Discover what I learnt about organic milk when I spent a day on an organic dairy farm in the beautiful Sussex countryside. Plus a lovely easy recipe for Vanilla Crème Brûlée, made using Arla Organic Free Range Milk.
I am a huge fan of organic food and organic dairy in particular, so when I was contacted by the team at Arla Foods and asked if I would like to spend a day visiting Cockhaise Farm, an organic dairy farm in Sussex, just half an hour’s drive from my house, I didn’t have to be asked twice!
We were greeted by Dan Burdett, the 3rd generation farmer who owns Cockhaise Farm, as well as representatives from Arla Foods and given a brief introduction to Arla and the world of organic milk.
Who exactly are Arla Foods and what do they do?
Arla is a farmer owned cooperative, which means that it’s the farmers themselves who own the business and 84 of those farmer owners are organic dairy farmers like Dan.
Arla’s beginnings date back to the 1880s when dairy farmers in Denmark and Sweden joined forces with a common mission to produce the very best dairy products and create new opportunities for business growth.
Today Arla has farmer owners in 7 countries across Europe. They are still passionate about providing the best dairy products, and are at the forefront of organic milk production in the UK. They help farmers achieve things together that individual farmers could never achieve on their own, for example providing price stability and marketing support.
Organic dairy farming at Cockhaise Farm
Dan Burdett is following in the footsteps of his father, who first came to Cockhaise Farm 31 years ago as the farm manager and later bought the farm. Dan’s father began to develop an interest in organic farming back in the early 1990s, discovering that an organic way of farming was not only better for the environment and for his cows, but it actually made solid business sense and the farm became fully organic in 2001, after a 2 year interim phase.
Dan is as passionate as his father when it comes to organic farming and runs a system that he describes as, ‘low on inputs and low on outputs’, a system where he is not pushing the cows to produce too much milk. Instead he likes to see them live as long as possible in a low stress environment. He is also passionate about creating biodiversity on the farm – growing not just grass for the cows to eat, but many different types of grasses, herbs and legumes.
The variety ensures the grass grows well and is plentiful, despite not using artificial fertilisers (which are not allowed in organic farming). And good grass equals happy cows – Dan has noticed how much happier the cows are eating the more diverse grass and plants. And of course, happy cows means a plentiful supply of good quality organic milk!
So what does organic actually mean?
Labels on food and drink these days can be terribly confusing, with so many terms unclear and even misleading. Thankfully ‘organic’ is not one of those. Organic is a protected term with very specific and exacting rules. But in essence organic means working with nature and not against it: high levels of animal welfare, no artificial fertilisers or herbicides, no routine use of antibiotics, no GM and a much more environmentally sustainable approach to land management, meaning more wildlife and biodiversity.
Organic dairy cows, like the ones at Cockhaise Farm, graze freely outside whenever possible and are only brought indoors when absolutely necessary, such as in poor weather. Throughout the year their diet is predominantly grass as well as the other diverse plants growing in their fields. This is supplemented with a little organic beans, barley and oats where necessary.
Arla Organic Free Range Milk
Because labels on food packaging can be confusing, Arla are doing their utmost to make things clear for us consumers. Their organic milk is labelled as Arla Organic Free Range milk, to make it clear that their milk is from free range cows and also adheres to the more robust welfare criteria demanded for milk to be labelled ‘organic’. There are no standards for free range cows.
The milk in bottles of Arla Organic Free Range Milk comes from cows which are ‘free range’, which means they are grazed outside whenever possible. This is a requirement for all organic milk, as is the need to adhere to strict standards. ‘Organic’ means that the farmers must adhere to strict standards of animal welfare, sustainability and production quality and that cows must graze outside whenever possible. This is why organic milk can also be called ‘free range’.
Milk is so often considered a commodity in the UK. Creating brands such as Arla Organic Free Range Milk, which encourage consumers to trade up to a better quality, more ethically produced product, is one of the ways Arla supports farmers, helping them to get a fair price for their milk and so supporting a more sustainable industry in the long term.
