The return of Hartington Stilton
PUBLISHED: 10:40 22 December 2014 | UPDATED: 19:51 23 October 2015
It's a few years since the last Derbyshire Stilton was produced but Nigel Powlson investigates the exciting rumours about its revival
It may be the smallest Stilton producer in the world but Hartington Creamery has put Derbyshire back on the map as far as cheese-making is concerned.
The dream of five people all sharing a common passion for the art of creating traditional cheeses, the business has not only reconnected Hartington with its heritage but restored the art of Stilton production to Derbyshire five years after the closure of Long Clawson Diary.
Two years ago the first cheeses came out of the small scale factory tucked away behind a Derbyshire farm in a converted former stables and two months ago the long-cherished restoration of Stilton production began.
For Alan Salt, the hands-on cheese-maker who has been involved in the process all his working life, it’s a marvellous achievement and one that he thought he might never see again.
He says: ‘There are only six Blue Stilton makers in the world – and we are the smallest. And the only one in Derbyshire. I’m proud of that.
‘What was sad when the factory closed here was that Hartington wasn’t just the only Stilton maker in Derbyshire, it was the oldest cheese factory in the country that was still running, going back to the 1870s. So the Stilton and the cheese-making history both disappeared. We have put a little bit of that back. But it’s not just for nostalgia purposes – we wanted to prove it could still be done. I don’t know many people who have started a factory like this from scratch. I know people who have modernised or grown places but the basics and the people were already there.
‘We started with nothing but empty sheds and it’s not been easy. There are times when we could easily have packed it in. Nobody has done anything like this, certainly not with Stilton, for the last 100 years.
‘We have had a lot of moral support. I know that’s not financial and you can’t quantify it but it’s so important. So many people want us to succeed. A lot of money went out of this part of Derbyshire when the factory closed, in wages, taxes and tourism. We aren’t replacing that just yet – but you never know... in ten years’ time?’
There has been no cheese made on a large scale in Derbyshire since the closure of the Long Clawson Hartington Dairy, bringing to an end a proud tradition dating back to Victorian times. It also meant that Derbyshire, one of only three counties allowed to produce Stilton under strict regulations, no longer had anyone left making the fabled cheese.
But Alan and Adrian Cartlidge, another cheese-maker with a 30-year career history in the business, refused to let the tradition die.
They were joined by the owners of the Cheese Shop in Hartington. Claire and Garry Millner were originally only asked to stock the products of the Hartington Creamery but liked the idea so much that they became partners in the business. The fifth entrepreneur to join the group is Simon Davidson, who owns the Cheese Factor in Chesterfield.
Claire says: ‘It was the history and heritage side that inspired all of us. It was something we wanted to bring back. We wanted a base somewhere in Hartington village and searched for many months until we found this place, which isn’t in the village but is still in the parish of Hartington. That was important to us for both the name and the history.’
Alan agrees: ‘It’s Derbyshire and it’s Hartington and that’s what is important as far as I’m concerned.
‘And it has brought people back who care. Diane, who used to work in the old factory, came and helped us with the lab work and now she’s cheese-making, with her mum. Her sister came to help part-time. So we have three from one family, which is exactly what used to happen in the old days.’
Indeed, it’s also in Alan’s blood with several members of his family being involved in cheese-making. He started in 1972 and Adrian’s father was his first supervisor.
‘My uncle worked there and that got me into it. At one time I had a relation in every department. I went down just to help out one day and stayed 26 years until I took a job in another part of Dairy Crest.’
Alan ended up travelling across the UK and abroad as the public face of the company, extolling the virtues of Hartington cheese.
In the old days, The Cheese Shop had been the dairy but became the factory outlet in Hartington as production expanded. But like the factory, faced closure.
Claire says: ‘When the shop premises came up for auction we hoped and prayed someone would keep it as a cheese shop and then we talked about it and just thought that we ought to do it.’
Now they are selling their own products in the shop and restoring Hartington cheeses to their rightful place, even though that’s not been totally straightforward.
It’s tricky to create the right environment to produce quality cheese, as Alan explained when he took me on a tour of the creamery and its carefully controlled environment.
But already Hartington has won praise and awards for its Peakland White and Peakland Blue cheeses.
