Sitting in a heated tent in Devon, overlooking acres of rolling hills, we caught up with Mary Quicke from Quicke’s cheeses. Whilst we had prepared questions to find out as much as we could about the lady whose cheeses consistently win awards, we weren’t prepared for feeling so uplifted and inspired by someone so passionate about cows, cheese and farming.
In an interview like no other, Mary bounced excitedly from one subject to another; stopping to insist I try her tea, or meet various family members, or staff, who she said she wished she could give wings! She wants to see people fly, and feel empowered. And we’ll drink to that.
PhD students have written about the mould cultures growing on the cheese, whilst music aficionados will be pleased to hear that Mary’s brother owns part of Ninja Tunes, so if you spin Mr. Scruff, Bonobo, or DJ Food you may even have heard of Quicke’s before in a less culinary setting!
Name: Mary Quicke MBE
Fun Fact: An avid surfer, Mary catches waves whenever she gets time
When did you know you wanted to be in the cheese business? Did you always know?
Having grown up in a farming family, it was always around me. But what my father mainly liked to do was forestry. So I mainly did forestry work. That and surfing. He taught me how to surf! It was much later that I decided to come back and work the farm.
So you’re the 14th generation to live here, did you feel any responsibility to have to keep the farm going?
One of my brothers became a doctor, and another one runs a little company called Ninja Tunes, so there was no pressure. I wanted to be a journalist, so I studied English, but eventually I became really interested in farming and decided to come back to it.
How long does it take to develop the skills and knowledge to make a good cheese?
I’m always learning. I’m always open to suggestion and there are so many other projects and varieties I want to work on, so in that sense it’s a lifelong job. I’ve been looking at adding a touch of Jersey into the current cross to add a creaminess to the cheese.
Oh really? So you believe that the actual breeding makes a difference to the type of cheese?
Absolutely. But we are talking long term here so we’ll be serving the calves in May. They’ll be born in February and they take two years to grow up and start milking, so it’s a long term idea.
What does your job entail?
Well, these days everything! We only opened our farm kitchen here last May, and so at the moment we are just really enjoying that idea of everything you eat inside being a part of everything you see outside.
You really must try this tea.
[Mary offers me her cup and I taste the delicate flavour of a woody, light green tea. Everything has been handpicked to make ethical choices]
What makes Quicke’s cheese unique?
Well, we use these heritage starters that have been preserved from the best cheese dairies in the sixties and seventies. Yeah, we so nearly lost them. They were sold out to different companies and ended up in the hands of a French yeast cultivator.
Oh right! That’s pretty weird, surely they’re completely different cultures?
Yes, these are wet cultures – like cheddar flavoured yoghurt. I have them for breakfast every morning. But anyway, the cultures and the fact that its cloth wrapped give Quicke’s a distinctive flavour.
If you could sum up cheese making in one sentence what would you say?
Cheese is milk’s leap to immortality. But here, what we’re doing is… Our aim is to take the products if the sun, soil and water of this valley and turn that into complete joy and pleasure.
Back to the cheese, please describe why Quicke’s cheese is different to any other cheese?
One thing is that the milk comes from our own cows. We’ve developed those cows to give this perfect flavour. So we use a hybrid cow, that’s more fertile and more happy to be outside. And they live two and a half times longer than standard UK cows because we don’t expect such a high yield from them. We treat them well.
And we cloth bind the cheese, which means they need turning to develop the mould garden.
So is this a cross that you and your family came up with?
[Modestly, I mean we really had to prise it out of her] Well, I did. And the team here.
After a day spent working with cheese, do you find yourself still eating it when you’re off duty?
Yes! I absolutely love it. I love listening to the different flavours and hearing the story they have to tell. And it’s the same with our meat. Our venison, our lamb. They all live here in this valley.
How many animals have you got on the farm?
Well actually the beef production and the amount of beef cattle is quite low. We have some animals who we say have chosen a career in beef. [LOL] It sounds much better, doesn’t it? It’s basically a heifer who didn’t get in calf.
The venison is wild shot, but we can’t have too many here on the farm or they trample the crops and damage them. So because they reproduce all the time, we have to keep the numbers down. They also raze crops at this time of year, which is a kind of natural fungicide.
You have an elderflower cheese here, are there any weird flavours of cheese you know of?
Actually, there are many flavoured cheeses you can get. But usually the way they’re made is by churning up the cheese and adding flavours and fruit or whatever. It took years to get this one right, as we wanted to make the elderflower a part of the process, and I think we’ve done it.
[NB: The elderflower cheese tasted like nothing I’ve tried before. Strong, almost beefy and a little grassy too.]
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the cheese business and how you do what you do?
There is no normal day. I tend to pick a salad first thing. I’ve always created these interesting salads and now we’ve got them on the menu.
Something else I do is think about the breeding and how to get the best flavour. I spend time wondering if we’ve got the right resources in place. Producing vintage traditional cheeses is hard work – making sure we have enough people here, so no-one feels overworked.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about the balance of acidity and moisture. About cheese. Characterising the flavours: buttery to caramel; sharp, grassy to oniony; and the third family is brothy, meaty.
Where do you get your ideas?
From people. Everywhere. I want to give people wings, and I will listen to any suggestions anyone has. I like all of the staff here to feel like family. Some of them are family. [Mary introduced us to Gina, her sister-in-law, and explained that her niece also worked on the farm.] It’s a great team we’ve got here.
What’s next for you?
We’re looking at making a children’s play area on the farm next. But for me? There are so many things coming next, I don’t have time to fit them all in. We’re hoping to open up an educational hub and all sorts of things. But my family do say I have a tendency to proliferate!
And we always ask a couple of customary ridiculous questions…
If you had to choose music to represent Quicke’s cheese, who would you choose and why?
Well actually, on my brother’s label, there’s a DJ, someone like Bonobo or something, who wrote a song “Mr. Quicke Cuts the Cheese”. [It’s actually DJ Food, but check Mary’s Ninja Tunes baddassness suggesting Bonobo!] So we already have that written about us!
If you had to get into a fist fight with anyone who would you square off against?
I guess it would be people who suggest that there’s no say in food. ‘Big Food’. Companies and people who advocate that we just have to eat what they have, and there’s no say in what we eat, the planet we create. People can vote with their wallets and make choice. I believe everyone has that power, and I would square off against anyone who does not believe this.