Before we go into the specifics of what you do for a living Joe, can you quickly introduce yourself as in where you live/where you generally skate etc?
My name is Joe Ventham, I’m 20 years old and I’m from Cornwall. I live with my girlfriend, Marianne and our dog, Lou. I grew up skating mainly around Truro and Falmouth, and not much has changed.
So what is your official job title?
I’m a cheese making assistant for a company called Lynher Dairies, where Cornish Yarg is made. I spend half the week physically making the cheese, and the other half in packing and dispatch.
How did you end up doing this job? What was your route into it? Do you have family connections to the farm, or were you interested in cheese beforehand?
Not at all, I didn’t have any experience and didn’t know what to expect, but I was looking for a new job and it definitely sounded more interesting than most of the other jobs that were going. After being shown round the premises at my interview I was quite overwhelmed by the cheese making process. There was a lot to take in and nothing really made sense but I played it cool and fortunately I was offered the role.
You’re involved in the production of a very special type of cheese, which is only made in Cornwall on one particular farm. Can you tell us some stuff about the history of Yarg?
So from what I’m aware, Yarg first started on a farm on Bodmin Moor in the 80’s by a couple called Alan and Jenny Gray. They named the cheese after their own name (‘Gray’ backwards). It made its home in Pengreep when Catherine Mead took on the traditional recipe back in the 90’s. She is still the current owner of the farm today.
Is the cheese made at the farm then stored somewhere else, or is everything done there?
Milk is delivered daily from various local farms throughout the week. Everything else is done straight from the dairy. The cheese is produced, matured and dispatched out of the same building.
From what I’ve gathered the current recipe was refined in 1615 from a recipe dating back even further to the 13th century, so the cheese you’re making has over 1000 years of history: that’s got to be better than selling cheese strings at ASDA right?
Well our rejected and edible waste products go in to the making of things like Cheese String and Wotsits so I am kind of contributing to selling cheese strings in a way, aren’t I?
Seriously though, there must be a lot of job satisfaction involved in doing this job: you’re genuinely involved in creating something special with deep roots in that area that you grew up in after all…
Yeah man I’m proud to be working for such a successful local business with deep heritage in Cornwall. There’s a satisfaction that comes with the traditional craft of cheese making too.
The recipe is closely guarded right? What’s so special about it?
Everything from the milk and techniques used to produce it. As far as I know, not much has changed from when the recipe was first refined. It has not been replicated anywhere else in the world so it’s one of a kind.
What does an average day actually involve for you then in terms of what your daily duties are?
It would be hard to cover everything that goes on in detail, but put simply, my day consists of de molding, blocking, thoroughly testing temperatures and acidity levels of the curd, milling, molding up and eventually cleaning down and setting up for the next day.
When I’m down the back in packing, the day will consist of treating the maturing cheeses, such as turning them and keeping the storerooms moist to encourage mould growth. We then wrap the batches of cheese that are fully matured and ready to be dispatched. Everything’s done by hand.
Are you something of a cheese specialist now you work there? How much Yarg do you eat?
Man I eat it every day at work during lunch, as there’s always some in the fridge. I don’t really have the broadest knowledge of cheese, but have learnt to notice the differences in Yarg. Whether it’s the texture that differs, or creaminess or saltiness etc. Stuff like that I’ve picked up, but I’m no critic.
Yarg is wrapped in nettle leaves – where do they come from? Are they grown especially for this purpose?
The nettles used are always wild, and picked locally in places like the woodlands and field hedgerows, away from roads and public footpaths.
Do the nettles actually give some benefit to the end product?
They’re used to preserve the cheese but also add a subtle ‘mushroom-y’ taste. It enhances the natural mould ripening process and creates the distinctive appearance of Yarg.
So that means someone is employed to pick nettles too then? Ever tried that?
There are a few months in the year when the nettles can be picked at their best quality. You can’t pick nettles when they’re wet, and an unsuccessful season of picking can determine how much cheese you make. Several people are employed to pick the nettles. Professional pickers, people that make a living off picking flowers and veg etc. They know where the best patches grow. I’ve never had a go, but I’ve heard it’s hard work.
The whole process and thinking behind the production of Yarg is a million miles away from the throwaway, disposable attitude to food that our culture generally has – has doing this job changed your attitude to food in general, or are you still keen for grim fast food as well as being employed in the creation of fine cuisine products like this?
