26 December 1997

Blue veins of royalty

Stilton is one of the most

celebrated cheeses in the

world, and synonymous with

Christmas. Catherine Hughes

takes a look at what is

involved in producing the so-

called King of English cheeses.

FIRST made in 1792, the name Stilton is now restricted to the cheese produced only in the counties of Leics, Notts, and Derbys.

Seven dairies are making the luxury cheese, with Dairy Crests Hartington plant among the largest.

In the 16th century almost every parish of Britain had its own cheese, but while most of those are now confined to the history books, Stilton goes from strength to strength.

British cheeses suffered two big blows from the mid-1800s which saw a total of 15,000 farmhouse cheese-makers drop to just 126 by 1946.

The 1860 cattle epidemic resulted in thousands of animals being slaughtered. The subsequent milk shortage meant domestic cheese was in scant supply and the country turned to America, from where huge volumes were imported. That switch brought with it the demand for quantity rather than quality and drove many small farmhouse producers out of business.

World War Two then brought food rationing and stringent controls on food manufacture. Most milk was diverted to the liquid market, so quality luxury cheese production was halted.

Today, interest in traditionally made cheese is increasing. And, in recent years, there has been an enormous upsurge in cheese-making in small dairies and farms all over the country.

Although cheddar is the most popular cheese throughout the world, capturing 60% of the £1.5bn UK cheese market with sales of 120,000t a year, Stilton remains a speciality that has to be "well looked after and nurtured", according to Andrew Wilson, Dairy Crests cheese guru. "It is," says Mr Wilson, "the most difficult of all cheeses to make."

The velvety, unpressed cheese with a pale ivory paste, marbled with greenish-blue veins and surrounded by the dry, crusty, and slightly wrinkled rind, has flavours ranging from a mild, sharp edge when young, through to the mature cheeses rich and tangy bite.

Stilton is produced in two sizes, either the baby 2.5kg cheese, or the standard 7.5kg weight. With exports to North America, Middle East, Australia and New Zealand well established, Dairy Crest now has its sights set on selling the King of English cheeses to the French.

At Hartington, the firm process 25m litres of local milk to make 2500t of Stilton each year. Although production is a year-round business, the build-up to Christmas is the busiest time. The summer milk, drawn from farms across an eight-mile stretch from just south of Bakewell, Derbys, across to the west of Ashbourne in the Peak district, is ideal quality to begin the Christmas production schedule in September.

For every tonne of Stilton, 9300 litres of milk are needed. Mr Wilson explains that with the 10:1 conversion rate for the cheese-making process, the high volumes of by-product are used in calf powders and in pharmaceutical products. "If we did not have a market-place for the by-product, the price of cheese would rocket," he adds.

As soon as the milk is delivered to the dairy it is quality tested, pasteurised, and has a starter culture added and then rennet to form a curd.

The curds are hand cut and left to drain until the following morning when they are salted and placed in hoops for up to a week. They are turned daily to drain further.

Once removed from the hoops, each cheese is rubbed down by hand to smooth out the creases and seal the edges. The cheese is then stored in controlled conditions for an average of three to four months during which time the characteristic crust will develop.

During the first month the cheeses are turned daily. At six weeks, the cheese is pierced twice at angles with stainless steel needles. That allows oxygen in and promotes the characteristic veining.

As the cheese ages, the mould spreads and the flavour deepens. Graders assess the looks, texture and aroma of each cheese, ensuring that every buyer gets exactly the specification they want.

"And yes, Stilton can be frozen. But it is the thawing that can ruin it. It must be done slowly," says Mr Wilson.

At this time of the year Dairy Crest Stilton is gift packaged into 90,000 boxes of various styles at the dairy, some including bottles of port. The drink does complement the taste of the cheese, although Mr Wilson is adamant that the port should not be poured into the middle of the cheese.

"Port in a glass, and Stilton on a biscuit is the way to enjoy the combination," he said. &#42

Left: Staff at Hartington rub the curds at the seven-day stage to allow the distinctive crust to develop. The process also seals the cheese. Right: Cheeses are pierced with stainless steel needles, allowing oxygen in. That promotes the growth of the mould which gives Stilton its distinctive blue veining.

Left: Andrew Wilson, Dairy Crests cheese guru (left) and John Massey, senior cheese grader, look at 10-week-old cheeses. Grading determines how long the cheese is kept. A cheese ready at 10 weeks is sold as standard Stilton. Those carrying the mature brand are finished at 12 weeks, while vintage Stiltons need 15-18 weeks before they are sold. Right: Some of the award winning blue cheeses produced by Dairy Crest at the Hartington factory.