All four wheels span like Catherine wheels on the liquefied clay, achieving no more than spraying dirty yellow arcs past our windows into the waterlogged field behind. A robin on the gatepost beside us cocked its head, unperturbed by the engine’s scream, a semitone below glass-shattering pitch, perhaps wondering why I hadn’t checked the field’s entrance before reversing in to turn around. The smell of burning clutch permeated the cabin so I reluctantly relented and turned the engine off.
Alex placed her hand on mine, my white knuckles locked onto the gear knob. ‘Should I get out and push, Dad?’
Although my off-roading credentials would doubtless have me barred from a ‘One Life Live It!’ Land Rover convention, I knew enough to understand asking a twelve year old to try and push two tonnes of inert Defender out of a field would lead to a call to ChildLine.
‘No thank you, darling.’
Swallows huddled on the telegraph wires dipping through the evening mist towards the spire of Colston Bassett church, a tantalising marker of our quest. I inwardly cursed and swore never to eat Stilton again.
Following Ned’s advice we had looked into the UK’s cheesemaking courses and booked ourselves onto two of the most comprehensive, at The School of Artisan Food on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire. The first was a two-day boot camp that would teach us the knowledge needed to attempt their week-long course later in the year. Our research had also unearthed a formal qualification in France that left us thinking we could have aimed higher, but three years seemed a little too long to ask Pam’s mum to look after the children.
We decided to spend a family weekend with Kate and Ian, Pam’s sister and brother-in-law in Cropwell Bishop, a short drive from the school, and Pam’s mum would take the children on from there.
‘What does anyone fancy eating this evening?’ asked Kate as we had cleared the lunch table that Saturday, ‘I’ve chicken, lamb and beef; I could do a roast, or…’ she looked to Alex and Oscar, ‘…I have some mince. Maybe a lasagne?’
The children’s response was synchronised delight. ‘Yes please!’
‘Maybe we could top it with Stilton?’ I said. The children looked horrified. ‘…for the adults,’ I added. The village of Cropwell Bishop is home to one of Stilton’s six cheesemaking dairies and to live closer to it than Kate and Ian would require sleeping in a cheese vat.
Ian checked his watch. ‘It’s three o’clock; the dairy shop closes at two on a Saturday.’
‘What about Colston Bassett?’ I said, suggesting the Stilton we’d been using for our events for some years, its dairy a couple of miles to the south.
He fixed me with a look of mock horror. ‘Well, if you want a foreign import, I suppose I could find the number for you.’ A football supporter’s allegiance pales in comparison to that of a Stilton villager to their local dairy. He searched for the number and handed me his phone.
‘It would be good to see how Stilton’s made,’ I said. ‘I wonder if they’ll let me visit the dairy.’ I made the call and a woman’s voice answered.
‘Hello… Colston Bassett.’
‘I was wondering if I might visit your dairy this afternoon.’
‘Oh, for what purpose?’
‘I was hoping I could join a tour?’
Some moments passed. ‘…A tour?’ I wondered whether a definition was required, but she continued. ‘Oh no, we don’t do tours I’m afraid,’ she said in a tone suggesting she had confused fear with relief.
‘Well, might I be able to buy some cheese from you then?’
‘We do have a shop.’
‘Wonderful! When does it close?’
‘Three hours ago.’
‘Yes, we close at twelve on Saturdays. We’re also closed on Sundays and Bank Holidays.’
I thought for a moment. ‘If I were to come to the dairy right now, could you just sell me a small piece?’ There was silence on the other end of the phone. Had my tenacity over-ridden prudence? Was I in danger of sounding like a Stilton stalker? Some reassurance was needed. ‘We’ve used your cheese for many years at our wine tasting events and I was hoping to learn a little more, but I’ll be happy just to buy some from you for our supper this evening.’ A sigh at the end of the line suggested I had regained some ground, but not much.
‘I’m sorry, I have no access to the cheese; I’m only here to answer the telephone.’
I was about to ask why, other than to offer the public the opportunity for fruitless conversations, when I noticed the looks on the faces of those around me. Their sympathies clearly did not lie with the tormentor. I thanked the woman and hung up.
