Sam Moorhouse was just 12 years old when he bought his first cow at auction. “It was a bit impulsive really,” says Sam, now 22. “I didn’t tell my dad but I just liked the look of her. She had quite unusual markings.”
Baby, as the cow was christened, has become a mainstay on the Moorhouses’ Hesper Farm, near Settle, and is still calving a decade on.
“She quite an independent cow,” laughs Sam. “She does her own thing and there’s no persuading her otherwise.”
Another impulse which seems to be paying off is this young dairy farmer’s decision to become the first in the UK to produce an Icelandic yoghurt called skyr.
The award winning product has just gained Sam two accolades at The Yorkshire Post Delciouslyorkshire Taste Awards 2015, including the coveted Supreme Product Award.
In a time when dairy farming has never been more challenging, Sam knew that the industry could not stay still. “A lot of people were diversifying and always knew that I wanted to do something different. People were doing yoghurt and ice cream but I wanted to find something that people weren’t doing in this country.”
It was about two years ago, after he had just turned 20, that Sam started to seriously develop ideas for moving the business forward.
He set about trawling the internet for ideas and it was while reading an article about Iceland that he came across skyr.
“It sounded really interesting and I had never heard of it and couldn’t actually find out that much about it which was good, as it meant not that many people were making it,” says Sam.
“The biggest thing that attracted me to it is that it has no fat, is low in sugar and high in protein. At a time when people are conscious about diet and health it seemed the perfect product.”
The only downside was that Sam didn’t know anyone who knew how to make skyr, but that wasn’t going to stand in the way of this forward- thinking young man. He decided the only way to find out was to travel to Iceland and find someone to teach him. And so he bought an airline ticket to Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital city and set about visiting scores of farm shops and delicatessens in the hope that someone could point him in the direction of a skyr producer.
Eventually he was put in touch with Iceland’s equivalent of the National Farmers Union, who in turn put him touch with Thorarinn Sveinsson, a renowned master of skyr.
Thorarinn liked his style and set about teaching him the age-old artisan skyr techniques.
“He took me around Iceland looking at small and large producers and then back to his factory where I learnt how to make it. He then came back to Yorkshire and advised me on what equipment I needed. I spent about six months going backwards and forwards to Iceland.”
Sam not only had to convince his parents that skyr was the future but also the bank manager.
“Because the product was so new to this country it was a bit of a gamble I suppose as no one had heard of it. But that was really the whole point of it. My dad is quite a traditionalist who likes his pedigree breeds.”
In order to convince his dad, and the bank, Sam set about doing a lot of market research to show there was a demand out there for his skyr.
“We did a lot of small trials for peace of mind for me and also because the bank wanted to see evidence that there was a demand out there.” Sam needn’t have worried. Virtually everyone who tasted his skyr loved it and eventually he managed to persuade the bank to lend him the money he needed to convert former calf shed into a dedicated area for food production and to buy the equipment necessary for the process.
“I think one of the hardest challenges along the way has been raising the finance,” says Sam, who always knew he was destined to work on his family’s farm.
His family arethe latest in a long line of Moorhouses to work the isolated dairy farm in the Dales near Settle.
Hesper Farm is home to pedigree Holstein Friesians – The Airburn Herd.
“Our award-winning herd has twice won the North of England Premier Herd competition and reached the top six of The National Herd Competition,” says Sam. It is this passion for farming, for cows and for quality that stands Hesper Farm so well and Sam says makes his skyr so special. With 180 cows milking at any one time, each known by her own name, not a number, it’s no exaggeration to say they are all valued and respected.
“Our cows enjoy a good life here in the Dales, outdoors in tune with the seasons, to make sure they are healthy and happy. Once pasteurised, our cows’ milk is made into skyr, onsite in our shiny new purpose-built dairy.
“To make the very best traditional skyr, as we do here at Hesper Farm, is a very simple, yet labour-intensive, 24-hour process with minimal machinery. It takes about three times as long as yogurt to make and it cannot be rushed. We think our skyr is well worth the wait.”
To make skyr Sam adds vegetable rennet (obtained from mushrooms) and the live culture to the milk.
The mixture is left to ferment for six hours and then stirred through to recombine the curd and the whey. It is then strained in cheesecloths for a further period of time before it is ready for packaging. “We’re proud to be the only British farm making authentic skyr, and to have had the thumbs up from Thorarinn, “ says Sam. “We have taken our time to learn from the best and Thorarinn has visited the farm, where we use our own milk and make the skyr onsite, to ensure we’re doing Iceland’s food heritage proud.”
Hesper Farm Skyr was launched this summer with Keelham Farm Shop becoming one of the first stockists. It is now in Fooder in Harrogate and nearby Townsend Farm Shop. Sam is also supplying Baltersens cafe in Harrogate.
Sam, ably assisted by his first employee, Claudia, produces around 300kg of skyr a week although he expects that to double in the next few weeks as word of his product spreads. He has just taken on a distributor so sales are likely to increase further.
So far skyr is available in four flavours, blueberry, strawberry, vanilla and plum, and each one has the picture of a very special cow on the pot, who other than Baby who like her owner Sam, likes to do things her own way.
The success of Skyr however is not the end of Sam’s plans, merely the beginning.
“There are lots of other products, some of them from Iceland but other places as well, that we don’t have in this country. I do have some ideas for the future.”