At the end of the nineteen eighties something of important historical and cultural significance disappeared from the landscape of the English Midlands. In a simple case of mistaken identity the practice of creating Stilton cheese, using raw or unpasteurised milk, a practice that had been developed over centuries, all but vanished.♦ The last cheesemaker of this era to produce a raw milk Stilton, in the Midlands, was Ernie Wagstaff of the Colston Bassett Dairy. However, in the last ten years, the Stichelton Dairy of Nottinghamshire has attempted to renew the tradition. We went along to talk to Head Cheesemaker, Joe Schneider, to find out how both the cheese and cheesemaker have developed in that time.
Late in 2004, Randolph Hodgson, the owner of London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy and the cheesemaker Joe Schneider discussed the idea of making a raw milk Stilton. Randolph had wanted to make a raw milk Stilton for a number of years, but the right conditions and relationships had not presented themselves. However, his conversation with Joe had reignited his interest, and despite the obvious challenges (regulatory and know-how) Joe thought the idea sounded interesting enough to set about trying to understand how it could be done. “Randolph wanted to make a raw milk Stilton, how do you do that? Who knows how to do that?” The knowledge of how to make raw milk Stilton had been practically lost with the changes that had occurred in late eighties. “Nobody has passed it on, nobody has recorded it, in any way…you can find some books that lay out some fairly specific parameters but they were written about a hundred and something years ago, they don’t resemble what Colston Bassett was doing 25 years ago.”
This initial problem of know-how presented some real difficulties for Joe and Randolph, problems that were not only technical, but also philosophical. A tradition of making raw milk Stilton had obviously existed, but any residual traces of it would prove hard to find. “The idea that you would go into the past and try and recreate what they were doing wasn’t going to work for us, so what we needed to do was to investigate the principles of what they were doing, maybe not the methods and all the detail, but the principles of what they were doing, and then try and recreate that here.”
The process of making a modern raw milk Stilton would take a while to ‘get off the ground’. Joe and Randolph spent the first two years trying to find the right conditions and environment for their project. Randolph had previously managed to engage the entrepreneurial owners of the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire. They would later provide the farm and the herd of around 120 or so Holstein-Friesians, as well as an old barn that would eventually become the dairy where the cheese is currently produced. “We have only been making cheese for about 8 years, it took us about two years to get the idea to precipitate into an actual start-up, without really knowing where to start.”
Setting out to do something that was, at the time, not being done anywhere else was an exciting but daunting task, as there was no ‘recipe’ to follow, nor an experienced artisanal producer to learn from. Joe knew that there would be a great deal of experimentation involved, “Someone like Ernie [Wagstaff] would have had tons of that natural understanding of the materials he was working with, the living product and how to adapt it.” However, we had to find a way “to deconstruct the cheese using methods that you wouldn’t normally associate with artisan production.”
The problem for anyone wanting to revive a tradition, like making raw milk Stilton, is that very few historical records exist to support the tradition. “For all the new cheesemakers, and there are lots of us, that are trying new things, or trying to revive old methods of making cheese, there is no body of records, there is nowhere to go and look.” In the initial process of developing our cheese “we spent years teasing out all the data we wanted to look at. How lovely would it have been if Colston Bassett had fifty years of ‘make’ records and you could look back? Just from a historical point of view, and passing knowledge on, how valuable would that be?”
Joe has a very strong philosophical understanding of the practice of cheesemaking, a practice he has often described as ‘a mix of empirical science and alchemy’. “I say that a lot, it is probably what attracts me to the whole thing, because it does have hard empirical science that you can analyse and measure and try and make a decision on, but then so much of it is just experience and a little bit of instinct, I like that combination, I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.” This philosophical understanding, mixed with a meticulous method for capturing data about the making process, resembles very little of what we might think of as traditional artisanal production. “It’s interesting from the empirical science point of view to tease out what is happening, so that you understand the whole process more, which has a wider application for cheesemaking and not just for our recipe.” This inclusive view of the wider applications that this knowledge can have hasn’t escaped Joe, in fact, it is something he is very attuned to. “We have a whole body of records, so if someone wants to look at what we are doing in fifty years, they can see quite a few data points on thousands of batches that we have made over the years and how it would change and what we were trying to achieve. It would be a more complete record. Something you would want to pass on.”
This process of collecting and documenting large amounts of data, coupled with the willingness to experiment, has allowed Joe and his team to learn a great deal about the process of making Stichelton. “It has gone very quickly, we have learned a lot about the cheese throughout those ten years…over the eight years we have been making [the cheese] it has changed because we are getting better at doing it, it has changed because we are deviating.” There are many opportunities “you can take to deviate, to try something different, so discovering for instance, what the final acidity difference would do to the texture, what more rennet as opposed to less rennet would do, what this starter culture would do as opposed to that one…if you do a deviation, we call it ‘blue printing’, you look at the whole ‘make’ in much finer detail and record so much more data…it is not something you do constantly, but throughout the eight years on many occasions we have had ideas that we wanted to try about how to improve it. You have to be really meticulous with recording your data so that you can go back and look because you are not going to try it for three months. It is like cooking a meal and trying to remember three months down the line how it tasted, so that you can adjust the recipe. It is quite difficult.”
