A Taste of Cornwall Life with James Strawbridge - Powered by Cornish Gouda
PUBLISHED: 15:29 10 January 2014 | UPDATED: 15:29 10 January 2014
Blessed are the Cornish cheesemakers, discovers James Strawbridge
Photography by Charlotte Strawbridge
"“I hate being told what to do and I get to choose which 16 hours of the day to go to work.”"
On Tuesday and Thursday evenings I am often found on the river Fowey gig rowing with the Mens’ B team and amid gasping for air I will shout a passing “Alright Giel!” to the kayaking young cheese-maker who motors past us. I know Giel Speirlings through my own food business and found him while searching for the ultimate Cornish cheese to put into a Triple Cheese and Onion - part of my range at the Posh Pasty Co. Since striking up a business relationship with Giel I have had the chance to get to know him and his family a bit better whilst collecting my weekly order - my son Indy has even been allowed to sit in the Spierlings tractor thanks to Giel’s father Joost - this pretty much made his year. I absolutely love the fact that local food and social networking here in Cornwall can mean riding a tractor or two boats rowing past each other on the river - now that doesn’t happen in many other parts of the country.
I have met a wide range of smallholders and farmers who produce some fantastic food, and all of them continue to inspire me in my cookery and influence my business. Giel Spierlings is no exception - his passion for cheese is intoxicating and every time I leave Talvan Farm loaded up with large wedges of cheese I look forward to experimenting with another recipe when I get home.
Gouda is a Dutch-style cheese and it can be called Gouda wherever it is made. It is a style of cheese-making like Cheddar. Giel was born in Holland but moved to the UK with his parents when he was six years old - apparently he was fluent in English after just a few months and has settled in so well that to all intent and purpose he’s every bit the Cornish local. He is now 20 and runs his own business - the Cornish Gouda Company, which is helping the family farm to survive.
Giel is not only an impressive young entrepreneur he also finds time to help out on the farm and trains on the river most nights - last year he won the accolade of national U23 marathon Kayak champion! He tells me he is officially ‘powered by Cornish Gouda’.
"“I absolutely love the fact that local food and social networking here in Cornwall can mean riding a tractor or two boats rowing past each other on the river.”"
Instead of the more conventional route of going away to university after school, Giel decided to stay at home on Talvan Farm in Cornwall and start up his own business.
Giel is an awesome role-model for the ‘boomerang’ generation. Young people who, like myself, often leave home, go away and get degrees with no firm job prospects or security, and then end up coming home again in search of work. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if more young people wanted to set up their own small-scale artisan business as well as helping out?
When he reached the point of deciding about university Giel realised that if he went to university then he might have no farm to come back to - plus there’s ‘no better place to live than Cornwall’ - I think that most of us would agree!
Giel’s parents Joost and Annamarie moved to Cornwall with his brother Jan and sister Lonneke because the milk quota in Holland was significantly more expensive than the UK. The other reason why they moved here was because at the time England was only producing 65 per cent of its own milk so they thought it was a good place with a positive market. Unfortunately the milk quota crashed and the prices meant that they often wouldn’t get paid; the middle man destroyed the dreams of a thriving family business. This resulted in lots of farmers selling up - coincidentally leading to many smaller plots of land or smallholdings becoming more widely available. So when the prices crashed and the milk industry started to decline many farmers were forced to either quit or diversify.
The approach that I admired most about Giel and his family was that they don’t put off until tomorrow like many farmers. Often treading water and making ends meet can mean that the big jobs that need doing can sneak up on you and end with a sudden large investment required to survive - for example, a barn that needs replacing can cripple a small farm. The Spierlings seem to see any gradual investment and attention to their dairy as well worthwhile. Because they all believe in the cheese-making side of their business they have been willing to invest in it for their future.
With the milk price crisis behind them it seemed sensible that Spierlings wanted to diversify - what isn’t ordinary though was that it was their 20-year-old son who started up his own business to help. So instead of taking the conventional route Giel set up his own company - the Cornish Gouda Co. They were inspired because they were not too keen on English cheese and yearned for a ‘taste of home’. And an artisan product would help battle the milk prices. Like many cottage industries the steps from family activity to business were gradual. Giel tells me how his parents had always made cheese and he’d enjoyed helping when he was younger. Plus there is a family connection back in Holland where his uncle and cousin are cheese-makers.
When I asked about his background Giel explained that he’s been a professional farmer for 18 years and has fond memories of ‘mucking out the calves, feeding the animals and learning to drive a tractor’. Part of the reason that Giel has started his own business will resonate strongly with many Cornishmen: ‘I hate being told what to do and I get to choose which 16 hours of the day to go to work’. The downsides are that there is little to no time for travelling or holidays, yet there remains the dream of one day having employees to free up time. And he still genuinely wants to sail around the world. Currently Giel is at capacity with one-fifth of the milk being used to make his cheese and the other four-fifths going as milk but with plans to expand.
Talvan Farm is by farm standards small at 136 acres, although I still think in smallholding terms as that being massive! They milk 90 hefers that are a Holstein/Fresian cross using a dairy robot that has proven to be a great success. Groups of Young Farmers regularly come to learn about this robot and to hear from Giel about the cheese business. I was actually most impressed by the carbon neutral milk pasteurisation. This is thanks to a wood burner that the family swapped for some tractor tyres with neighbours. Heating the milk and pasteurising it for the cheese-making process is all done using scraps of wood supplied by local contractors!
It is the sign of a good food product if the maker still enjoys eating it after months of working so close to it. It seems that the whole family enjoys cheese which is a good sign - mum Annamarie, dad Joost, brother Jan and sister Lonneke will often use the plain Cornish Gouda as an everyday cheese on toast, in sandwiches and with crackers. Annamarie also uses the Italian herb flavoured Gouda a lot in cooking and the Honey and Clover Gouda with leeks. My top recommendation would have to be the Fenugreek or the semi-mature - both are fantastic! Giel explains to me that part of the interest with different flavours in his cheese is because there is ‘nothing worse at a wine evening than nothing to talk about’. Cheese bored isn’t an option with these cheeses! Giel even buys his cheese boards made locally in the village and will swap his cheese when the family is partial to a slice of Cornish Brie.
His mum Annamarie is proud of the way that Giel has chosen to do all of this of his own accord - and the way he talks to people. However, it’s not just the story that people are buying into. There is a premium reputation for Giel’s cheese shown by the fact he gets lots of return customers - me included. Giel is still young - his mum Annamarie tells me that although the cheese making area is always clean, sometimes it is hard to wade into his room for laundry on the floor - good to hear that he is human after all.... n