There are more sheep than ever grazing on the Forest of Bowland fells these days – and some of their milk goes into producing a crumbly, tangy, Lancashire classic. We meet the people behind Grandma Singleton’s cheese.
Sheep’s cheese is growing in popularity as more of us try to cut lactose from our diets, but even John Carr from Singleton’s Dairy in Lancashire’s Trough of Bowland didn’t expect such a niche product to be so successful. He tells us the story behind Parlick Fell sheep’s milk cheese – the perfect thing to melt on toast. He also gives us his recipe for potato, broccoli and cheese bake.
Sheep’s milk seems a fairly niche market. How did you get into it?
We used to farm cows, but then the Milk Marketing Board closed and milk quotas became valuable. We sold our quota, which meant we had to sell our cows, too, but we still had the land and it still needed to be farmed. So we went into milking sheep.
Did that seem an obvious next step?
Well, we had a choice between llamas, goats and sheep. We’d seen the rise in popularity of goat’s milk products, but I said, “We’re not doing bloody goats, because they stink.” Still, we knew non-cow’s milk was a growth market because of more and more people developing lactose intolerance. There’s a lot less lactose in sheep’s milk, we were farmers needing something to farm, we weren’t going to do goats or llamas – so sheep it was!
Were you not seen as a bit of a local oddity?
Not at all. In the early days, around 15 years ago, we had a flock of between 600 and 700 sheep. You need a hell of a lot of sheep to make just a little cheese. So we encouraged other local farmers to start milking their sheep, too. Inadvertently, we started a thriving sheep milk industry centred around Parlick Fell, where most of the sheep graze, in the Trough of Bowland.
You’re actually a Lancashire cheese dairy by rights these days, aren’t you?
We’ve always been a dairy, first and foremost. We make Grandma Singleton’s Lancashire cheeses. At the moment she’s really Great-grandma Singleton, and when the generation who are now teenagers pick up the dairy, they’ll be the fourth generation of the family in this dairy. Sadly, we had to pull out of milking sheep – our flock got a disease, which meant they weren’t milking any more. But as a dairy we continued to make cheese from the sheep’s milk produced on the other local farms. The family had always had the farm as a fun hobby, rather than as a business, so the land was sold in order for us to concentrate on the dairy.
Is the process of milking sheep and making sheep’s milk cheese very different from using cows’ milk?
No, it’s very similar, but you only get a thimbleful, rather than a bucketful, when you milk a sheep. It’s a seasonal milk, since sheep don’t produce milk all year round. So we make a long-keeping cheese to make sure there’s a supply throughout the year. As a dairy we specialise in “keepers”. All of our cheeses, including the Lancashires, are made with less moisture so as to avoid giving the cheese any bitter whey flavours.
How would you compare Parlick Fell cheese to other more well-known sheep’s milk cheeses?
With feta, for example, the basis of the cheese is its saltiness, which is great in a hot Mediterranean country, because it helps you to retain water. Our cheese is almost the opposite. It’s sweeter, because it’s based on the sweetness of the sheep’s milk. It’s distinctly different. Manchego cheese is also made from sheep’s milk, but Parlick Fell isn’t hard like that. It’s got a soft, creamy texture, which means it melts beautifully. It’s fantastic for cheese on toast, though I like to eat it on its own – it’s a good eating cheese.
Does the cheese have something characteristically “Trough of Bowland” about it?
There’s a hell of a lot of sheep round here! When I drive to work these days I see more sheep than cows. It’s not an ideal climate for sheep, because it’s so damp, but the rain is good for the grass, and sheep eat a lot of it. All our sheep’s milk comes from no more than eight miles away. We make the cheese by hand and it’s matured by us. Dairy farmers may have been having a tough time, but sheep’s milk is doing well. It’s quite satisfying to think that, even accidentally, we have helped the local economy by starting a mini-industry in the area.
Read the article as it originally appeared on Flavour