An Interview with the Bartlett Brothers – sheep farmers and cheese-makers at Wootton Dairy
Proper West-Country boys, James and Dave make sheep’s milk cheese on their farm near Shepton Mallet in Somerset. Spring is when they are working at their peak: the lambing and the start of the new season sheep’s milk means their cheese, Dumpling, comes back into season. Andy interviewed them to find out what makes these fantastic cheese-makers tick.
Give a brief synopsis of your business and career.
I (Dave) worked for a local agricultural building contractor, whilst my brother (James) worked on a variety of local farms until the opportunity came up for both of us to return to work on our parents’ farm and start milking sheep in 2000.
Tell me more about the farm.
Our parents had lived on the farm for about 45 years, mainly farming beef. They slowly built the farm up from about six acres to a viable size. When we returned to the farm we changed tack a little, brought in sheep and went organic. Nowadays we milk about 180-200 sheep.
We decided to make cheese when we realised we couldn’t make a living from milk alone: we needed to increase the value of the milk by turning it into cheese and yoghurt. We make a variety of cheeses, but the lactic, slow set Dumpling showcases the sheep’s milk and our farm best. It took us about a year to come up with the name Dumpling – we thought they looked like the type of dumplings you get in stew.
What is your philosophy for your food and business?
I don’t know if we have a business philosophy, but we hope if the cheese tastes nice people will buy it.
Describe a typical working day.
If it’s your turn to milk, it’s about a 3.30 am start! It takes about three hours to milk the sheep and then milk our small herd of Jersey cows. Next the milk has to be taken to Nathan in the cheese-room, who starts making the cheese. All the animals need to be fed and checked, the ‘milkers’ moved out to their daytime grazing, and then it’s breakfast for us. Once the morning routine is out of the way we can get on with whatever needs to be done that day. That might be going to a Farmers’ Market, making silage, fencing, paperwork, helping out in the cheese-room, or moving sheep or cows to new fields – the list is endless.
From the beginning of January until sometime in April we milk the sheep twice a day, so whoever milks has to do the afternoon milking too. If they start at 3.00 pm they are normally finished by about 6.00 pm. The person who isn’t milking will do their afternoon routine, topping-up feed and water for ewes in lambing pens, bottle-feeding lambs, and any other jobs they can squeeze in. Often the last job of the day is to add the rennet to the Dumpling milk so they are ready to ladle the next day, and then turn the Millstones, another cheese we make, so they don’t stick in the colanders.
What’s the best part of your job? And do you have a favourite memory from work?
Lambing, fencing, and seeing people at the Farmers’ Market who are adamant they don’t like sheep cheese change their minds once they have tasted it. I still find it incredible how liquid milk turns to curds – like magic. No two days are the same: there’s lots of variety, everything changes with the seasons, and it is all entirely dependent on the weather. We used to have a ewe called Wendy – a Friesland-Wensleydale cross – who would tap on the parlour door with her foot to be let in.
When you are at home what is the staple dish for the family?
Anything that is quick. Porridge, Millstone melted on toast, Little Ryding unmelted on toast with jam, any sort of fruit, pasta, boiled vegetables with meat.
Do you have any hidden foodie gems you think are worth people knowing about – shops, producers or otherwise?
Mere Fish Farm, Wiltshire (trout and smoked trout products) – Janet and Chris.
Do you have a favourite cheese at the moment? If so, why is it your favourite?
Westcombe Cheddar – because we had it at our wedding.
If you had to choose a drink to go with cheese what would it be? And why?
Hecks cider from Street – we normally sell our apples to them.
What couldn’t you live without?
I couldn’t live without my penknife – the farm is held together with baler twine.
What is the best success you’ve had with your product?
We have been lucky enough to win a few prizes at shows: the British Cheese Awards, cheese and yoghurt at Bath and West, cheese at Nantwich, the Soil Association, Taste of Somerset, Frome Show (Global Cheese Awards) and Mid-Somerset Show.
What are your plans for the future?
We are currently planning to put in a bigger milking parlour because the size of our current parlour means it takes too long to milk.