During our discussion Joe consistently speaks about the importance of collaboration, collaboration between himself and Randolph, between himself and his team at the diary, between the diary and the sellers and customers at Neal’s Yard, but also the wider cheesemaking fraternity. The relationship between Joe and Randolph was obviously crucial at the beginning; “I have often used the analogy that I was the blind man with Randolph behind me saying a little to the left, a little to the right…” But as the cheese developed, a broader circle of influences became just as important. “I have a well tuned palate for what we make, but Randolph and all of his mongers at Neal’s Yard have expert palates. They have been instrumental, crucial to the development of helping us steer it more for the taste characteristics that they want, where as we tackle the more technical problems and then rely on their feedback to calibrate our own assessment of the flavour and the texture.” Joe also credits his relationships with other cheesemakers as an important and growing influence. “Within the wider cheese community we are all doing this all of a sudden, in last 4-5 years there has been a resurgence of this kind of approach, with lots of new cheesemakers doing it. When we get together, we take classes together, we take workshops together and meet up and talk about those things we are doing, it has been a flurry of activity in the last 4-5 years.” He also recognises the importance of the role Randolph plays in this growing community. “There a lots people under the influence of Randolph’s input…look at Sam [and Rachel] Holden who is making Hafod, they are trying to make a slow cheddar, which hasn’t been done for a hundred years or something. So they are trying to do the same thing we are, trying go backwards in time, but not for an arbitrary idea of tradition, but trying to discover why they were doing it then, what reasons and then how you can replicate now in the future.”
It is true to say that after ten years Stichelton is considered to be an important success.♣ Neal’s Yard Diary is shipping it across the globe to places as far flung as the United States, Japan and New Zealand, as well as the prestigious European cheesemaking countries of France and Italy, something Joe is particularly proud of. However, his and Randolph’s conception of its success lives well beyond its standing in these global marketplaces. “We sell everything we make, we get lots of feedback that is really positive, people love it, I love it, but if you look at Randolph’s motivation that was never the interesting part, it was more about the intellectual journey and process…as a metric for my own success as a cheesemaker I wouldn’t use where my cheese currently stands in my opinion, I think it is more about how we have engaged with the process over the year, or the years, of the difficultly of making better errors.” Joe identifies that his biggest challenge as a cheesemaker has been responding to constructive criticism and providing an inclusive working environment in which both the people he works with and the people who buy and sell his cheese can participate, something he humbly suggests he has not always been good at. “It is hard to think that you are putting all of your effort into something and then the end product hasn’t achieved what you want. So over the years you have to get really good at treating that philosophically and building into your approach…you get better at your technical knowledge, at your understanding of the recipe, but it’s how you approach it, how you keep your motivation and your open mindedness to different directions.”
Joe once again acknowledges that the success of Stichelton has been the product of a unique collaboration of partners, “Everybody does what they do really well, I make it, Welbeck produces the milk and Neal’s Yard sells it, not only do they sell it through their own shops, which they are really good at, but they sell it to people who ‘get it’…we are in an unusual position in that we only sell to one customer who supremely understands what we are about, defines what we are about and who has a stake in it. The fun exercise for Neal’s Yard is to find people you want to sell to.” Despite this success, Joe is acutely aware of how difficult it can be to develop and run a business like his own, “I look at my friends who are making raw milk cheeses and I think it takes a lot of courage to run your business like that because the regulations are set up to stop you from doing it. So people are very brave and committed to do it, they would make a lot more money if they didn’t do that sort of thing.”
As we near the end of the interview we touch on the subject of the future and what it may hold for Joe himself; does he see himself becoming the next Ernie Wagstaff? “I don’t know, I’m a very hands-on cheesemaker in this business and I want our business to reflect that, so it’s part of the reason we have stayed small, because I have lots of friends who make cheese but really they have cheesemakers and their role is not so hands-on, they step in once in a while and they are certainly controlling the creative process by learning things and shepherding that along, but they are not waking up every day at six and going into the dairy like we are. I probably make about 90% of the cheese we make, but do I want to do that for 30 years, I don’t know. At the moment I can’t see me being happy with that kind of role where I sit in the office and manage people who are making my cheese.” He once again states that the ten years he has spent developing and making Stichelton seems to have passed very quickly, but that the opportunity has taught him a great deal. “I look back at my past, say my five years at Daylesford, and I felt that I was a very good cheesemaker and we had all the hallmarks of success…but my understanding of cheesemaking, now that I’m at this stage and looking back, was very narrow, so we have learned so much along the way in the last ten years, both about cheesemaking and our own recipe, but also personally.”
It is clear that taking on history and all that that entails can be a difficult task. However, Joe and Randolph have managed, in a relatively short space of time, to create something that is both culturally and historically significant, as well as being thoroughly modern. The success of Stichelton, and the diary that produces it, has been a product of the willingness and desire to exploit the spirit of history with the aim of creating something anew.
As we part company with Joe I thank him for the experience and comment on how much he, as an individual, embodies what Stichelton is all about. An empirical scientist that gives both his raw materials and history the respect they deserve, in the hope that, like an alchemist, he can eventually transform them into edible gold. It was a real pleasure to spend an afternoon in his company.