Driving along a single-track road, which meanders through the craggy hill and grassy dales of North Derbyshire, I am forced to perform an emergency stop.
It’s not a good time. I am – thanks to a Sat Nav intent on herding me back to an A-road – twenty minutes late for an appointment with yogurt-maker Laura Howe. But what can I do? A hare has decided to hop slowly down the road in front of my car. Unlike me, he is clearly not late for an important date.
When I finally reach my destination – Leisure Farm at Cressbrook – it’s well worth all the U-turns. Sitting at the kitchen table, with a restorative mug of tea in hand, my eyes keep straying to the window. Laura’s home is surrounded on all sides by never-ending fields on which husband Tom, and his family, keep their free-range dairy herd.
The cows graze over 265 acres of land known as Litton Slack at the heart of Derbyshire’s White Peak. This is rambler country; luscious green meadows dissected only by centuries old limestone walls and sheer, breath-taking ascents falling into verdant valleys. It’s easy to see why Laura wanted to create a business inspired by the location. Never mind yogurt-makers – artists and poets would be moved by this countryside setting.
“We were on a family holiday in Pembrokeshire when I realised how many people were running a rural business from their farms and homes and I wanted to do something like that,” Laura recalls.
“My favourite was a tea shop in Bosherston Lilypond, which was in the front garden of a ladies’ cottage. She just did simple things like cream teas and cakes. I came away thinking I’d love to put that ethos into a business of my own.”
Back in North Derbyshire, Laura began to think of products which could be made using milk from the family herd. The cows are mainly made up from pedigree Dairy Shorthorns; renown for producing creamy, protein-rich milk ideal for making dairy products like cheese and butter.
“My first idea was to make ice-cream but one free from any preservatives and additives,” says Laura who launched her eponymous ‘Laura’s Dairy’ in December 2014.
“I did a few trial-runs and got as far as looking at machinery. But a relative of ours spoke to the manager at the Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop. He told her the real gap in the market was for a yogurt produced in Derbyshire. I did a bit of research and realised farms which make yogurt from their own milk are few and far between. The nearest one is in Leicestershire.”
For Laura, the suggestion was like lighting a touch-paper. Somehow – in-between juggling a job in the public sector in Matlock and looking after her three boys William (12), George (10), and four-year-old Ted – Laura turned every bit of spare time over to developing a ‘really good’ yogurt unsullied by superfluous ingredients.
“My job involves a lot research but, even with the help of my sister-in-law, it still took two years to get up and running as we had to jump through so many hoops,” Laura recalls.
“We also tested a lot of yogurt. I wonder what the staff in Waitrose at Buxton thought when we were buying £20-worth at a time?”
Laura says the help she got from Derbyshire Dales District Council was invaluable.
“They were able to give everything from practical advice on yogurt making to advising us on what funding was available,” Laura says.
“Also, we got a massive amount of input from other food producers including a lady called Christine Ashby who has worked in the dairy industry for years.”
Christine, an award-winning cheese-maker, teaches dairy and cheese courses at colleges and food schools.
“We met thanks to Reaseheath College in Cheshire,” Laura explained.
“I’d planned to do their yogurt-making course but they thought it might be too basic and gave me the tutor’s number. Christine ended up coming to teach at my home for two days.”
Laura’s aim was to make a stripped down, ‘grown-up’ yogurt; low on sugar but naturally creamy due to the protein-rich milk.
“When Christine said I’d have to put skimmed milk powder to control the amount of liquid whey, I wasn’t keen on adding anything,” she says.
“But she was right. The small batches were fine but once we started making yogurt in bigger quantities, a puddle appeared on the top. It tasted fine, but the texture was too runny.”
Christine’s advice also proved to be invaluable when it came to perfecting the products. “I think it helped that she wasn’t a fan of yogurt,” Laura smiled.
“The honesty of her feed-back was fantastic. The first batch of natural yogurt wasn’t quite right and so I spent a few months tweaking it. Getting the consistency right was the biggest challenge. When I found out Christine was running a cheese-making course in Bakewell I took her another sample. She really liked it.”
With the natural yogurt perfected, Laura decided to branch out on different flavours and roped in friends, family and colleagues as ‘tasters’.
“I was very popular in the office as I’d often come in with samples,” she recalls.
“I’m pleased to say they loved all the yogurts. In fact, I still get lots of orders from work. My colleague Barbara uses yogurt instead of butter in a delicious orange cake.” Talking to Laura, it’s clear why the yogurts have been attracting such glowing praise from customers. Her social media page is liberally sprinkled with positive reviews; the most common adjectives used are ‘creamy’ and ‘delicious’.
Small wonder two of Laura’s yogurts scooped prestigious prizes at the Bakewell Show last summer. Her salted caramel – inspired by her children’s love of caramel desserts – was pipped by her own lemon curd which won a highly contested 1st prize.
