There is a bit of a list of things that get Mary Holbrook’s goat: the government, Brexit, country fields full of solar panels, homogenous executive housing estates, people asking about pioneering cheesemaking and her hallowed place in British dairy history.
Holbrook knows about history. She did a PhD in ancient history and archeology and, before cheese became her life, catalogued early scientific instruments in Hamburg in Germany and worked as a curator at a museum in Bath. Her husband, John, was a professor of biochemistry at Bristol University. She was never your typical cheesemaker, but for my money she is Britain’s best.
John came from Somerset farming stock, and Sleight Farm, where she has more than 100 goats and 180 British Lop pigs, belonged to his family, but Holbrook was new to it. “I stopped working in museums because of red tape,” she laughs, “but dairy farming is much worse.” It was the mid-70s, she had two goats and two-and-half gallons of milk a day. “I asked myself, what am I going to do with it? Make some cheese. What am I going to do with that? Sell it.”
There wasn’t much of a market for English goat’s cheese then so she sold locally through health-food shops. “My really crappy cheese did OK,” she says. “Then I went to France and came across their cheese moulds.”
She wasn’t alone. French farmers were going through an artisan cheese revival and their influence was spreading.
“They were all women,” says Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Randolph Hodgson, who was driving around the British Isles at the time looking for good cheese to sell. “There was Mary Holbrook at Sleight Farm, Veronica Steele at Milleens and Giana Ferguson at Gubbeen. They were a new wave and new to it. Mary had lived abroad and knew European cheeses and that is what she brought to it. She didn’t like following or leading a crowd. She is an independent spirit.”
Also important was “Mr Taylor”, a former cheese buyer at Harrods. Holbrook had met him when she went into the food halls to check out her continental competition. She was soon supplying him. “I used to phone them in spring,” she says. “I’d speak to Mr Taylor and say, ‘I have cheese again.’ They were very good. He accepted it was seasonal. Now everyone wants it all year round. He was getting fresh cheese, the feta, our Little Rydings and Emlett. He took quite a range.”
Emlett was my go-to cheese from when Holbrook also farmed sheep, until she suddenly sold her herd and it stopped, along with Sleight Farm’s Little Ryding. “Sheep need quite a lot of looking after, and they need shearing,” she says. “I couldn’t have been away from the farm if I had them.”
Since around the time John died in 2002, Holbrook has spent a few days a week in Bethnal Green, east London. One week she’ll bring up cheese to Neal’s Yard Dairy in Bermondsey (“They get what I give them,” she says), the next she delivers her happily raised pigs and kids to restaurants such as Moro and James Lowe’s Lyle’s. Every Wednesday, she looks after her cheese at Neal’s Yard.
Currently Holbrook makes four cheeses: young, fresh Sleightlett, Tymsboro, Cardo and Old Ford, a hard goat’s cheese, made when there’s enough milk and she’s inclined.
“She is a one-off,” says Martin Gott who worked at Sleight Farm from 2004 to 2006. “What she has forgotten about cheese is more than most people will ever know. But she told me she was packing it up. She was spending a lot of time in London. She didn’t have anyone to milk her goats. It was all over, she said.”
Gott and his partner, Nicola Robinson, moved from Cumbria to Somerset. “We shared the farmhouse and rented a couple of rooms. I thought, this lady isn’t going to be around for ever. I didn’t want to lose her take on cheese.”
Gott also started developing his St James cheese at Holbrook’s dairy before taking it back to Cumbria. “We were working on the same farm, living in the same house, eating in the same kitchen, going about our own business.”
It was the start of a second wind at Sleight Farm. “We were the first of a wave of people who worked with her,” he says. “Maybe she would have packed up, maybe other cheesemakers wouldn’t have come along after us. When you work with Mary, you see what farming should be. She sets the standard. It is a good academy.
“She will work as hard as anyone you have ever met. She throws hay bales around. She is incredible. I call those memories my ‘Mary stories’. Like fairy stories they are unbelievable. She sets the bar really high and expects you to meet them. Don’t expect praise, but you know she is happy when she’s humming. Wandering around her farm, she hums quietly to herself. You can see when she is content. And seeing that is enough.”
Two to try
Holbrook’s ash-coated pyramid. Firm, fresh, near dry white to soft, tangy, greeny-grey.
Uses cardoon as a vegetable rennet. Washed-rind cheese with briny, mildly bitter notes.