Earlier this year, soem of our team took a trip to Stichelton Dairy in Nottinghamshire to make Stichelton cheese with Joe Schneider and his team. Here is a recap from Ben on the time they spent on the Wellbeck Estate with Joe...
At Stichelton Dairy the milking parlour is strangely quiet. In other parlours, the cows low and cry and try to butt each other out of the way. Here they stand and wait patiently for their turn in the herring-bone stalls. ‘They want to be milked’, he says, as they obediently file in to the parlour, one side at a time.
The milk they produce in the evening goes into a large tank, ready to be collected by Arla in the morning. Joe only uses morning milk to make Stichelton. By using such fresh milk, it doesn’t need to be chilled, which can disrupt the structure of the milk. Chilling also increases the risk of listeria in the milk, so using the morning milk has many advantages.
In the morning, Joe arrives at the creamery at about 6am, and starts the day with some cleaning. At 7, he goes next door to the parlour, and turns on the pump to send the milk over. The pump is extremely low pressure, pumping the milk gently and slowly over to the vat. The milk arrives in the vat very slowly, and with such little agitation that the cream rises to the top as the vat fills. ‘When we first set up, we had a visit from a Stilton maker. In his whole career, he had only ever worked with pasteurised milk. And I caught him, at one point, just staring long into the vat. Because it looked normal. I think he had been taught that raw milk was dangerous, contaminated, full of blood and bits of udder, yet there it was in the vat; clean, fresh milk.’
The milk is heated to 28.4C, and the starter is added at 8am. Before that, Joe adds a solution of blue mould into the milk. ‘It’s rehydrated in the fridge overnight from powdered form. It’s an insurance policy, really. The mould is in the atmosphere. We’ve had batches where we’ve forgotten to add this, and it hasn’t made any difference – the cheeses have blued anyway.’
The starter culture is 20ml, for a 2500l vat, an incredibly small quantity. ‘We’re looking for a really slow acidification. For a cheddar, the make is probably four hours start to finish. For Stichelton, it’s 24 hours.’ Rennet goes in at 8.30. So gentle is the activity in the vat that Joe has to stir the top of the vat a couple of times, to incorporate the cream into the milk.
After a quick break for breakfast, Joe cuts the curd at 10am.
Next to the vat is another table, where the curds from yesterday’s make have been resting overnight. In the morning, while the vat is filling, the curd, having drained overnight, is milled, and the curds are funnelled into the moulds. They’re stacked and taken to the hastener. The hastener is a relatively warm and humid room, which encourages the bacterial activity in the cheese to establish itself and allows the curds to knit together before they’re removed from their moulds. They stay there for 6 days before the moulds are removed and they’re ready for the next stage.
A flat knife is used to spread the cheese up and down the sides to form a smooth surface, which prevents air from getting into the cheese and starting to blue too soon. This is called ‘rubbing up’.The cheeses go from there into the drying room, where they’ll stay for three weeks before moving into the maturing room.
After two weeks in the maturing room, the cheeses are ready for piercing. They’re pierced twice – once at 6 weeks, and again at 7 weeks. Early on, Joe pierced the cheeses by hand, using a contraption that looks like a knuckle-duster with a three long spikes attached. It turns out that piercing cheeses using wolverine claws is hard work, though, so now Joe has invented a device to do it for him –a turntable which rotates the cheese and a set of spikes that periodically pierces the cheese a section at a time. A little like a lazy susan combined with an iron maiden.
Back in the make room, Megan and John are hand ladling the curds out of the vat onto the draining table. They use scoops that look a little like a lightweight wok, and leaning over the vat, scooping a couple of kilos of curd at a time. It’s exhausting work. Other Stilton creameries don’t do this – instead, their vats are set up a little like a tip-up truck – one end will be raised, and the curds will run through a chute at the end onto a draining table. ‘My curd is too fragile to do that. So the other cheesemakers have changed their curd to suit the technology. I don’t want to do that.’
The curds are spread carefully onto the table, in a brick-like formation, where they will sit, under the whey, until 7 this evening. At 7, Joe’s robot will click into action and drain the whey off, and the curds will sit till the morning, waiting to be milled and packed into the moulds.
Making raw milk cheese is still a risky business to get into. Not because of the risks of using raw milk; the risks of which can be, and are, effectively managed every day; but because it makes you vulnerable to the whims of the local Environmental Health Officer, who wields great power within their own region. ‘When the outbreak of Staph occurred in the late ‘80s, there was no evidence connecting it to Stilton. It was just before Christmas, so when the epidemiologists did their research to find out what all those affected had eaten, they had all eaten Stilton.’ No connection was ever established, but the suspicion was sufficient to persuade them to switch to using pasteurised milk from that point onwards.
Looking around the Stichelton make room, there’s very little there that wouldn’t be recognisable to a cheesemaker from 100 years ago. If he ate the cheese Joe makes, I think he’d have recognised it. It’s perhaps more consistent than it would have been, but it’s a small crumb of our heritage, not preserved, but a living and vibrant part of a long tradition.
Take a look at the video Jen made of their trip to the Dairy and listen to the cool, American drawl of Joe Schneider…