I wouldn’t say it has changed my attitude towards food in general, as I think growing up around farms as I did means that you’re aware of the benefits of quality local produce anyway, so I think I’ve always had respect and knowledge of where my food comes from. However, I guess It has shown me the hard work and time that goes into producing quality foods, which I don’t think many people get to see unless they work in food production.
But yeah, with my own diet I’m definitely not super-strict. If it weren’t for my girl I’d be eating frozen pizzas every day, purely out of how easy it is to put one in the oven and sit down after work. I’m lucky; she has mastered cheap, healthy living. I’m not going to deny that I do go to work with a tin of happy shopper beans and sausages quite often though. It’s just easy.
Leo told me that when the storeroom is full of Yarg that it’s worth 2 million quid: Is that true?
I wouldn’t hold that to me but I’m pretty sure I overheard that being said during a public tour of the dairy. I’m sure that’s a realistic figure though yeah.
He also mentioned that there was a designated ‘nettle attaching room’? Is that true? Sounds heavy.
It’s an art form man. They’re wrapped in a way using a traditional pattern of concentric circles. Those women nettle up to over a tonne of cheese a day, it’s mad. Women heavily dominate the nettling and the cheese making by men – the divide of gender was one of the first things I noticed when being shown round. It’s funny because I work half in production and half in packing so I’m always on point with the latest banter and gossip, not that I get involved.
Are there secret Cornish techniques for avoiding getting stung? Or do you just have dock leaves on tap?
Cornish thick skin mate. Generations of mining and farming innit.
Is it true that the ladies that attach the nettles have worked at the farm for like 3 decades?
(Laughs), a few of the ladies have worked there for nearly a decade. I’m sure it feels like three. Yeah throughout the dairy there is a strong sense of pride and passion for what we’re making. However, my real passion is always going to be in skateboarding, so my heart will always be with it, whereas for some people at the dairy you can tell it’s their life. It’s lovely to see.
I have mad respect for how hard the cheese-makers work; it’s very inspiring and I am just as proud to work alongside these people, as I am to be producing something so unique.
What kind of age range is the workforce and how do they react to you limping around the premises after splitting your kneecap open on breezeblocks? Do you get ‘advice’ about your hobby ever?
A lot of them do just see it as a hobby, they don’t really understand that it’s my real passion in life outside of work and it’s what I want to be doing. I’m the youngest there by at least 11-12 years. There are 20 odd people that make up the Yarg squad. There’s not much sympathy when it comes to being injured as it affects everyone. I need to be able to do my job properly or it could put the whole team behind, so yeah, the main comments I get are things like ‘what’s the point?’ (Laughing).
There’s a wild garlic Yarg cheese too I hear? Do you make that too, or are you like mortal enemies?
(Laughs), yeah the Garlic Yarg is made from the same recipe. The only difference is that the cheese is wrapped in wild garlic leaves. The garlic leaves naturally infuse the flavour.
According to The Independent, Yarg is the ‘Cornish cheese that’s conquered America’ – must be pretty mad to know that this thing you’re making is being enjoyed thousands of miles away. Are you aware of any other places that are particularly big consumers of Yarg?
Supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s stock it, so it’s heavily distributed throughout the UK. We dispatch orders to the US every couple weeks. It’s a multi award winning cheese, very well respected globally.
Got any good Yarg related recipes? I’m guessing you can make a pretty peng cheese toastie with this stuff, right?
Man just cheese toasties or grated on beans. It melts real well. I know it’s encouraged to be used in cooking but I’ve never experimented myself. We’re not allowed to bring it home with us!
Would you recommend this job (or something similar) to anyone reading this? What are the pros and cons of working in the traditional organic food industry?
If food production is something that you’re interested in, then I would definitely encourage you to pursue it. You can start from the very bottom and work your way up for sure.
It’s rewarding to make something with your hands using what’s around you, particularly when you know it has been sourced ethically, you know?
As for me personally, my heart is in skateboarding, and a con of doing cheese making for a living is that it takes it out of you, physically and mentally. Like most jobs, it requires dedication, whereas ideally I want to be able to put more time and energy in to skateboarding. But I do admire the commitment of the cheese-makers; they’ve given me a much stronger work ethic. I have learned a lot from this job, there’s no doubt.
Okay, let’s end on something Cornwall-specific seeing as how your job is concerned with keeping thousand year old Cornish food traditions alive: how do you say ‘cheese sandwich’ in Cornish?
‘Bleddy cheese sandwich, what you on!?’
(According to the old boy next door, a man who has never crossed the Tamar)