Invisible Universes — Visiting Cheesemaker Mary Quicke in Devon
I have come to Devon to talk to Mary Quicke about cheese, but Mary Quicke wants to talk about soil.
It’s early in the day, and we’ve pulled over at a muddy viewing point that overlooks her family’s generous sweep of farmland in Newton St Cyres, just outside of Exeter. In the distance is an old church, and next to it is the house where Mary was born 64 years ago. Nearby is her brother’s home; there, the thatched-roof cottages that have occupied the village for centuries. When I look, I see mist still in the crevices of the hills, the golden light of morning melted over the grass like butter. But when Mary looks, she sees the ground swarming with potential and life.
“That whole microflora in the soil—there’s a whole universe that we're just beginning to understand," she says, gesturing to the fields. “Or not even understand it, but understand how important it is.” Beneath the grass is a complex ecosystem of critters that Mary is at pains to protect. She describes chicory plants, whose roots grow deep down and naturally aerate the layers of earth. She refuses even to till the soil.
Mary is the 14th generation of Quicke who has resided in this pretty pastureland, one in a long line of cheesemakers and farmers. Her clothbound cheddars and other traditional English cheeses—made slowly, using heritage starter cultures and milk from her herd; even aged on poplar and oak planks fashioned from the farm’s trees—have won prizes at the World Cheese Awards, the International Cheese Awards, and the British Cheese Awards. Mary was granted an MBE for her contributions to cheesemaking and farming in 2005, and co-founded the Academy of Cheese (a programme that offers sommelier-style certifications for cheese professionals) in 2013. Today, Quicke’s is among the country’s largest artisanal cheesemakers, and her wheels have travelled to ports as far-flung as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Dubai.
At first, I don’t understand why we’ve stopped the car to stare at dirt, particularly since—owing to my faulty alarm clock—we’re late to visit the dairy. But the more I listen, the more I realise that what teems invisibly beneath our feet is as important to Mary as the cheese that has earned her so many ribbons and plaudits.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the two are irrevocably linked. As Mary explains it, the microflora that live in the soil dictate how the grass grows, and the grass growth directly impacts how well her cows—a 600-strong, hybrid herd of Friesians, Swedish Reds, Montbéliardes, Holsteins, and Jerseys—eat. What they eat translates to the milk’s aromatics, its sweetness, its protein and fat content, even its hue. There is no hiding milk that is insipid or dull, and so Mary aims to graze her cows for 10 months of the year, from Valentine’s Day to Christmas. For the other two, they feed on silage (a fermented mix of grasses), which is also produced on the farm, and whose scent carries sweetly on the breeze.
A sign posted on a nearby fence clarifies this order of operations: “This is one of the fields where the grass and crops grow to feed the cows that produced the milk to make the award winning Quicke’s Traditional Cheese.” Cheese begins long before the culture and rennet acidify the milk and cleave curd from whey. It begins before the milk pools into steel vats, before the cows are milked—even before they set hoof on pasture. Cheese begins in the dirt.
Mary was not the Quicke anyone predicted would take over the family farm. The second child of six, including several brothers who spent their growing-up years between barns and milking parlours, she left sleepy Devon for London as a teenager (but not before her father taught her how to surf—for years one of her preferred pastimes).
At the time, she was restless, intellectually curious and, in her own words, “an arsehole.” At 17, her primary subjects were feminism and literature, and eventually she decided to pursue a PhD in Elizabethan dramaturgy. (Years later, she would fail her viva after a heated argument with her examiner, an event that she attributes to a boozy, “very good lunch.”)
The decision to return to Devon happened partway through her PhD, and largely on a whim. By then, Mary was newly married to husband Tom Langdon-Davies, and was growing weary of the city and of the cloistered world of academia.
“We’d spend a lot of weekends down in Devon, and one evening, Dad was just talking about the farm and growing the grass, and the cows, and making the cheese, and the whey would go to the pigs, and manure from everyone would go onto the crops [...] and I just thought, ‘This is so beautiful.’ So I said to Dad, ‘Could I come back to the farm?’ and he said, ‘Yes, but you’ll have to go and work on another farm, and you’ll have to go to agricultural college.’”
Within a year, she was managing the dairy at the farm where she apprenticed. Despite Tom’s initial objections, the couple returned to the family homestead for good. Owing to primogeniture laws, her elder brother John still owns the land, though the cheese, and much of the running of the farm, is Mary’s.
When I first arrive at the family home, it is evening, and the night-sheathed land is invisible beyond the narrow channels of the headlights. Mary has prepared a dinner of feast-like proportions, primarily using ingredients she grew or cultivated herself. We dine with her 90-year-old mother, Prue—who started the modern dairy operations in 1973—and Tom. There are nearly a dozen wedges of cheese to choose from, plus salad crowned with edible flowers, sorrel soup, fish pie, and beer from Hanlons Brewery, just up the road.
As the evening winds down, Mary makes me a cup of hop tea: whole-cone Citra hops infused in boiling water. I take a mug with me to the farmhouse across the way, and sleep in the bed where she was born.
Cheddar is a brutal business. It requires rare feats of strength, terrific stamina and endurance. Beneath their white jackets, the cheesemakers have backs like boxers’, shoulders the breadth of Olympic swimmers’.
