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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Hartington & The King's Stilton

Posted Tuesday, June 12, 2007

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Hartington Cheese – The King’s Stilton!

The History of Cheese in Derbyshire

Derbyshire is renowned for it’s heavy manufacturing industries which were spawned largely by the Industrial Revolution, but which today are mainly consigned to the past. However, there remains one ancient industry which began long before the Industrial Revolution, and for which the county still leads the world – the manufacture of cheese!

At the creamery in Hartington, which is the oldest remaining working cheese factory in England and now owned by Dairy Crest Limited, no less than a quarter of the world’s supply of Stilton cheese is produced!

`Cheese has been the staple diet of Derbyshire folk for centuries'

Cheese has been the staple diet of Derbyshire folk for centuries – and not only in the `snap-tins’ of both lead and coal miners!

According to the Roman writer, Tacitus, the legions carried cheese to supplement them on their long marches across the county two thousand years ago, some of it probably made at the Roman farmsteads of Hopton and at nearby Roystone Grange.

Later, during the Middle Ages cheese was traded at local markets throughout the county, with Hartington being the first to be granted a Market Charter in 1204.

`Annual Cheese Fairs were held around the Peak'

Annual cheese fairs were held around the Peak District at Bakewell, Tideswell and Winster, there were weekly cheese markets at Derby, Chesterfield, Bakewell and Ashbourne and almost every farmhouse in the Peak District would at one time have made it’s own cheese and sold it at the local market.

Writing about his travels through England in 1725, Daniel Defoe noted that the staple diet of the natives of `the wild and abandoned Peak’ was `oatcakes, cheese and ale’ – whilst a report on Derbyshire farming seventy years later noted that cheese was, “the chief, if not the only article of provision which the natives can spare out of their own country”.

Derbyshire cheese was uncoloured (white), crumbly and heavy in texture, with a mild flavour; the Honourable John Byng, dining in Ashbourne around 1790 wrote, “the cheese of this county pleases me much, being a medium between the Cheshire and the Stilton”.

Over a century later during the 1920’s and 30’s, Hartington Stilton pleased King George V so much that the factory was awarded a Royal Warrant to supply His Majesty with what became known as `The King’s Stilton’ – and today Hartington Blue Stilton is world famous.

Before the advent of purpose-built cheese factories in mid-Victorian times, the labour intensive process was normally left to the farmer’s wife or dairymaid. On larger dairy farms the herdsman would bring the milk directly from the milking sheds and pour it into a huge vat; rennet, an enzyme which coagulates the milk was then added, turning it into a solid mass of curd. This was then broken up, lifted out by hand and placed in large seives lined with cheese-cloth (as the muslin was called) and left to drain. Next it was cut into slices, worked into fine crumbs by hand, salted, and tied up again with a metal hoop around it to give the cheese its final shape; after this it was `queedled’ – pressed and squeezed between perforated boards to remove the surplus whey – before being placed in a large cheese press.

Presses were of heavy stone with iron weights attached and could be tightened by means of a large central screw-thread operated by a cast iron wheel.

Most held several cheeses and as each new cheese was added, the oldest was removed and stored in a cool place, normally a cellar. However, in the limestone Peak District, cellars were difficult to construct so cheeses were stored in lofts above the kitchen or dairy, and it was in a damp and mouldy vaulted cellar in neighbouring Leicestershire that Blue cheese was accidentally born. The cellar near Melton Mowbray was colonized by a blue green mould and the crumbly open texture of the cheese was accidentally invaded by Penicillium glaucum, a bacterial fungus which proved to make the cheese far more tasty – and it was sold at a coaching inn on the A1 in the nearby village of Stilton, from which it takes its name!

The introduction of commercial or cooperative cheese-making to Derbyshire can be traced back to William Gilman from Sheen near Hartington, whose speciality was a 40lb Derbyshire cheese, which in 1862 won first prize at an International exhibition in London. Gilman is credited with establishing England’s first purpose-built cheese factory at Longford near Derby in 1870.

Others quickly followed at Hope Dale, Ecton, Gratton, Woodeaves, Glutton Bridge, Reapsmoor, Grangemill – and Hartington, where pigs were kept to consume the whey.

The Hartington creamery was established by the Duke of Devonshire in the 1870’s, and produced the white crumbly Derbyshire cheese until it was partially destroyed by fire in 1894. After standing empty for six years it was taken over and reinstated in 1900 by Thomas Nuttall, a prize-winning Stilton cheese-maker from Melton Mowbray, who began producing Blue Stilton at Hartington, a business which was later carried on and expanded by his son, John M. Nuttall. It was John Nuttall who held a warrant to supply Stilton to King George V, and also during the 1920’s a far-sighted regulation – a Certification Trade Mark – confined the legal production of Blue Stilton to the three neighbouring counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

As the twentieth century progressed it became far more profitable for farmers to supply milk to the fast-growing urban townships than to local cheese factories, and one by one, they gradually closed until only the Hartington factory was left to keep the Derbyshire cheese-making tradition alive.

There are now six factories producing Stilton cheese, five in Leicestershire – and Hartington, which uniquely also makes Buxton and Dovedale Blue. In recent years the factory has been extensively redeveloped and currently employs a workforce of around 140 who convert over 70,000 litres of milk per day into cheese – but these days the process is less labour intensive!

Today’s Recipe for Blue Stilton:

At Hartington the previously cooled milk is piped into huge horizontal vats, where it is warmed and salt and rennet are added. Temperature control is vital and the vats are continuously inspected by hand for coagulation and stirred by hand with paddles until the right balance of lumpy curd and liquid whey is reached. The mixture is then transferred to other vats where the whey is drained off and a streptococcus bacteria is added to change the lactose in the milk into lactic acid. The white fluffy curds are then packed lightly by machine into perforated plastic cylinders called hoops, stacked on boards and turned regularly so that the whey is discharged through the perforations.

The now cylindrical cheese is then tipped out and bound by hand, the surface is skimmed with a knife and this process forms a crust which seals the whole cheese.

The finished cheeses are stored in high racks in cool, humid conditions and left to mature. They are turned regularly by hand, and then pierced by stainless steel wires on a machine to ensure the aeration of the cheese which is conducive to the growth of Penicillium glaucum – the fungus develops in the veins thus created, and spreads throughout the cheese. The vital fungal ingredient is cultured elsewhere and supplied to the creamery later, and how this is then inoculated into the cheese remains a trade secret which the producer prefers to keep to himself!

Because of the mould Stilton matures more quickly than other white cheeses, taking 3 – 4 months to reach its prime, as opposed to 9 months – 2 years in the case of Cheddar, for example.

The three basic preservation processes used in making cheese are;

1) The removal of moisture

2) The addition of salt

3) Acidification

The Hartington cheese factory has been producing cheese for over 130 years, and obviously Stilton cheese-making is still comparitively labour intensive, but as Dairy Crest point out – cheese is just preserved milk which lasts longer than fresh milk – and is much easier to transport!

It takes 70 litres of milk to produce a traditional 16lb Stilton cheese, and the Hartington factory converts 70,000 litres of milk per day, which by my calculations amounts to approximately seven tons of Stilton cheese – who said that heavy industry in Derbyshire was consigned to the past?

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