When it comes to farming sheep, Martin Gott isn’t particularly interested in producing lamb, it’s the milk from his flock which he uses to make cheese that drives him. Mark Holdstock discovered why he’s opened up a specialist cheese shop in a tiny Cumbrian village.

IN the South of Cumbria, as far as sheep farmers go, Martin Gott isn’t exactly a “grand fromage”. His flock is tiny, and his farm on the Holker Hall Estate is small, but he has big ambitions and a passion about cheese which rivals many in France, from where his sheep originate.

“They’re a breed called Lacaune, the breed responsible for Roquefort.” says Martin Mr Gott and his partner Nicola Robison imported the sheep four years ago and have been breeding within the closed flock to increase numbers ever since.

But the passion for cheese goes back long before that.

“Cheese is something I always wanted to do, the variety got me interested which is why we’ve ended up opening a shop, because as much as it’s good to do one thing very well it’s also exciting to see all the other cheeses which are on offer and the varieties which area available.”

Mr Gott opened the shop, Cartmel Cheeses, with his partner’s father Ian Robinson three months ago. It is in a cluster of small business units, beautifully restored using local stone in the very centre of the village opposite the priory.

Next door is an artisan baker, on the other side of the entrance to Unsworth’s Yard is high class kitchenware shop, a butcher’s may follow in due course. Up the street is the home of the famous Cartmel Sticky Toffee Puddings, and down a back alley, through a historic arch is the restaurant L’Enclume, which not only has a Michelin star, but was also recently named the UK’s fourth best in the Good Food Guide, just behind Heston Blumenthal and Raymond Blanc. Cartmel is definitely becoming a food “destination”.

”We wanted a shop window where we could sell. Ours is a specialist cheese in a niche market, and obviously it needed a specialist outlet. A lot of it goes to specialist cheese shops in London, and some of it goes to cheese shops around the rest of the country, but there didn’t seem to be anything quite so specialist in our area so we opened up the shop.”

It is a bit like a walk-in fridge, where the temperature is controlled by a large refrigerator unit attached to the ceiling. Only the soft cheeses go into a refrigerator at night as they require a slightly lower temperature to keep them stable, the rest of the stock lives where it is sold on the slate counter.

The opening of the shop wasn’t just a means of selling his cheese. Martin Gott also found that at times during the year he would find himself at a loose end.

“Sheep’s milk production is generally seasonal because they don’t milk for 360 to 400 days like a cow will do, so you’re always limited to about “Sheep’s milk production is generally seasonal because they don’t milk for 360 to 400 days like a cow will do, so you’re always limited to about eight months’ production. But it does leave us with a window in the year where we have no income or no cheese to sell so we decided the shop might be a way to diversify our income a little bit. Not just income but things to do at those times of year. You pack up and it’s a long time where just tending the sheep can be unfulfilling.”

By staggering the lambings, milk could be produced all year round, but Mr Gott thinks that would cause too many problems on such a small farm.

Martin Gott learned his trade through time spent with a variety of cheese makers around the country, including the legendary Kirkham family in nearby Lancashire. He also spent time learning about goats cheese with Mary Holbrook in Somerset, an experience which led him and Nicola Robinson to buy their first flock of sheep. This was followed up by time spent working with the famous cheese retailer Randolph Hodgson, at Neal’s Yard in London.

Although the opening of the shop gives Mr Gott somewhere local to sell his cheese and something to do out of the milking season, it also provides a safety net against the kind of disaster which can strike small farmers.

“We got into difficulty two years after we moved here when we had to cull out all our initial flock because they got a disease Maedi-visna.”

This is a virus which dramatically reduces the milk yields of the sheep, damages the lungs and eventually leads to neurological degeneration.

It meant starting again from scratch, and going abroad to buy sheep from breeders in France.

From 150 sheep, down to none at all, the new flock has now reached 70-strong, and will hopefully rise to 100 next year.

The male lambs are sold for meat at a very young age.

“At a month old they go off to the abattoir. We then sell them as baby lambs to restaurants like L’Enclume (in Cartmel), St Johns in London or Fino which is in Charlotte Street in London. They’re fantastic (to eat) – gelatiney, very sweet, milky. The kind of texture of chicken, but with a more meaty flavour. Because it’s seasonal it adds to the kind of menus that these high-end restaurants are looking for.

Something which come in, starts the season off and disappears again.”

The advantage for Mr Gott is that this trade covers the cost of rearing them, and also means that space is quickly released on the farm, which only has about 20 acres of grazing to concentrate on the milking ewes.

As a farmer who makes cheese, he says that having a shop to sell that cheese direct to the public who will eat it is important.

“It gives us a better focus as to who our customers are, the customers can judge the cheese week by week and decide what they want to buy week by week, whereas they can’t do that with one a month farmers market, or a once every six months festival or fair.”

● Cartmel Cheeses, Unsworth’s Yard www.cartmelcheeses.co.uk info@cartmelcheeses.co.uk 015395 32845.