It’s a film we’ve all seen. A traditional industry is closed down, leaving a community devastated, both in terms of economic loss and sense of identity. But then a band of locals get together and find new purpose through ballet dancing or trombone playing or pub stripping. Of course, it’s all made up, based on whimsical notions of plucky northerners winning over adversity. But, for one Derbyshire village I visited recently, truth could be stranger than fiction – except they’ve found a new beginning in a different sort of culture from ballet or brass bands. To be precise, a cheese culture – Penicillium roqueforti – which is responsible for the blue veins of Stilton.
Hartington lies at the foot of the Peak District, where the hills are sweeping rather than severe and their green is like baize, criss-crossed with dry-stone walls and dotted with grazing cows and sheep that look like tiny farmyard models. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of village, picture-perfect with elegant limestone houses and a sprinkling of gift shops and cafés. If you’re driving through or pottering about, there’s nothing much to hint at the fact that it was once responsible for a quarter of the world’s Stilton – so prized that King George V gave them a Royal Warrant to supply him with his blue fix.
The area has been associated with cheese for centuries. The Romans marched through the county on their (cheese-stuffed) stomachs, annual Cheese Fairs were held throughout the Peak District in the Middle Ages and when Daniel Defoe travelled through in 1725 he commented that the locals pretty much lived on ‘oatcakes, cheese and ale’ (who wouldn’t?) In 1870, England’s first purpose-built cheese factory opened in the county, producing white, crumbly Derbyshire cheese. Later that decade, the Duke of Devonshire opened a creamery in Hartington and in 1900 it was taken over by renowned Stilton-maker Thomas Nuttall. And so began more than a century of Stilton-making in the village.
But, just behind the duck pond, in a pretty little stone cheese shop and over a cup of tea, owner Claire Millner filled me in on the events that, in 2009, left Derbyshire devoid of Stilton. Hartington Creamery, then owned by Dairy Crest, was taken over by Long Clawson Dairy who decided to consolidate production at their Leicestershire site and so closed Hartington down. The move left the local community reeling; the loss of 180 jobs was ‘devastating’ but also there was the sense of a larger loss, of decades of history and identity based around the cheese-making. Derbyshire is one of only three English counties permitted to make Stilton due to its ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ (PDO) status. Closing Hartington Creamery meant that there were no longer any Stilton-makers in the county – and indeed, that no cheese was being made at all in Derbyshire on anything approaching a commercial scale.
But just as it looked like Derbyshire’s cheese-making tradition was to be lost forever, the passion of some local turophiles came to the fore. When the creamery closed, The Old Cheese Shop in the village, which had been the creamery’s outlet for more than 30 years, was put up for sale. It looked like another cheesy piece of history was to come to an end when a local couple, Claire and Garry Millner, stepped into the auction and bought the shop. Both were surveyors by profession and without any background in the food business but, as Claire says, ‘We both love cheese and when the shop premises came up for auction we couldn’t bear the thought of anyone taking on the building and turning it into something else, so we jumped in feet first.’
Then, in another plot twist worthy of Richard Curtis, two former employees of the creamery, Alan Salt and Adrian Cartledge (with more than 60 years combined experience) approached the Millners to ask if they would sell their cheese, should they start producing Stilton locally again. Not only did the couple agree, they teamed up with Alan and Adrian and, following the addition of another cheese-shop owner, Simon Davidson from Cheese Factor in Chesterfield, the group of five began to plan a Stilton renaissance.
The original building was not available but they obtained some derelict farm buildings in nearby Pikehall, which they renovated with grant funding and investment from their own pockets. They bought cheese-making equipment from a dairy that was closing in Dorset and, in another twist, from Quenby in Leicestershire, which it turned out had previously belonged to Hartington Creamery several decades previously (Claire says that Adrian can often be found reminiscing over one of the giant vats that he used to make cheese in nearly forty years ago and is now using again). The milk, which has to be from Derbyshire herds to comply with the PDO, was sourced from a nearby farm and they finally started production in October 2012.
Whilst awaiting the necessary accreditation to produce Stilton, they have been perfecting their recipes and are currently producing a blue ‘Stilton-type’ cheese called Peakland Blue, and Peakland White, a crumbly cheese similar to White Stilton. The latter they also produce as a blended cheese, with Cranberry and Orange, and Smoked Tomato and Garlic; these cheeses don’t require long maturation and so can get them on to the shop shelves quickly to help cashflow.
The cheeses are all hand-made, from the cutting of the curds to the crumbling, salting, milling and pressing into hoops. They are turned daily and the white cheese is chilled and ready to eat in 2-3 weeks. The blue cheeses are then turned less frequently, are pierced twice to let the Penicillium roqueforti do its marbly blue work and then left to ripen for 10-12 weeks. They have a 50-tonne capacity for the blue cheese and are making around 12 tonnes of the white and blended cheeses on top of this. With accreditation finally now in the bag, the creamery will be marketing their Stilton from January 2014. Local people are thrilled. ‘We still get customers coming in all the time asking for Hartington Stilton,’ says Claire. ‘Plus we gets lots of people saying “I used to work at the creamery so if you ever need an extra pair of hands…”. We’ll never be short of staff!’
In addition to Stilton, the original creamery also produced Dovedale Blue and Buxton Blue, two of the few other PDO-protected cheeses in Britain. Dovedale Blue is currently being produced in nearby Staffordshire but Buxton Blue has sadly fallen into extinction. Fortunately, the new creamery plans to start production of the cheeses ‘in the not too distant future’. And, not content with returning Stilton to Derbyshire and bringing Buxton Blue back from the dead, the group have big plans, including cheese-making courses, demonstrations to the public (including educational visits so that local children can learn about the cheese-making tradition of the area), as well as a visitor centre.
I left Hartington with a mammoth bag of cheese, courtesy of Claire and, as soon as we reached our friend’s house, I got the pleasantries out of the way and set to work on the Peakland Blue. It didn’t disappoint and out of the whole goody-bag we were all agreed it was the best; both creamy and sharp, crumbly and salty. It didn’t last long. But as well as the cheese mountain, I took away a sense of the genuine passion that underpins the enterprise that they’ve embarked upon. It’s easy to think of cheese just as a commodity, whether it’s as a cheap toast-topper or an artisan treat to save for the posh crackers, but for many people it’s a livelihood and a vocation and for communities it can be both a vital part of the local economy and the focus of an area’s identity.
And the film? Well, it would have to be called Cheesed Off, wouldn’t it? But fortunately, now that Stilton is making its comeback to the village, the residents of Hartington are anything but.
With thanks to Claire Millner, The Old Cheese Shop and Hartington Creamery, Hartington, Derbyshire