30 Dec 2012

Ribblesdale Cheese: room for two

Wallace's smile wouldn't have been quite so wide if he'd known that the nice bit of Yorkshire Wensleydale brought to him by Gromit could well have been made in Shropshire, Cheshire or even (whisper it) Lancashire. 

Like many territorial cheeses, most Wensleydale is now manufactured on an industrial scale miles away from the beautiful Yorkshire valley where it was traditionally made. Most cheesemongers know there is an exception to this sad state of affairs in the form of the Wensleydale Creamery, which is based in Hawes in the North Yorkshire dales. 

What is less well known is that there is actually another cheese maker in the town making Wallace's favourite fromage. Ribblesdale Cheese was set up in 1978 by Iain Hill in the nearby village of Horton-in-Ribblesdale, but after he passed away in 2006 his niece Iona Hill took over the business and relocated it to Hawes. 

Not that the Wensleydale Creamery would have been too worried by the competition. Ribblesdale is a fraction of the size of its neighbour, as Iona Hill explains: “They employ 200 people and have a turnover of £22m. We employ two people – me and cheesemaker Stuart Gatty – and our turnover is £350,000. There's really no comparison.” 

That said, Hill is keen to play up the fact that she also makes Wensleydale in Hawes, pointing out that in the 2011 Great Taste Awards her cheese received two stars, while her larger neighbour picked up just one for its Wensleydale. “We know we can make it, it's just that we don't have the market because everyone associates Hawes with Wensleydale Dairy,” she says. “It's a shame because my big mantra is that there are two cheese makers in Hawes.”

Despite the difference in size, or perhaps because of it, relations between the two companies are good. Richard Clarke, Wensleydale Creamery's head cheesemaker uses Ribblesdale's premises once or twice a month to make an unpasteurised Wensleydale – something that would be tricky at creamery which is dedicated to pasteurised milk.“I'm happy to work with them rather than against them,” says Hill.

Ribblesdale also makes its own unpasteurised Wensleydale, using milk from a local pedigree herd, as well as a pasteurised version and a new product called Yorkshire Bowlers - red waxed balls of Wensleydale that look like cricket balls.

However, cow's milk cheese remains a small part of the business with 85% of production coming from hard goat's cheeses, including best sellers such as Original Goat and Superior Goat gouda.

To continue reading this article, which was first published in the Dec issue of Fine Food Digest, click here and turn to p21.

18 Dec 2012

Cropwell Bishop Stilton: blue velvet

Mince pies and turkey are all well and good, but it's the salty tang of Stilton that is the true taste of Christmas for cheese lovers. 

Britain's most famous blue is the perfect partner for port or Christmas cake, but there's another reason why it's the cheese of choice over the festive period. Stilton is in its absolute prime in December because it has been made with rich summer milk.

Robin Skailes at Cropwell Bishop Creamery in Nottinghamshire, whose family have been making Stilton for over 60 years, explains: “The Stilton you eat at Christmas has been maturing for at least 10 weeks, so was actually made in September. That's when the cows have been feeding on the lush pastures of the Peak District all summer, so they are producing the ultimate milk for making a soft blue cheese just in time for Christmas.”

Robin and his cousin Ben Skailes are the third generation of the family to Stilton. Like their grandfather, Frank, who bought the company in 1949, they are sticklers for tradition, especially when it comes to choosing a perfect cheese for their own Christmas dinner.

“There's always a huge piece of Stilton on the table in the Skailes household at Christmas,” say Skailes. “Each year our head grader puts aside a few really good cheeses and my father makes a special visit to the dairy to personally pick the best one for the family. It's a long family tradition.”

Protected by EU laws in the same way as Parmesan or Champagne, Stilton can only be made in the three counties of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire using traditional recipes. The strict rules mean there are currently only five Stilton producers, some of which are large industrial manufacturers, but not much has changed at Cropwell Bishop since Skailes' grandfather took over.

Robin Skailes
Milk is sourced from small family farms, while almost all of the work is still done by hand from cutting the curds to filling and turning the moulds to ensure the cheeses form evenly inside – an impressive feat when you consider that 500 of the 7.5kg Stilton 'rounds' are made every day.

Strong arms are required for this weighty job, says Skailes, but a light touch is all important when the cheeses are removed from their hoops. A team of nimble-fingered ladies 'rub up' the young rounds using a knife and a flick of the wrist to smooth the sides and create an air-tight seal. 

To continue reading this article, which first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Harods Magazine, click here