all the time when the ground gets too tender. By Christmas, all the spring calved cows will be on their holidays, and the feed, we hope, will last till the grass grows.
The spring cows, on their break from milking, and most of the heifers are grazing the winter crops. We've grown them fodder beet – sweet like beetroot, yellow like swede, sticking proud above the ground, a tower of feed with a little topknot of green leaves. We've fenced the badgers off the beet, as they love it: so far they've kept off it, where they had nibbled healed over. We've grown the cows kale for January – a triumph of hope over experience: last time deer ate every paddock overnight just before the cows went in. Some heifers will be on long grass we let go long for them. We'll have some animals inside if they need a little more TLC than the great outdoors can provide. Cold or wet doesn't perturb cows and heifers if they've been outside and grown a woolly coat. Both cold and wet is harder, particularly if you are little. So we'll watch, and weigh, and weigh up what will support them best.
We calve the autumn cows to give us milk through the winter – people eat more cheddar in the winter, so we need to produce enough milk to keep the cheese mature enough. We aim to keep grazing as close to Christmas as we can, to keep those lovely grassy flavours coming through, 'green odour' oxylipins, I was told by Michael Lee, a scientist from Bristol University researching the sustainable and health-giving qualities of grazing grass. Alleluia for that, after the long years of farmers being told by scientists that the only way forward was feeding more grain, at the same time being chided by environmentalists for feeding human food (grain) to animals. Grass feeding gives animal products that use the least human food to produce them, and produces less methane, too.
The milk gets more creamy into the winter. We handle the milk much more gently now, so the cream will hold its structure, so I'm looking forward to the cheese tasting richer, with no trace of astringency in the flavour. In the vat, the milk is looking wonderful: neither grainy with protein, nor with little globules with fat: the milk is holding its shape properly. We make a lot of little cheeses now, and the challenge is to keep the curd warm in cold weather while we get the cheese into the little fiddly moulds. We keep it under blankets of cheese cloth, and get it from under the covers like reluctant schoolchildren when it's time to get up. The shop has lots of delicious foods from nearby. We seek out gorgeous foods which support this lovely landscape.
From Mary's Dairy Diary at http://www.quickes.co.uk/