Roger Bigod came to England as a poor knight during the Norman Conquest in the 11th century and as a reward for his contribution to the victory, he was granted the title of Earl of Norfolk. Amongst his various estates throughout East Anglia was Bungay Castle in northern Suffolk. The River Waveney which forms the boundary between Norfolk and Suffolk passed through his land and just to the south of the river lies the present day Fen Farm Dairy, home of the cheese known as Baron Bigod. Jonny Crickmore, the creator of the cheese likes to think that if Baron Bigod was alive today he would be very pleased to know there is a great French-style Brie made in his home town.
Jonny is the third generation of his family to farm on the site, originally starting with a milking herd of British Friesian cows. Over the years they started cross-breeding with Holsteins which was common practice in England due to the resultant exceptional high milk yields. Unfortunately, this also meant very high feed costs, as Holstein-Friesians are fussy eaters and wouldn’t eat any of the crops grown on the farm. Falling milk prices and seeing another farmer selling free-range eggs from a shed painted to look like a chicken, led the young Jonny to do the same at Fen Farm but with fresh milk in the ‘milk shed’, painted to resemble a cow with black and white patches. Such was the success of the milk shed that he realised that the future lay in being able to command premium prices for his milk, rather than selling it to liquid milk processors.
With the guidance and assistance of legendary French cheese maker and instructor, Ivan Larcher, Jonny started his cheese venture in 2012. Following Ivan’s advice, he travelled to the Jura region in France and purchased 72 Montbéliarde cows and to the Brie region where he acquired traditional Brie de Meaux vats and other cheesemaking equipment. The decision to make a cheese based on Brie de Meaux came as a result of Jonny meeting with the team at Neal’s Yard Dairy and identifying a gap in the English market.
The first batch of Baron Bigod was made in 2013, using the traditional method for making this style of cheese. Montbéliarde cows do not produce much milk but being rich in protein and butterfat, it makes a creamy, complex and tasty cheese. Gravity is used instead of pumps and the curd is hand ladled, both these methods ensuring the development of a silky delicate texture. The fact that this was going to be the first ever raw milk cheese of this style made in Britain attracted the attention of the media and as a result BBC Radio 4 broadcast their early morning show, Farming Today from Fen Farm Dairy during the making of the first batch. The presence of radio at the farm continued when the long running BBC radio 4 programme The Archers visited Jonny for advice on a story line. Helen Archer had been making Borsetshire cheese at Bridge Farm and was considering changing the herd to Montbéliardes, exactly as Jonny had done himself, so they sought his expertise to make the programme accurate and authentic. Fen Farm have also gone on to make mascarpone, butter and skyr, all ways of making the most of their rich creamy milk. The ‘milk shed’ now sells a wide range of local artisan products including their own dairy products, meat, bread and eggs.
In the years since the first batch of Baron Bigod was first made, it is now produced as a traditional 3kg wheel, a 1kg wheel and a 250g disc, all packaged in lightweight thin wooden boxes. It is matured for 8 weeks during which time it ripens and softens resulting in a range of flavours and textures. The centre has a lactic and citrus flavour and retains a degree of curd like texture, whilst the outer layers are soft and silky with a more pungent, earthy flavour. The soft edible rind has a mild nutty and mushroomy flavour.
The rich, creamy, buttery and ooozy texture of Baron Bigod with its range of rural flavours demands a wine with body and texture and a rich palate of flavours, without dominating the cheese. Chardonnay is made for pairing with this style of cheese and with some barrel ageing to enhance the depth of flavour and texture, it will prove to be a perfect combination.
100 miles to the south-west of Fen Farm Dairy, on the North Downs in Kent are a group of Neolithic long barrows and monuments known as the Medway Megaliths. One of the most famous and best preserved is called Kit’s Coty, constructed about 4000 BCE, and believed, although unproven, to mean ‘tomb in the forest’. All that remains today is three standing stones covered by a capstone which form the entrance to an iconic vineyard of 95 acres which has therefore been named after the stones.
Kit’s Coty was acquired and planted by Tenterden based Chapel Down in 2007 as their first ever chalk site, with 2010 being the first vintage from this vineyard. The south facing slope, with the North Downs protecting the vineyard in the lee of the chalk cliffs, ensures that sunshine is captured all year round. The warm free-draining chalk soil provides the perfect terroir for top quality grapes with concentration, intensity and complexity. It is now planted with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Bacchus and Chardonnay, and is thought by many to be one of the best vineyard sites in Britain.
In the same year as Kit’s Coty’s first vintage was produced, Josh Donaghay-Spire joined Chapel Down, having learned his craft in Alsace and Champagne, eventually becoming head winemaker and driving turn around that would see them transformed into one of the country’s leading wine producers.
Kit’s Coty Chardonnay is made entirely from hand harvested grapes grown in the iconic vineyard which are pressed as whole bunches. The juice is left to ferment using wild yeasts in old oak barrels which adds complexity and richness to the wine. Nine months maturing in oak barrels of a variety of ages finishes the wine giving it texture and a further range of aromas and flavours.
The aromas are variously described as peach, apricot, red apples and shortbread, but it is on the palate that this wine’s real quality shines through. It is almost like eating a slice of thickly buttered brioche which has been covered in crushes toasted hazelnuts, all carried out in a wooden room made of oak. To complete the experience, the flavours linger for a long time after swallowing the wine.
Although geographically separated, the lines of history connect these two excellent products but the predominant connection is one of soft, buttery ooozy yumminess.