‘Well, it’s ridiculous! Why close on the days the public can actually make it to the dairy? That’s the problem with this country; we’re perfectly good at making stuff, but bad at telling people about it. When you go to a Normandy producer, they’ll have tours, bunting in the streets, even children selling it to you through your car window when you pull up at traffic lights! They’re proud of their produce and aren’t abashed in letting you know about it. It’s the reason our country eats French cheese and not the other way around.’ The scraping of chair legs announced that lunch had finished and the family had better things to do to than listen to my rant.
Kate placed a hand on my shoulder. ‘You could try the Co-op at the end of the village.’
‘Can I come?’ Asked Alex, aware that a trip to the shops with me often involved a sugary digression.
Passing the Cropwell Bishop creamery, a shuttered guardian of the blue-veined treasure we sought, again made me wonder at the English attitude towards promoting our produce. Ned’s correction of my false impression that England was more blessed than France in the field of cheese had prompted me to do a little research. The often-quoted figure of 700 types of UK cheese was indeed most likely individual named cheeses, regardless of style, as the Specialist Cheesemakers Association website listed just over 900 cheeses from 260 cheesemakers, with similar numbers quoted by the British Cheese Board. By contrast the French Ministry of Agriculture refers to 570 cheesemaking dairies and a further 1500 farmstead cheesemakers within the country’s 47 PDO categories of cheese (we have just ten PDO categories, of which only three have more than one producer). Furthermore, they estimate that there are over 3500 French commercial cheesemakers in total, when those outside of the PDO categories are included.
As these were my findings from a few hours spent at my computer, and not an exhaustive investigation, I recommend further research to anyone wishing to quote the figures. However it does suggest that those responsible for reporting the state of the British cheese industry are prone to a little hyperbole; unfortunately, this undermines healthy promotion as it risks the impression that we don’t need to try harder to support our home produce if we’re already doing so well.
I pushed open the Co-op’s door and warm air filled with the scent of freshly baked bread gusted past us, a welcome reprieve from the chill winter outside. Speakers overhead promoted discounted toilet tissue over the intro to Madonna’s Like a Prayer. Alex hummed along. ‘Every shop needs a radio station,’ she said. A nearby assistant attempted a smile which suggested otherwise. Alex and I went to different areas of the shop, each calorifically equivalent she to peruse the confectionery aisle while I scanned the cheese chiller. This was no Monty Python’s cheese shop. It was resplendent with fermented curd from all parts. From one to five there were numbered cheddars of varying strengths, each in blocks of sizes to suit. If Camembert or Brie, Somerset or otherwise, was your treat, then you were in for it. The mayors of Gouda, Gruyères and Gorgonzola would rest easy in the knowledge that their cheeses were amply represented. Even the knife-averse were thoughtfully catered for with a full range of square slices that would melt (and taste) like hot linoleum on a burger.
‘Do you stock Cropwell Bishop Stilton?’ I asked.
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘Any Stilton at all?’
‘Is there none on the shelf?’
‘Not that I could see.’
‘Then I’m afraid not.’
‘Popular is it?’ The young man stared at me as if in need of a panic button. Alex appeared by my side. ‘We could try somewhere else?’ She placed a bag of wine gums on the counter.
The suggestion seemed to please the shop assistant. ‘You could try Melton Mowbray, there’s a Sainsbury’s there.’ He scanned the gums. ‘Will that be all?’
‘Yes,’ said Alex before I could respond. I paid and we made our way back to the car.
‘Twenty miles!’ I said as we put our seat belts on. ‘To buy something that comes from this town! I can’t believe they don’t have any Stilton, let alone Cropwell Bishop. They have one of the World’s most famous cheeses on their doorstep and they’d rather sell cheese strings!’
‘Maybe not everyone likes mouldy cheese.’
‘Yes, well everyone likes wine gums,’ I said, holding out my hand. I took a black one and popped it in my mouth. ‘But if Maynard’s think this tastes like Port, they’re sorely mistaken. More like Cabernet Sauvignon. Should I write a letter?’ Alex punched my arm.
We came to the end of the village. Before us pastures led to the ridge that marks the eastern flank of the Vale of Belvoir, pronounced 'beaver' by locals, due I imagine to the prevalence of semi-aquatic rodents. On the ridge a few miles to the north, lit bronze in the low afternoon sun, sat Belvoir Castle, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, its position elevated to command the Vale, and possibly keep an eye on the beavers. After a minute or two we came upon a turning to Colston Bassett. I slowed down. Alex was ahead of me.
‘Dad, you’re not going to bother that lady again are you?’