Claire says: ‘It’s all traditional methods, hand turned, hand-made. We concentrate on quality and do get consistency. When anyone comes into our shop they want to know about the local cheeses and we always have them out for tasting and never get any negative comments. The Peakland White is a bit more crumbly than a White Stilton but a lovely cheese. Last year at the British Cheese Awards we came second in the country for the best new cheese.’
After two years and having established themselves in the market place, Alan and Adrian knew the time was right to start Stilton production again.
Alan says: ‘We couldn’t start producing Stilton straight away. It’s like buying a car, first you need to learn to drive. It’s not like making keys or a phone, it’s a living product.’
The firm is producing 60-70 tonnes of cheese a year at present, a small amount compared to what the old factory was producing in Hartington (at one time 6,000 tonnes a year), but they are growing fast and have a target of 200 tonnes in the next 12 months or so. It’s going so well they have already virtually reached capacity and will have to expand.
Claire says: ‘We are selling cheese to Singapore, Tokyo – all over. Quite a lot goes down to London. Originally it was for the local area but the demand is out there.
‘You go all over the country and you can still see Hartington Stilton on menus, even though there hasn’t been any, because it has a name.’
The five entrepreneurs have been so busy getting on with it that that they never even got round to the planned official opening.
Alan says: ‘We have done virtually everything ourselves and have never really planned it. But we are getting there. And I think people like what we are doing.
‘Yes, we are using the Hartington name and traditions but I think we have a right to. The DNA is there. It’s not five strangers who got together and pinched the idea.
‘We have had the passion to carry on what was there before and not to let it die.’
Bringing back Stilton
Stilton is a popular and historic cheese – but you can’t just make it anywhere. It is a product with a Protected of Designated Origin (PDO) and can only be made therefore in three counties – Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire.
Alan says: ‘There are rules that are very precise about what shape it is, how big the cheeses are; about the process. It took us six months or so to pass the test set by the governing body, the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association, which sends in an auditor to carry out the checks.’
Stilton has long been associated with Christmas and sales increase five-fold at this time of year.
Alan says that’s because most of the cheese was traditionally made in spring or summer and then matured until it was ready at Christmas.
He says: ‘It’s more of a Christmas tradition than turkey really. You also couldn’t afford it except at Christmas. The phrase “the big cheese” comes from someone buying a whole cheese and showing off.’
Claire says that everyone has their own way of eating Stilton.
‘It’s nice in a salad with walnuts and pears. Something sweet works well with it – it’s great with honey.’
Alan says. ‘Some purists say you can’t have butter with it but I say “you have paid for it, you have it how you like it”. In Melton Mowbray they eat it with a slab of Christmas cake.’
The Hartington Stilton is already selling well.
Claire says: ‘The first batch of Stilton we made was gone within a week. We then had to wait for the next batch to mature. You can’t rush these things.’
Indeed, it’s a time consuming and sometimes very physical process to make the Stilton.
‘Producing cheese is a mixture of art and science,’ Alan says.
Adrian is the technical brains behind the process at Hartington and Alan is the practical one who loves to be hands-on in the process.
‘I know how to do it in the room, whereas Adrian understands all the processes behind it,’ says Alan.
‘But every cheese in the world is made the same basically. You tweak a few things and you can get a Cheshire or a Lancashire from the same milk. Stilton is a little more complicated as you have the blue mould as an extra layer. For Stilton, what matters is the flavour of the blue, how smooth it is. Ours is not too strong, which is the niche that is growing.’
So what’s the secret of the art of creating a truly great cheese?
‘If I told you that I’d have to kill you,’ laughs Alan.
• There are just six dairies in the world licensed to make Blue Stilton cheese
• Stilton is a ‘protected name’ cheese and by law can only be made in the three counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire
• It takes 136 pints milk (78 litres) to make one 17 lb (8kg) Stilton cheese
• Stilton takes its name from the village of the same name in Cambridgeshire where a pressed, cooked, cream cheese of that name was first made and sold. It is still unclear how it evolved into a semi-hard unpressed blue vein cheese
• More than 1 million stilton cheeses are made each year
• More than 10% of output is exported to some 40 countries worldwide
• Every cheese is graded before leaving the dairy to ensure only cheese of the highest quality is marketed under the Stilton name