I was recently lucky enough to visit one of the country’s top Stilton producers. I spent two days at the Dairy and during that time was able to observe and take part in each step of the Stilton making process. Cropwell Bishop Creamery takes its name from the small village in which it is found. As a protected cheese, Stilton has to be produced within an area known as the vale of vale of Belvoir, this is the point at which Nottinghamshire Derbyshire and Lincolnshire meet. The local sign post reads like a who’s who of great Stilton makers.
There is a friendly rivalry between the villages of Cropwell bishop and Colsten Bassett, they lie no more than 3 mile apart and both are home to the top two Stilton producers, each year a cricket match is played between the villages, each village is rightly proud of their Stilton and the match provides the opportunity to express this rivalry. You can rest assured that there is plenty of cheese provided for the post match tea.
Cropwell bishop uses milk produced locally from farms in the surrounding peak district. Unlike most Cheese produced in Britain in which the milk is acidified or ripened relatively quickly, the milk for stilton production is acidified using very little starter this results in a very slow ripening that takes 24 hours.
Because the milk is ripened over night it is ready to be used first thing the following morning. It makes for an early start for the cheese-makers. Milk passes into the vats at 6 in the morning.
It was still dark when I arrived at 6 am, even then I was part of the second shift, the first workers arriving at 5.00 am to ensure that every thing was clean and washed ready for the make to start promptly at 6am. It was a relief to move from the cold outside into the warm humid dairy.
Milk poured into the vats from the ripening tanks by gravity, the use of a pump would damage the structure of the milk, it was like watching an enormous 5000 l bath fill with warm frothy milk.
Under the watchful eye of head Cheese-maker Howard Lucas the precise amount of rennet was added together with the blue mould.
It takes just over an hour for the Rennet to separate the milk into the curds and the whey. The curd forms a like a beautiful big blancmange, the cheese makers at Cropwell were so skilled that they could tell when it is ready for cutting just from the feel of it.
Once the curd is deemed sufficiently well formed it is cut with what are know as harps or knives in reality these are a series of long parallel blades held in a frame. The exact spacing and dimension of which play a role in determining the texture of the cheese, because of this I promised Howard not to tell what the exact dimensions used are!
Once the curd is cut to the desired size, it is left for just over an hour to allow the curd to sink and the whey to rise up.
There is no hurrying a hand made cheese, each step takes its time and you can‘t move on to the next stage with out giving sufficient time to complete the previous one. This meant that it was tea break time.
During the break I was able to chat to some of the cheese makers, the dairy is the largest employer in the village, and they are all rightly proud of their cheese.
I sat and had tea with a father and his daughter who had just stated work at the creamery, he having been working for over 18 years making Cropwell Bishop. Stilton is part of Britain’s heritage we always look to Italy and France as having long established food traditions but here in the heart of Nottinghamshire traditions that span generations are alive and well.
On return from the tea break it was time to drain the whey from the curd. The first part of this being simply a matter of opening a tap at the bottom of the vat and allowing the whey to drain out, a mesh sieve is used to prevent any of the precious curd from escaping down the plug hole.
When as much of the whey as possible has been drained, the curd is moved from the bottom of the vat on to draining-tables. The curd is incredibly fragile at this stage. The upmost care must be taken in moving it.
Cropwell Bishop are one of only two creameries to produce traditional hand ladled Stilton. Hand ladling is exactly what it sounds like. The curds are gently scooped up and delicately laid on to the draining table. This requires a good wristy action to do it properly.
The curd then rests on the draining table over night; during which time the acidity to continue to rise and the curd firms up. The curd would then be milled the following day using a peg mill. Salt is added to the crumbled curd that comes out of the mill. It is then carefully packed in to the cylindrical moulds that give Stilton its distinctive shape.
Stilton is matured for a minimum of 8 weeks before being deemed ready to be released on the public. For the first 5 days the cheeses are turned every day. The PDO states that stilton can not be pressed. It therefore drains under gravity, relying solely on the weight of the curd in the mould. The turning is done by hand and requires great skill. The plastic moulds are slippery with the whey that is seeping from them and weigh just over 8 Kg at this stage. I was very nervous about dropping one as I had a go at flipping them over.
After the 5 days of daily turning the cheeses are slid from their moulds and under go the process of rubbing up. When the cheeses leave the mould the surface is not smooth, there being small gaps between the lumps of curd that form the cheese. This would allow air to enter the cheese activating the blue mould and causing bluing to occur in a random and uncontrolled manner. I watched as the Cropwell bishop cheese-makers flicked pallet knives over the surface of the cheeses sealing all gaps. As with many things what looked simple was in actual fact very tricky, my first attempt resulting in taking a great chunk from the cheese, this resulted in hoots of laughter from the staff, they could do 3 cheeses in the time it took me to do just one.
Once rubbed up a plastic support is put around each cheese and they are put in to a second maturing room where they are turned every day for a further 7 days.
After this the plastic supports are removed and the cheese is moved in to a slightly warmer maturing room where they are turned only every other day. It is in this room that the rind starts to form, there is a very distinctive smell to a stilton maturing room, a mix of damp cellar with the merest hint of ammonia. They remain here for 3 weeks until they are ready to under go piercing.
Piercing is a vital step in the production of stilton, it is responsible for allowing the cheese to turn blue. This used to be done by hand, a truly laborious task that involved plunging a metal spike into each cheese over 100 times. Thankfully the cheeses are pierced using a machine, albeit a fearsome looking one.
The cheeses spend another 2 weeks in the maturing rooms before under going a second round of piercing. After which the cheeses remain in the maturing rooms for one more week to allow the blue to fully develop before being wrapped in the Traditional Blue and white waxed paper.
Cropwell Bishop arrived safe and well in our chiller in Bath.