Foodie Friday: Raw milk from Binham

The herd makes its way to the milking shed. Photo Laura Hampton

The herd makes its way to the milking shed. Photo Laura Hampton - Credit: Archant

Have you tried the raw milk, ice cream and cheese at Binham Priory?

William Wales outside the farm's shop in Binham. Photo: Laura Hampton

William Wales outside the farm's shop in Binham. Photo: Laura Hampton - Credit: Archant

You’d be hard-pressed to find a prettier backdrop to a working dairy farm than that of Binham Priory, on the north Norfolk coast. Pedigree Holstein Friesian cows splashed black, white and brown graze lush meadows surrounding what English Heritage describes as ‘the most complete and impressive monastic ruin in Norfolk.’ The raw milk that they produce, arguably being as spectacular as the backdrop itself.

Alex and William Wales have farmed here for the past 42 years, with William being the fourth generation to do so. Alongside their 120-strong herd, this formidable husband-and-wife team juggle a dairy shop, holiday accommodation and the arable side of the business. “We have 850 acres in total, so as you can expect, we are kept pretty busy” explains William with a knowing smile.

Work starts before dawn. “My cowman Andy is here from 3:30am, with milking starting at around 4:15am. He’s finished by 7am. Then my livestock man Paul comes in and does all the feeding. In the summer the cows go out to pasture, and are then brought back in again to be milked at around 3pm.”

The Wales were the first in Norfolk sell raw milk through a vending machine. The milk differs from what you’ll find in your local supermarket because it hasn’t been pasteurised, or put through a heating process. Other than being filtered and kept it a sterilised tank, it comes straight from the cows in the adjoining field.

Alex Wales and the farm's raw milk vedning machine. Photo: Laura Hampton

Alex Wales and the farm's raw milk vedning machine. Photo: Laura Hampton - Credit: Archant

Hygiene is therefore of paramount importance, explains William: “From the moment the cows come in we have to be vigilant. You need gold-top levels of cleanliness. Once the milk has been purchased by the customer, it must be refrigerated straight away, and consumed within four days.”

A variety of other Norfolk-made products use Abbey Farm’s raw milk; from Ferndale Farm Cheeses to ice-cream from Lakenham Creamery. All can be bought, along with chutney and coffee, from vending machines in the shop that overlooks the priory.

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The process of buying milk could not be simpler explains Alex: “You put a bottle and a pound into the machine, press a button, and the milk is dispensed automatically. You take your bottle out, close the door, and then the compartment is steamed ready for the next customer.”

Purchased from a supplier in Italy, the vending machine takes both plastic and glass bottles, with the glass option costing an extra one-off payment of £1.50. “Most of our locals prefer the glass option’ says Alex, ‘They arrive with wicker baskets full of them.”

Rewind to 2015 and the picture was altogether slightly less rosy. Milk prices were at an all-time low, with many Norfolk dairy farmers either struggling financially or having to make the heart-wrenching decision to give up completely. The Wales knew they needed to diversify if they were to keep their beloved herd..

After reading a piece in the paper about a raw milk producer in Bungay, they decided to take the leap, and sell raw milk direct from the farm. “We haven’t looked back since. The business is so much healthier now. It has brought the community together in ways we hadn’t thought possible,” says Alex.

The milking process meanwhile, appears both calm and efficient. As soon as a cow enters the parlour her udders are disinfected. A gentle vacuum then extracts the milk in around three and half minutes, detaching itself automatically when the supply is exhausted. Everything is then disinfected again, ready for the next round of cows. Overhead, plastic tubes transport the milk into a holding tank at the head of the parlour. When it reaches a certain volume, it is then pumped into another room to be cooled to under 3.5 degrees.

“The technology we use now has given us so much more freedom,” beams Alex. “The vending machine will text me to let me know exactly how much milk has been sold that day. It means I can leave the farm for the afternoon safe in the knowledge that there will always be enough milk to sell.”

With plans for a new cafe in one of the farm’s beautiful brick and flint barns, the future certainly seems to be looking bright for the Wales family and their much-loved herd.