An interview with Sarah Hampton: creator of Capra Nouveau
An interview with Sarah Hampton; farmer and cheese-maker of the fabulous Capra Nouveau cheese! Find out what Sarah loves on the food scene, her ethos for her business and her recommendations on the best places to eat and shop for food!
Brief synopsis of your business & career?
After graduating from Cambridge in French and German, I became a TEFL teacher in London and was about to get a PGCE, so I could teach languages. In any case, a career in teaching or as an interpreter seemed the obvious choice. My way in life was mapped out. Then I somehow went into writing, editing and PR. I loved the creativity. In 2000, I met my husband and we bought a smallholding in Shropshire. My vibrant career took a nosedive when along came children and I decided to buy a couple of pedigree Saanen goats…
What made you get into doing what you do?
The pair of Saanen goats, once they had kidded, were giving prodigious amounts of milk – about seven litres each, per day. I wanted to do something worthwhile with the milk, so I experimented with cheesemaking. The cheeses were so delicious, with that complex, ’fresh-from-the-farm’ flavour, that people couldn’t get enough of them. I got a licence from the EHO to make cheese in a second utility room but demand for the cheese was booming, so, with the aid of a partial grant, we created a dairy, equipped it with all the items necessary for making cheese and here we are. The short answer to what made me get into cheesemaking is: curiosity, determination, hard work, a passion for artisan cheese and sheer stupidity!
What is your philosophy for your food/business?
My philosophy is ‘nothing good comes easy.’ We have to have goals and, as individuals, be driven to reach and to exceed those goals, time after time, no matter how we feel, day in day out. We have to work as a team, to ensure everything is always the best it can be and no cutting corners! A food business has to be safe and it has to be efficient. We’re creating a food product from start to finish, right here on the farm, and people of all ages will be consuming it. Therefore it is our responsibility to ensure the cheese we make is both a pleasure to eat and completely safe. It would be simpler and more profitable to just buy in milk from another farm but we would not be in control of the precious raw material we’re working with – milk. Familiarity brings knowledge and knowledge is power. We know our animals, our pastures and we’re in tune with the seasons – you have to know and love what you’re working with, in order to create great food.
Describe a typical working day.
I work seven days a week, 10 hours a day in the dairy, unless we’re away from the farm. We make cheese every other day, so on cheesemaking days, I’m up early to clean out the vats, prior to receiving the milk. The cheesemaking lasts for most of the day. The following day is spent either scooping out curds for soft cheeses or salting the previous day’s cheeses. To ensure our Capra Nouveau rinds are uniform and attractive, we wash the Capras every day for the first 4-5 weeks and turn them every day. The job is physical and relentless and there is so much cleaning involved. However, the work is also physically demanding for the small team of local girls who look after our prize assets – the goats. The milking routine starts at 0445 every day. Our goats are milked twice a day, every day at 0500 and 1600, every day of the year. Their pens are cleaned out every day too, so that the goats are kept clean and healthy all year round. The goats kid in groups at various times of the year, so that we have a consistent source of high quality milk all year. This means that my day finishes even later during some weeks of the year as the goats may be kidding or the kids may need feeding late at night.
What’s the best part of your job? And do you have a favourite memory from work?
Without doubt, the best part of my job is that magical moment when someone tries our cheese for the first time and their eyes light up. I call it ‘The Goats Cheese Epiphany.’ They smile broadly and declare: ‘You know, that’s the best goats cheese I ever tasted!’ When they say that, I know my work is done. My favourite memory is the first time we won 3 Great Taste Gold Stars, in the first year we ever entered them, which was 2012. We won those three Gold Stars for Capra Nouveau and a couple of months later, the icing on the cake was that it was announced as a Top 50 Food in Britain. For our first year of trading, that wasn’t a bad achievement.
When you are at home what is your staple dish for the family?
My husband is a master at making amazing roast dinners in the Aga. As a pescetarian, I never eat the meat but they always look phenomenal. I like to make simple, hearty stews for everyone during the winter months or other than that, our guilty pleasure we indulge in as a family is always a cheese fondue.
What is your favourite place to go eat (if you’re not eating at yours!)?
Because they know us, use our cheese and we like to go there on special occasions, such as birthdays, we love to eat at The Square, in London’s Bruton Street. Philip Howard and his team have ‘got it all going on’, to coin a phrase!
Do you have any other hidden foodie gems you think are worth people knowing about – shops, producers or otherwise?
The ancient market town of Ludlow is a place so close to my heart. Not only is it picturesque and charming, it has such a vibrant food culture. I’ve been going to the Ludlow Farmers Market the fourth Thursday of every month with our cheese, and have built such a firm and loyal following. Not only are there wonderful, cheese-loving people in Ludlow but the two Food Festivals in May and September are certainly worth visiting. The producers and exhibitors, all local, are real characters – we get such a buzz from taking part. The two Ludlow Festivals and the Shrewsbury Food Festival in late June are the highlights of my year.
Do you have a favourite cheese at the moment? If so, why is it your favourite?
I always love cheese! My perennial (non-goat) favourites are these four – Stichelton, Colston Bassett, Montgomerys and Hafod. If I had to choose just one, it would be Colston Bassett – why? Because it is so well balanced. I’ve never had a bad one.
If you had to choose a drink to go with cheese what would it be? and why?
I know they say beer is the best drink to go with cheese but if I’m quaffing beer, chances are we’re at the Severn Valley Railway pub in Bridgnorth. It’s a beautiful, historic pub and home to a fleet of wonderful steam engines but trust me, there’s no cheese in sight there! So, for a drink and cheese pairing, I like a full and aromatic, off-dry cider such as Dunkertons ‘Black Fox’.
Where do you look for inspiration in your business?
I don’t look anywhere. My ambitions are simple – to make the best goats cheese we can and to look after our goats to the very best of our ability. Nothing makes me happier than looking at the herd, almost with a judge’s eye (I used to show our goats in the early days) and to be completely happy with what I see. I have bred and refined our special herd of pure Saanen goats for over 15 years. A goat who has a good, natural life is a happy goat – and happy, well-bred goats make the best and most milk. I don’t look to other people or products for inspiration; I’m constantly looking inwards at our own operation, trying to improve on what we do. For me, that’s the best way forward.
What couldn’t you live without?
I couldn’t live without good hay and good water. Thinking from our goats’ point of view, of course. And then, from the point of view of our cheese, I couldn’t live without salt. And what keeps me going every day? Love, humility, ambition and above all, good humour. Those are my key ingredients for living.
What is the best success you’ve had with your product?
In every year of entering the Great Taste Awards, the cheeses have come away with 3 Gold Stars each and each of our cheeses entered has been named a Top 50 Food in Britain. If I stop to consider that a moment, I find it mind-blowing. But aside from the Great Taste Awards, winning a Super Gold for our Capra Baby (a smaller version of Capra Nouveau) at last year’s World Cheese Awards (making it a top 62 cheese in the world) was an incredible surprise and a great honour. We have also won awards at the British Cheese Awards and last year, Brock Hall Farm Dairy was also named Small Dairy of the Year by Good Housekeeping magazine. We have achieved such a lot in such a small space of time. But the main thing is to keep trying and never to be complacent.
What are your plans for the future?
That’s a tough question! We can’t grow bigger and milk more goats, as we don’t have the space. And even if we had a bigger farm, we don’t want to have so many goats that it compromises our production standards or adversely affects our extremely high welfare practices. So our plans would be to be even better at what we’re doing.