ABOVE all things, Max Jones is a storyteller. He tells me a story of a polenta maker in northern Italy who removes clods of earth from a stream to power a water wheel that grinds yellow corn.
Of bright orange lichen blooms on rocks and old tractor parts in Alpine valleys of France creeping onto handmade Bleu de Termignon cheese to ripen it.
Or the monk who confessed all — a drop of intensely perfumed thyme oil added to curds flavoured his goats’ cheese, not animals feasting on the wild herb in the monastery grounds.
Max is a wanderer; a collector of ancient skills and traditions of food artisanship — in the purest sense of the word. A sort of Indiana Jones figure, journeying the world collecting treasures of food culture in peril of vanishing.
Cheese is his first love, but for the past three years he has swapped the French and Italian mountains for the low lying coastal shores of West Cork, learning at the helm of the great Sally Barnes, founder of Woodcock Smokery.
At 35, his young years are at odds with the anthologies collected. For him, such sojourns are not just for learning techniques in making a certain type of cheese or smoke curing wild salmon; it is about comprehending the wisdom that informs an authentic food culture: the juncture at which people, place, nature and method meet.
“Everyone talks about sustainable this and that, but no one really knows what it means. It gets grasped, redigested and then offered up in one way which doesn’t consider all the facts and then, potentially, might not be sustainable at all. The biggest value to understanding something is getting involved and learning first-hand.”
Max has always worked with food. Initially, as a way to fund his passion for music, working in deli’s in London for money, writing music and gigging for kicks. Eventually he moved away from the high- street deli to work with “properly niche food.”
“I was working in a deli in east London, getting in Brie that was really bouncy. I knew it could get really tasty when it breaks down and go all smelly and good, so I suggested we started maturing the cheese. By waiting a little bit longer, the brie got stronger and then it sold better,” he explained.
“I started to realise I could really get a handle on where food could go, particularly preserved food — taking something when there is a glut in nature and preserve it for a future time. What we eat is steeped in where we contextualise ourselves in our environment. For example: a herdsman who walks their herd into the mountains when the snow melts so their cows can eat fresh grass. They live with the herd, milk them and transform the milk through fermentation so it can be used for up to two years after - as cheese.”
This is a method of cheesemaking known as Transhumance — an ancient form of nomadic pastoralism where humans and livestock live together. An interconnectedness of seasons, landscape and human/animal interaction creating a tangible impact on the flavour and texture of food made in that environment.
“I went from selling cheese to working for Mons in London for seven years as a cheese Affineur (maturer). I noticed that customers would ask if a cheese was grass fed or organic, and it was obvious that they didn’t know what they were talking about, but they were acknowledging they didn’t want something that was industrially made.
“Working with raw milk farmhouse cheeses all depends on how a batch is doing. You might like Munster cheese from Alsace, but it’s not as good young as when its broken down and honky. It’s not necessarily about what someone’s favourite cheese is — it’s just what they like. Within batches there are exemplary versions, that’s what being an Affineur is all about: removing a cheese from where it’s made and put it in an environment that I can control so it becomes the best it can be.”
This passion for understanding preservation of food gluts brought Max from the Alpine cheesemakers of France and Italy, to the Irish coast and its tradition of curing and preserving fish.
“I came across Sally (Barnes, Woodcock Smokery) as a supplier to Neil’s Yard Dairy in London, and I realised I didn’t know anything about smoking and preserving fish. I love the sea and fish and I adore fishing and thought I should really know more.
“I looked up the Woodcock Smokery website, and the front page was just a rant by Sally about the fact that farmed fish is an incredibly bad thing to accept into our food system. I thought it was remarkable! I looked into her a bit more and found that there was nobody to carry on the craft after her. That was when alarm bells started going off in my head. I wrote her an email saying could I come and see what she does - just because the knowledge that is there might disappear and that is incredibly bad news: we need these old techniques to inform the future of eating,” he said.
Max arrived in Castletownshend in 2017 for a month initially. Three years later he is still at the smokery, learning and working with Sally and experimenting with different methods of preserving wild fish.
“I’m still trying to understand who I am and what I do in life, but it always comes back to learning the methods and techniques of the past because they hold the key to the future of food.
“A real artisan, like Sally, is genuinely concerned with preserving the fish. Back when there was no such thing as vac-packing cold rooms and plastic, she would smoke the fish, wrap it in parchment paper and drop it off at the creamery. That was totally normal, but now that’s seen as really abnormal. It’s why the fish we preserve here is like it is because we are genuinely trying to preserve the fish, not make it look like it’s been preserved. That’s why it tastes different.
