ROBIN RANSOME starts the milking on his small Welsh farm at 5:30 in the morning. His wife, Jo, who generally does the afternoon milking, is very practical about Robin's early start.
``Well, then, you see,'' she says, ``you're finished by 7. You can have breakfast and start again at 8. So you get a really good day's work done!''
Milking so early is not, in fact, unusual. What is unusual is the animal being milked.
It doesn't moo.
Robin and Jo have 100 Friesland sheep on their 30 acres. They don't breed them for wool or meat. It's milk they're after. And from the milk, they make cheese.
Sheep cheese is still rather uncommon in Britain - though it has a long tradition in France and Greece. The Ransomes' cheese, called Skirrid after a local hill, is a firm white cheese with a distinctive rind.
If you ask Jo what is special about it, she calls it ``subtly flavored.'' Without making invidious comparisons with cow's or goat's milk cheese, she describes sheep's cheese as ``smoother, creamier.'' Skirrid cheese is also ``without any nasty odors or anything like that.''
Robin and Jo, who are English, met when they were both training at the Welsh Agricultural College at Aberystwyth from 1981 to '84.
Part of the course there, Robin says, was to ``do a banking exercise whereby you do a cash-flow projection for three years. So Jo did hers on milking sheep. When we looked at it we thought: That looks really good.''
``The thing is, we'd be millionaires by now if [it had] worked out!''
The difference between college theory and actual practice has meant that the Ransomes are not quite millionaires yet. In fact, they are now confident they will go into profit this year for the first time.
They have had various ups and downs. ``We didn't allow for a lot of things!'' they say.
Early on, they were badly let down by a buyer who had promised to take all their milk. He vanished. They had to resort to making yogurt and soft cheese for 18 months, marketing it themselves locally - without previous marketing experience.
Now, however, things are going strong. They have reliable intermediary wholesalers who find a ready market for Skirrid in London. There it sells in shops like Chelsea Catering on Fulham Road for about 4.95 a pound ($9.30). It is even more popular served in restaurants like Zazou on Charlotte Street. Although this is a French restaurant, it has a British cheese board.
Small-scale the Ransomes' farm may be. But there is nothing amateur about it. These two are in business. Robin reckons that they have discovered ``the only way'' he knows ``that you can make a living off 30 acres with sheep.''
He adds, ``I mean, I was talking to a [sheep] farmer the other day who reckons he is struggling on 200 acres.''
Friesland sheep are still rarities in Britain, so part of the Ransomes' business is to sell rams and ewes at the same time they build up their own flock. They started with 34 ewes and plan to increase their present 100 to 150. With more than that they will need more land.
One of the charms of the Ransomes' farm is that the sheep, which they handle twice a day and which spend the winter under cover, are remarkably tame. You can tickle their ears while they are being milked.
The Ransomes' one-year-old daughter, Emma, loves to have rides on some of the older ones like Jo-Jo or Hope. Hope is ``our best ewe,'' says Jo - she had ``quads in 1987 and gave over 100 gallons of milk!''
Some of the names are a delight - things like No-Tail and Smidget. Smidget produced Midget one year, and Podget the next. And then there are Flopsy, Topsy, and Bopsy, not to mention Snotty, Grumpy, Dog-Ear, and Silly - oh, and Silly's Sister. Some of the older ones have positively Victorian names like Mabel and Prudence. These ewes are now about eight years old and going well.
``There are Frieslands about that are still breeding up to the ages of 15 or 16,'' Jo points out, so the Ransome farm hasn't yet been faced with the problem of ewes coming to the end of their usefulness. But the Ransomes take a particularly understanding attitude about this.
Jo says these sheep have ``never been frightened of humans.... If you sent them off to a market, they'd be absolutely terrified. We don't think it's fair.''
The plan, instead, is to put them down humanely on the farm. But ``it hasn't occurred for us yet.''
Another charm of the Ransomes' farm is that you can visit it and take part in the process of cheesemaking. This is by arrangement with Janet and Nicholas Kyrle-Pope, who organize special ``Country Pursuit Days'' for visitors to this area, from their home in Much Marcle, near Ledbury in Herefordshire.
Here's how the tour proceeds.
Jo gathers you round the stainless-steel vat. Here the milk has been heated to about 90 degrees F. It looks like junket. Gently crosscutting this, first with a curd knife, and then a kitchen palette knife, you carefully allow the whey to separate and drain away. It goes to feed a few pigs they keep on the farm. Gradually the white substance becomes more and more solid, like cream cheese.
Eventually Jo shows each visitor how to press down his cheese into the mold, lightly but firmly with the fist, and then fold the cloth over the top. Finally she puts the molds under the press ... and the visitors have played their part.
About four weeks later, your very own handcrafted Skirrid cheese arrives through the mail, just when you've forgotten all about it. Mine came yesterday. It tastes so good it won't last long.