The timing is punishingly precise. Once the rennet and starter culture are added, it is necessary to work quickly: the new cheese’s pH, flavour, colour, and consistency change minute to minute. As the curd forms, it is hewn into heavy slabs, which are stacked, cut, and stacked again (a traditional process known as cheddaring, which helps press out excess whey and results in a firm, crumbly cheese). Blocks are then heaved into a mill, which sprays out a confetti of curds. Those are liberally salted and pressed into cloth-lined, metal moulds. When full, each is staggeringly heavy.
In order to see the cheesemakers at work, Mary and I have both donned white jackets and slipped blue netting over our hair. She plucks a newly milled curd from the vat: it squeaks deliciously between the teeth, salt crystals still clinging to its exterior.
After we watch the latest batch of cheese come into being, Mary takes me into a small storehouse. “We’re doing a bit of time travel here,” she says. The wheels begin a waxen yellow; as we walk past shelves of progressively older batches, they become so pied and furred with blue and green and grey that the patterns could be used for camouflage, or as poetic inspiration for Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I’m impressed until we stroll over to the primary cheese-ageing facility, which the family has dubbed “the cathedral of cheese.” Inside is more than one year’s worth of milk, aged and compressed into immortal form. The room smells intensely of cheese, which is to say: not like sweat or old gym socks, but instead like animals and wood and time.
Making aged, clothbound cheddar the way that Mary does is making cheese the hard way. She estimates that her dairy turns out the amount of cheese in a year that the industrial facilities up the road produce in a day. The uninitiated might think that Mary’s vintage cheddar is similar to those shrink-wrapped, supermarket blocks of “cruncher” cheddar, ranked numerically according to their intensity.
But those cheeses—made from industrially farmed milk, lacking hands-on care—are typically fermented with Lactobacillus helveticus, a lactic acid bacteria known for its pleasing, caramel flavours, and for its very quick maturation time.
“Making cheddar with Lb. helveticus is the equivalent of an athlete using performance-enhancing drugs: it is a shortcut to big, sweet, easy flavours—milk doping; if you will,” Bronwyn and Francis Percival write in Reinventing the Wheel, a recent, polemical work about the need to protect so-called “real cheese.”
Compared with simplistic and speedy Lactobacillus helveticus, Mary’s starter cultures—which originate from area farms, and which were captured in the 1960s and ’70s—ferment slowly and build layers of complexity over time. Her wheels are wrapped in muslin and need to be regularly coated in lard to keep them moist; they sit on custom-designed shelves that allow them to be flipped every 10 days. In order to age properly, they also have to be sucked clean of cheese mites. Tending to them requires an observant eye and parental instincts.
After two years of such care and coddling, her cheese emerges a confection of toffee and grassiness, umami and onion, tongue-prickling with acid and laced with crunchy calcium lactate deposits. It tastes like land and weather. No two wheels are identical.
During my time at Quicke’s, land is the eternal constant—the topic to which all conversations return. Back in 1995, Mary changed the farming practices from ones that prized American-style efficiency—cows kept in barns and given feed instead of grass, yield as the ruling god—to the animal and eco-friendly approaches that are in place now. She talks of the need for a second agricultural revolution as we squelch across a field to meet her “girls,” who amble up to greet us with sloppy, dog-like kisses.
The curious thing about Mary is that—despite her industry standing, her many awards, and the unimpeachable fact of her cheese’s excellence—she will not take credit for it. Her cheese is not so much her own creative expression as an inevitability she shepherds into being.
It is the milk that has agency: “That thing people say about Michelangelo trying to find the form inside the marble? I always think of the vat of milk, trying to find the cheese sitting inside it,” she says.
Or the land decides. At best, she is an interpreter. “This is dairy country—cow country—it grows grass. So that means what you will do is something to do with cheese. We’re quite a long way from centres of population, so you would have wanted to have a product that lasted quite a long time,” she says. “So then that means it’s a long-life cheese, and if you’re in the southwest of England then that means it’s cheddar. The landscape determines its cheese.”
Before I leave for London, Mary wants to show me something. We pull over along another muddy shoulder, change into wellies, and walk into the trees. After five minutes of slipping over leaves and stepping over brambles, we reach a grove of redwoods.
"You saw the cathedral of cheese,” Mary says. “Here's the cathedral of trees.”
For a moment, head tipped back, I feel like I’ve travelled across time and space to Muir Woods, to my Northern California childhood. Mist hangs around the giants, and their soft bark is red as rust. Beyond building the dairy, cultivating the fields, rearing livestock, and studying soil, Mary’s parents also shaped the land. They planted these trees decades ago, when they were still saplings.
Even these redwoods, a distance uphill from the dairy, play their role in its runnings. They purify the air and anchor the soil. They are unignorable, but—as Mary pulls rogue ivy from their trunks, and cleans away plastic bags—still vulnerable.
“It’s part of our whole tradition, that we have a separation between people and the natural world—which is an artificial separation,” Mary says. “We’re of the natural world.”
More than a product on a shelf, her cheese is a living example of the fragile accord that exists between land and animals, farmers and consumers. It is the point at which all of those relationships come together, local heritage made edible. It is Mary’s way to tell the story of her land. It is her hope that the people who enjoy it will begin to turn their attention closer to the earth.