“When I first came here, we were removing all the egg sacks from the wild salmon and I wondered what happens to it? I started experimenting with bottarga, a southern Italian way of preserving fish roe (eggs). It took a years’ worth of trial and error to eventually figure out how to do it, where it wasn’t just a thing that tasted weird but was great because we weren’t wasting any part of the salmon; but that it tasted really interesting: salty, oceanic with a mineral quality to it and packed with nutrients.
“That led to experimenting with dipping bottarga in beeswax to seal it. The beeswax works in the same way as plastic vac-pack, adhering to the eggs and removing all the oxygen, but completely natural. People became interested in it and were trying to get hold of some, but I had to look at it again because beeswax is very brittle and as soon as it cracks moisture gets in and spoils.
“I added other natural waxes to make it more pliable. Soon after, I came back from Northern Italy with this incredible smelling piece of beeswax with what looked like dusty cement on the bottom. It was propolis, present in beeswax if its untreated. When the wax is melted, the propolis pieces drop to the bottom and after hardening is scraped off leaving behind the pure beeswax.
“I started to nerd out on propolis and loads of lightbulbs started going off! The word comes from the Greek pro – before, and polis – community, and is the substance bees use to build the honeycomb structure, naturally anti-microbial anti-bacterial and anti-fungal.
“The bees collect propolis from tree sap produced when a tree is damaged and then it hardens. The trees figured this out; the bees figured it out from the trees and humans figured it out from the bees. I added raw propolis and propolis oil to my wax mix and created a pliable wax with amazing durability.
“There’s a weird paradox of putting the apex of the natural world, the wild salmon, into a plastic bag, especially when we know the damage being done to marine life by plastic pollution. I thought, what if I could use the wax and propolis mix to seal the salmon instead of vac-packing in plastic?
“Sally and I smoked the salmon twice, cut it into large fillets and dropped it into the wax to create a completely sealed unit, and it worked! Of course, every time I open a piece of the salmon, I’m terrified of what it’s going to look like, but I recently opened a piece that was five months old and it was totally perfect.
“You can’t best Sally’s curing methods, and that’s not what this process is about – it’s not about altering flavour. What is so exciting is the concept of taking fresh fish, fileting it, using salt and smoke to preserve it and sealing it in such a way that you can eat it five months down the line without plastic, without electricity, using only things from nature – that’s what is so remarkable about it.
“So much energy has to be expended educating and informing people of issues around modern food production, things such as farmed fish, and some days I wake up and the task seems too huge. It’s a monumental amount of work because it’s not just about changing what we do it’s about completely unlearning what we know, which is much harder.
“At the moment, I’ve given myself 100% to understanding fish, but that applies to absolutely every other element of food. Then I think, if it’s taken me this amount of time and effort to understand this one thing, how much more do I have to do to figure what real chocolate is, for example. But it’s worth it because we have to stop eating the way we do; we have to stop expecting to buy fish wrapped in plastic. We have to go back to the days of turning up at the creamery with the fish wrapped in paper.”
Max’s online persona is “Up There the Last” – a direct translation of the title of a 1972 book of photography by Gianfranco Bini, Lassú Gli Ultimi. He explained: “Living in Biella in the Northern Italian pre-Alps, people walk the mountains in summer and ski in winter; my mother still wore clogs made of walnut. Bini was aware of all these things, and with the advent of fast food and industrialised food he foresaw the culture of where he was from, the mountain people who had these ways of being that were very harmonious and very natural, were going to become obsolete. So he photographed the artisans who made butter and cheese; textile making, wood carving, clog making, chestnut harvesting, wine making. I realised that this book embodied everything that I had become and have been interested in up to this point in my life.”
Max’s mission is ultimately to share what he has learned with others; acting as a guide and interpreter to connect a wider circle of interested people – chefs, writers and makers, with these old crafts before they really do become obsolete and are lost to the world forever. Max was due to take his first group into the French Alps earlier this year to experience the ancient practice of Transhumance. Covid has temporarily put a halt on such expeditions, but the ambition remains.
“I’d love to meet myself in 40 years’ time! I just approach things with 100% heart, zero financial thought. My outgoings are small so I’m freer to explore the kind of things I want to, and I approach everything instinctively. Part of me wishes I live where I was born because I’d have all the identity. But we can be anywhere, and there is too much choice. I find myself in a position where I don’t have that wholesome rooted home, and I think that has a lot to do with what I’m up to now.”
Follow Max Jones on Instagram @uptherethelast or visit the website www.uptherethelast.com