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The £5m nose

Meet Diane Cox: one of the first female master cheese graders
The £5m nose

Our ancestors used to call cheese graders ‘fortune tellers of cheese’ – they had an almost mythical status’, says Diane Cox, Wyke Farms’ new master cheese grader. ‘You need to be able to smell a cheese and predict the flavours it will produce in up to two years’ time.’

Cheese grading, the art of assessing the taste and monitoring the quality of different batches of cheese, has historically been a very male-dominated business. ‘It was always thought that the biggest nose was the best for the job’, Diane tells us, ‘and many men had bigger noses – some of them through drinking the local cider!’

There’s now evidence to suggest ladies are equally adept – and in some cases better – at picking up subtle aromas, which is a vital part of cheese grading. ‘Cheese is a living thing and there are many variables that can affect the flavours in the finished product’, Diane explains, ‘like the cow’s diet, the area the milk has come from, the season and how the cheese is produced.’

A VALUABLE ASSET

Attention to detail is key – and Wyke Farms seems to have it nailed. It has been producing award-winning farmhouse cheddar for over a century, using milk from cows that graze the lush pastures of the Mendip Hills in the centre of the cheddar-making region of Somerset.

One of the largest family-owned cheese makers in Britain, Wyke Farms produces 15,000 tonnes of cheese and butter each year – and it’s Diane’s job to ensure the flavour is consistent across all of them.

Every vat of cheese is different, so Diane has to draw on 20 years’ experience in the cheese industry – 10 of which have been at Wyke Farms – to make her assessments, selecting cheese only when it has matured to perfection.

It’s a huge responsibility that requires a great deal of skill; Diane’s talent is so valuable to Wyke that there are plans to secure an insurance policy covering her nose for up to £5m.

‘I grade up to 100 cheeses per day, three days per week’, Diane tells us. ‘Grading is usually carried out in the morning when your taste buds are the most sensitive.’ The initial assessments allow Diane to make subtle changes to the cheese-making process and influence how the cheese will mature over time.

‘Assessing the cheese at later stages of maturation allows me to allocate batches to the appropriate Wyke Farms Cheddar ranges’, Diane explains.Through the grading process each cheese is first assessed visually. After that Diane must consider how the cheese smells, feels and finally tastes, which is a marker for how the cheese is maturing.

CHANGING THE INDUSTRY

So can we expect the flavour of Wyke Farms cheddar to change now there’s a new nose in town? ’Personally, I appreciate the care and attention that goes into every single block of cheddar we produce’, Diane tells us, ‘from our farmers who tend the dairy cows right through the chain to the staff working in the dairy who all take pride in the product we make. The recipe hasn’t changed for over 150 years and the cheese won’t; I will be selecting on the same basis that the many graders before me have.’

There are only around five female cheese graders in the industry, though they’re not all employed by a dairy or creamery. ‘I am one of the first female master cheese graders at any of the major creameries and one of only a handful of master female graders in what has always been a very male-dominated industry’, Diane tells us. ‘There are lots of women working in technical and buying roles in multiple retail, but still very few on the cheese-making grading side.’

It’s an issue Diane is passionate about; she’s very keen to encourage apprentices and the next generation of women into the industry – and if you don’t mind the pressure it sounds like a very appealing career.

‘I sometimes train by using wines of different regions’, Diane says. ‘I try to pick up the aromas and then verify by tasting! Cheese grading is something that many people can train themselves to do with just a little instruction – it just takes 20 years to perfect it!’

Click here for more on Wyke Farms and its award-winning cheddar.

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