A tour of an organic dairy farm
After learning all about organic milk production in the UK, Dan took us on a tour to see his dairy farm in action for ourselves. At Cockhaise farm, this is the time of year when the cows are calving, and our first stop was to meet some of the new calves who were grazing happily in their field. Surprisingly these lovely creatures were totally unperturbed by a gaggle of bloggers all attempting to photograph them and get that perfect shot (and mostly failing and getting yet another shot of a cow’s bottom – they just would not stand still and be photographed – tsk tsk!!!).
The new calves spend a short time with their mothers, after which they are separated by gender. The female calves are put out to pasture as soon as possible. Initially they are fed milk and then gradually weaned onto a diet which is mainly grass by the time they are 12 weeks old. The majority of the female calves are kept on the farm and can start to be milked after they have had their first calf at around 2 years old.
The male calves are sold soon after they are born to another farm to be bred for meat. The male calves live on that farm for around 18-20 months before being sold for meat. Dan was keen to stress that none of his male calves are shot at birth and that the practice is actually far less common than the media might have us believe. In fact, it is not allowed at all on organic farms. (Another good reason to buy organic dairy!)
We also had the opportunity to visit the male calves, which Dan keeps in the barn, separate from the female calves, until it is time for them to be moved to their new home.
Our last part of the farm tour was the best bit of all, we went to visit the heavily pregnant cows, who were also grazing freely on Dan’s lovely diverse grass, and discovered that one of the cows had just given birth. We all watched mesmerised as the little calf took its first few steps – an incredible privilege to watch.
Sussex Smokey Scotch Eggs and Vanilla Crème Brûlée
Lovely as it was to see the cows, it was time to get cooking! Our final part of the visit took place in one of the barns where Ben Horle, a trained chef from local bespoke catering company The Sussex Chef, showed us how to make two dishes using Arla’s delicious Organic Free Range Milk as well as other local organic produce.
First up, Ben took the traditional local dish ‘Sussex Smokey’ (the local version of fish pie, made using smoked haddock) and turned the classic ingredients of potatoes, milk, smoked haddock and cheese into a casing for a scotch egg, which he then breaded and deep fried.
And for dessert, Ben created an impressive-looking, but surprisingly easy Vanilla Crème Brûlée, using organic milk, cream and eggs, which he then served with homemade shortbread biscuits, strawberries and mint.
Both dishes were utterly delicious and quickly devoured by our group of hungry food bloggers! But it was the Vanilla Crème Brûlée that really stood out for me – beautifully creamy with a lovely crunchy caramelised sugar topping and a fabulous contrast to the fresh strawberries and mint. Such a great way to show off the high quality flavours of organic produce.
Not only did the Vanilla Crème Brûlée taste wonderful, but it was actually quite simple to make and used only 5 basic store cupboard ingredients, plus garnishes. So naturally it was this recipe I have chosen to share with you – I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
Vanilla Crème Brûlée
- 200 ml double cream
- 100 ml Arla Organic Free Range Milk
- 4 egg yolks
- 50 g sugar plus extra for the crunchy topping
- 1 vanilla pod
- Shortbread strawberries and mint leaves to serve (optional)
Preheat your oven to 140C / 120C fan / gas mark 1 / 275F.
Warm the milk, cream and vanilla in a small saucepan to approximately 60C / 140F (don’t let it boil), and remove from the heat.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and 50g of sugar until thoroughly combined.
- Remove the vanilla pod and then slowly whisk the warm cream and milk mixture into the egg mixture.
- Pour into 4 small jam jars (or ovenproof ramekins).
- Prepare a ‘bain marie’, by filling a roasting tray with about 1-2cm of boiling water (the water should come about half way up the crème brûlée).
- Carefully place the jam jars into the prepared bain marie and cook in the oven for about 20-22 minutes or until just set. Leave to cool.
- Once cool, sprinkle the Crème Brûlée with a thin, even layer of sugar, and caramelise under a very hot grill (or use a blowtorch), until you have a hard golden topping. Leave the sugar for 5 minutes to set before serving.
- Serve with strawberries, mint and shortbread biscuits.
Nutrition information is approximate and meant as a guideline only.
My thanks to Arla Foods and Cockhaise Farm for a wonderful day discovering the passion, hard work and dedication that goes organic dairy farming. For information about Arla Organic Free Range Milk please visit the Arla Foods Website or check them out on social media @ArlaFoodsUK.
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