“I love homemade lemon curd but wasn’t sure about making my own as I am no baker,” Laura explained.
“I approached a local trader who makes wonderful jams and preserves from produce grown in her garden. Unfortunately, she couldn’t provide me with a regular enough supply of curd but she was so helpful. I ended up with her granny’s recipe. It hails from Devon and can be baked in the oven. She said it was fool-proof and she was right. It’s gorgeous.”
It’s such a good yogurt, Laura has even had some hand-written fan-mail. In the letter a customer explains that she had to take time to praise the delicious (that word again) yogurt. ‘Especially the lemon curd – yum, yum’.
“The feedback keeps me going,” Laura admits.
“I get up at six every morning to cool the yogurt I put on before going to bed. I’m creeping on tip-toe so as not to wake the boys. Then I give the boys their breakfast and it’s off on the school run, which can take an hour as they’re at three different schools.”
If Laura is not at the ‘day-job’, she rushes home to start on another batch of yogurt.
“The reality is a bit different to the dream I had on holiday. I seem to spend most of my time doing lots of cleaning with my hair scraped back in a hair-net,” she laughs.
“I’ll also squeeze in some paperwork and make deliveries. My eye is constantly on the clock as I have to be at the school for when Ted finishes at 3pm. After the boys are in bed, I put on some more yogurt. It can be a bit crazy sometimes.”
Throughout the interview, Laura has to break off to check on the progress of the yogurt she is making for her next farmer’s market. It’s clearly a round-the-clock, seven-days a week operation. The gentle hum of the yogurt-maker has become the sound-track to family life.
“I make the yogurt in what was our former utility room,” she says.
“It’s quite a small space and I’m nearly at full capacity in terms of orders. I’ve had a lot of enquiries about supplying large farm shops and larger retailers, but I’d have to rent a bigger space and buy equipment. Even though there is European funding to help – at least at the moment – it’s not an easy decision to make, especially when the children are so young.”
For now, Laura is concentrating on supplying artisan shops and delicatessens around her home. Her yogurts have also proved a big hit at many of the local farmer’s markets including ones held at Sharrow Vale in Sheffield and Dronfield Local Producers Market in North-East Derbyshire.
She also has a regular pitch at the hugely popular Bakewell Farmer’s Market, which takes place on the last Saturday of the month.
“The other stallholders are so supportive,” she says.
“I’m also attracting a lot of regular customers. One lady comes all the way from Lincolnshire – she’s such a big fan of the yogurt. One of the most unusual outlets is Cox Brothers in Longstone. They’re the people who pasteurise our milk and, they liked the product so much, they asked if they could sell it. They don’t have a shop, just a fridge and an honesty box.”
Laura was also invited to attend a recent food festival in nearby Tideswell.
“Unfortunately, I twisted my ankle while making the yogurt. Thankfully, my husband Tom agreed to go instead,” she explained.
“He’s been behind me all the way. If I do have any doubts Tom is the one telling me to keep going. I think he’s just so proud that we’re making something from the farm’s milk. The popularity of the yogurt is a reward for all the hard work he and his family have put into the herd.”
He even helped Laura secure a new customer: “Tom went to help a man whose car had become stuck over-night in a snow drift,” Laura recalls.
“Tom spotted him the next-morning and – as he helped to tow the car out of the snow – found out he was one of the owners of Hassop Hall Hotel, near Bakewell. Tom told him about my business and within a few days I was at the hotel reception handing over a cool bag full of yogurt samples. It’s a luxury hotel with exacting standards and so we were thrilled to get the order.”
At this point, it seems only polite to meet the ‘ladies’ who make all this possible. As they are grazing on land a few fields away, Tom graciously offers us a lift on his off-road utility vehicle.
The Dairy Shorthorns are fine looking beasts; even the colour – many of them are red and white – underline how special they are as a breed.
“They won’t hurt you – they’re more curious than anything,” Tom reassures as a few – very large – cows decide to cluster round for a close up with my camera.
“We have 300 head of cattle altogether. They get a lot of attention as the breed is really back in fashion – one scooped a prize for best cow at the Christmas market in Leek last year. They’re outside grazing on grass for much of the year and you can taste that in the milk.”
Back at Laura’s home, she presents me with a full set of her current yogurt flavours to try. I half-heartedly protest that she’ll be depriving herself of a lunch-time treat.
“It’s fine, I don’t eat as much yogurt as I once did,” she laughs.
“I’ve had to eat so much of it over the last few years. That’s one of the reasons I’d love to make a cheesecake using our yogurt. I could never get bored of cheesecake.”
Laura’s Dairy yogurt is available at farmer’s markets including Bakewell Farmer’s Market, which takes place on the last Saturday of every month and Dronfield Local Producers’ Market, which takes place four times a year at Dronfield Hall Barn.