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They did it their whey...; Phil Rogers and family are proud of their Elgar Mature. Finola Lynch me ets the big cheeses.

Little Miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet, Eating her curds and whey... Cheesemaking makes a strange spectacle. One man wearing a white coat and a net over his head is standing in a giant bath of heated milk with a paddle in his hand.

The other dressed in the same garb is siphoning the mixture onto a giant sieve. It looks like a mountain of scrambled egg.

Meanwhile liquid is pouring onto the floor and I am standing in a puddle of whey. Good job I am wearing plastic bags on my shoes.

Phil Rogers and his father Richard are "wheying off", a process they tackle three times a week at Lower Lightwood Farm, in Cotheridge, three miles from Worcester.

I have arrived in time to watch them prepare a vat of cheese curd which once moulded, dried and matured will be ready to eat in January 1999 as their flagship cheese, Elgar Mature. Ask for it at the delicatessen's in Tesco.

More than 1,600 litres of milk which came from the udders of their herd of Friesian cows last night has been heated from 6am with Starter, a freeze-dried enzyme which resembles fish food to get the cultures working and vegetarian rennet.

Once heated to 32 degrees centigrade the mixture is cut into blocks, scalded and then drained of whey before it is poured into moulds and left to mature for up to 11 months.

The Lightwood Cheese business is a family affair. Dad Richard, "otherwise known as the old man", he tells me with a twinkle in his eye, and his daughter Alison milk the farm's 50 Friesians.

Alison is actually an accountant by day but loves milking the herd between her working hours in the office. "She finds it very therapeutic," said Phil knowingly.

Then Phil and Richard make the cheese and Phil's wife Sally turns the moulds over once a week while they are maturing.

He shows me the store room where they are kept at a constant eight degrees centigrade. Most of them are covered in revolting hair and green mould and the air smells dank. I tell him I cannot think of a worse job, but Phil reassures me that Sally loves it because "it's her sanctuary" from their three young boys, Ben aged seven, Adam aged four and one-year-old Sam.

Finally we must not forget to mention Phil's mum Vera who runs a selatering bed and breakfast business from the farm.

Phil has worked on farms all his life but before setting up Lightwood Cheese he had never got his hands into curd and whey before.

He said: "The family were real cheddar and Edam-eaters, nothing adventurous. I had never made cheese before in my life but it was at the time when the Government was telling farmers to diversify and make the most of what we had.

"I got a book out of the library and had a go. The first few batches were hardly edible but it was a challenge. It still is a challenge," he adds, wiping his brow.

He started off making softer cheese until Edwina Currie's "salmonella outburst" put paid to that and from then on concentrated on hard cheeses. Nine years later Lightwood Cheese boasts at least four varieties of cheese, all made with unpasteurised milk b ecause that is what "the serious cheese eater is looking for".

After watching the wheying off in the cheese room once a Wain House or cart shed dating back to the last century, we walk across the farmyard to the shop. The Malvern Hills are dark shadows in the distance and I remember the blurb on Phil's press release : "Views of the Malvern Hills are in abundance which inspired others in the pursuit of excellence such as Sir Edward Elgar, born only one mile away".

Lightwood Cheese is serious stuff. The varieties range from a strong-flavoured blue cheese called Elgar Extra Mature, to the delicate flavour of Teme Valley and the buttery taste of Severn Vale, his latest cheese.

But what they all have in common is the fact there is not just one flavour to enjoy in the mouth. They all seem to surprise you even after swallowing, without leaving that acidic catch at the back of the mouth.

The business currently churns out more than 30 tonnes of cheese a year, "probably what St Ivel produce in a week," but demand is growing, despite the high price of between pounds 4 and pounds 4.60 per pound.

Until the value of the pound soared Lightwood Cheese were exporting batches to Holland and a chain of delicatessens in New York. More than 40 per cent of their business is supplied to Tesco, "our bread and butter," but ideally Phil would prefer to concen trate supplies to local delicatessens and wholesalers.

"Unfortunately specialist producers are all in the same boat. We ideally prefer the local shops but they are a dying breed and there just isn't the demand."

The locals love his Teme Valley but Tesco clambered for his Severn Sisters and Elgar Mature and demand for his homespun varieties is soaring in the shiny world of the supermarket which pleases Phil. He said: "The British cheese market is probably one of the most varied there is. There is so much choice for the consumer now and the public have finally started to take more interest in what this country has to offer."

It has certainly altered his palette. Now no longer simply a cheddar-eater, he lives and breathes cheese: "I taste all kinds of strange varieties now, the smellier the better. I went to France last year and my wife had to drag me out of the delis. Ithou ght I had gone to heaven.

"I love making cheese and running my own business I get to wear lots of different hats, from making the cheese to doing all the PR, marketing and running our own shop. I couldn't do anything else."

And will the business become a family tradition? "I think Adam will be the one who could carry on the name. He has shown a great interest in cheese-making. But he's only four."

I do not think you have to be four-year-old to want to stand in a giant bath with a paddle sloshing around in scrambled egg.

Tesco stores will be promoting Lightwood Farm's Elgar Mature in local stores from May 13 for four weeks. Branches will include Redditch, Solihull, Walsall, Stratford upon Avon, Worcester, Hereford, Telford and Shrewsbury.
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Author:Lynch, Finola
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 2, 1998
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