‘Certainly not. I was thinking the village might have a village shop too, and it might stock a Stilton I can tease Uncle Ian with.’ We turned down a narrow lane flanked by ditches swaying with reeds, beyond them fields populated only by nodding crows, any livestock likely tucked up for the winter. We had gone half a mile when we overshot a turning to the village. ‘I’ll turn around in the entrance to that field.’
The engine ticked as it cooled and the car’s natural air conditioning brought the cabin to a temperature closer to outside. ‘I’ll give Uncle Ian a call,’ I said, not relishing having to explain how easily I’d got a Land Rover stuck to a man who had worked on farms all of his life. I reached over to the back seat and dipped into my coat pocket for my phone. Alex tapped my shoulder.
‘There’s a man coming.’ A purple Jeep had stopped by the roadside and a silver-haired man in wellingtons, faded jeans and checked shooting jacket strode towards us with a cane. ‘He doesn’t look happy.’ I opened the car door and leapt over to a patch of grass beside the gatepost, but slipped backwards, my foot sinking into the chocolate coloured sludge.
‘Did you open the gate?’ the man demanded as he reached us. His tone suggested a level of contrition was required, though weren’t guilty of this misdemeanour.
‘No, it was open when we reversed in.’ I gripped the gatepost and pulled my foot out. Water dripped from the bottom of my trousers.
‘We?’ He eyed the field beyond us. ‘You’re not alone?’
‘No, my daughter’s with me.’
He peered through the windscreen at Alex. ‘And the rest of your family, where are they?’
‘They’re in Cropwell Bishop. We just we came out to buy some cheese and missed our turning.’
‘Cheese you say?’ He prodded his cane into the grass.
‘Yes, we wanted some Stilton to go on a lasagne.’
‘It’s just that we’ve had problems with folk camping in our fields. But not at this time of year, mind.’ He spotted our languishing tyres and frowned. ‘And with good reason, looks like you need a tow. Look, I’ve some rope in the back; I’ll pull you out, then take the left at the end of the lane and follow the signs to Cropwell Bishop.’
‘Actually, we were on our way to Colston Bassett,’ I said.
‘Good choice, but it closes at twelve.’
‘The whole town?’
‘No, just the dairy, but there’s not much else in the village.’ He thought for a moment then smiled. ‘Look, let’s get you out, then once we’ve untied follow me.’
The Jeep, gripping the tarmac, had little trouble hauling its British protégé from the mire, and once de-coupled we followed it for a while before turning into an entrance and pulling up in a small courtyard outside a red-tiled farmhouse. He led us into the kitchen and invited us to sit at a wooden table. He took a blue china cloche from a shelf on a dresser and sat down beside us. ‘My cows help make this,’ he said, lifting the lid to reveal a yellow wedge marbled with blue. ‘Colston Bassett, finest of the Stiltons.’ I had a relative who might disagree but was not yet comfortable enough to mention it. A woman joined us.
‘Would you like some tea and biscuits?’ She turned to Alex. ‘Or would you rather lemonade my dear?’
We sat with the couple as they explained how theirs was one of a number of herds that provided milk for Colston Bassett and had done so since the early 1900s. They also said that whilst herd sizes across the UK had needed to increase over the years to in order to compete, the fact that they were supplying a high quality cheesemaking dairy had kept them in business as they received more for their milk.
Theirs was a small farm not unlike those we had seen in France, and they seemed contented with their arrangement, not the sentiment of many UK dairy farmers if you tune into Farming Today on Radio 4. The reason for this disparity could be argued to be protectionism over the free market. A soft blue cheese called Stilton, named after the town on the A1 near Peterborough where it was traded but not produced, has been made in the Vale of Belvoir since the seventeenth century. But it wasn’t until 1936, after a cheesemaker left one of the dairies and started making Stilton in the West Country, that a move to protect the Stilton name was made. The Stilton Cheesemakers Association was formed and banned use of the name outside the counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, where the extant dairies were. It also stipulated the standards to be adhered to. Further protection was assured in 1969 when a trademark was approved, the basis of the current PDO granted by the EU in 1996. The name is now protected worldwide. Ironically, Cheddar, where (unlike Stilton) its eponymous cheese actually originated, has only latterly sought to protect its name; too late to have the millions of tonnes of mass-produced Cheddar across the globe change its name. Stilton’s protectionism has been a great service to cheese lovers, not to mention careless drivers wishing to extract their cars from a field.