Through many generations, a family business has stood the test of time, priding itself on traditional values and quality. Emily Ashworth visits Cropwell Bishop Creamery to find out how the Skailes family has made its history in Stilton.
It is the perfect setting.
Nestled into the picturesque village of Cropwell Bishop, Nottinghamshire, a business steeped in family history continues to produce Stilton in a traditional way, embracing generations of hard work and homely values.
Ian (left) and Ben Skailes
After creating the business in 1941, Frank Skailes handed what eventually became Cropwell Bishop Creameries down to his sons, Ian and David, in the 1980s.
The business is now run by cousins Robin, who oversees production, and Ben, who is responsible for their market.
It is clear the knowledge and passion for this somewhat particularly niche product runs through this family’s blood.
The creamery is also, it would seem, firmly part of the locals’ lives. Ian says: “When we built the packing and distribution site on the outskirts, people were asking me if we were moving. When I told them we were not, they said ‘oh thank goodness, you’re part of village life’, which is a great thing to hear.”
Having once had a dairy in Melton Mowbray, which made a selection of other cheeses including Cheddar, the family realised their market was more tuned towards Stilton and made a decision to run their stock down and invest into the Cropwell Bishop dairy.
Although they are still always tweaking recipes and techniques to benefit taste and quality, the choice the family made to focus on Stilton has proved to be the right one.
Ian says: “As a result, interest in our product rose and we found we were getting a market share out of quality rather than price.
“It was then, back in 1998, when we managed to secure a Waitrose listing.”
Initially supplying the Waitrose deli counter, they moved into pre-packing cheese for the supermarket which, as a testament to the creameries product, actually approached them.
They aim their product at the premium end of the market, securing contracts with the likes of Selfridges and Harrods.
Ben says: “Our focus is on consistent quality. We have had some of the same customers for years and our product is recognised – it sets us apart.”
With only six other dairies able to produce Stilton, Cropwell Bishop produces about 10 per cent of all Stilton and ships internationally to countries such as North America and Australia.
Efficient running in manufacturing the Stilton is, no doubt, down to enthusiastic production manager Howard Lucas.
Howard has been part of Cropwell Bishop for more than 20 years and is confident he knows what it takes to make a good Stilton.
He says: “By using traditional hand ladling methods, as opposed to mechanical, the cheese tastes totally different."
By hand ladling curds into the draining vat, the texture becomes much smoother and this technique is used in only one other Stilton dairy in the UK.
The day starts at about 6am, when the milk, which they source from 14 farms in the Peak District, arrives and is poured into vats. The starter culture Penicillium roqueforti (to provide the veins) and the rennet (which allows milk to clot) are then added.
Once formed, the curd will then be cut in order for the whey to be released. Whey is gradually drained from the vat and this is when the next crucial stage of draining takes place – a process which cannot be rushed.
"By using traditional methods the cheese tastes totally different"
Once most of the whey has been removed, the delicate ladling ‘dance’ begins.
A team of four, in a somewhat synchronised manner, begin to ladle the curd out onto a draining table, scoop-by-scoop in an uninterrupted motion.
The following morning, after being put through the cheese mill, which reduces it into smaller particles, the salting process takes place.
This is carried out by hand to ensure an even balance.
Cheese is then transferred to moulds and turned continuously by hand for about five days. By doing this continually, eliminating any use of mechanical help, the cheese is allowed to form naturally and acquires the desired texture.
After five days, the traditional method of ‘rubbing up’ is used to seal the coat. The process is done with stainless steel knives and prevents any premature moulding which might occur inside. It is during the next five weeks when the magic of Stilton begins to develop.
Cheeses are shelved, moved to various maturing rooms (which swiftly welcomes you with the powerful and intricate scents of advancing Stilton) and pierced. It is the piercing which promotes veining, introducing the creamy texture this particular cheese should own.
Then, at 11 weeks, the Stilton is finally ready.
One constant in the Cropwell Bishop journey is the relationship with farmers who supply the milk.
They are still in a working partnership with many of those they began with, and Ian believes in the relationship between company and farmer.
He says: “I wanted a relationship with farmers and their milk. Without them, we could not do what we do, and we felt the premium should go to those farmers.”
The creamery has about 45,000 litres of milk per day coming in and the team likes to bring farmers to the site once-a-year to show them what happens. It is a great initiative, enabling everyone involved to discuss quality and hygiene and more so, to keep the connection going.
Characteristics of milk are also important. Ian says, for Stilton, there are specific aspects needed to ensure its standard.
He says: “We need high fat and high protein content. Stilton needs high moisture content to start with and seasonality of the milk becomes significant. August to October is when it is most favourable.”
It may seem like a distant day in the future for most, but at Cropwell Bishop, Christmas begins in July.
Ian says: “Get it wrong in July and that is it.”
In their peak season, which they are already well into, about 600 cheeses per day are produced and 30 per cent of all produce is exported. It is then full throttle into December, when five times as much cheese is made.
Staff count rockets to about 100 and this is an area which Ian believes to be a vital cog in the success of this cheese machine.
He says: “Standards are extremely high these days, and if it was not for our staff being focused on quality, it would not work.”
The family always listen to their customers’ needs and adapt products to suit them.
For example, after hearing the traditional tang of Stilton was perhaps a little too much for some, they introduced Beauval, a softer, milder tasting cheese.
They also offer a Stilton suitable for vegetarians and a variety of white Stilton infused with delicate spices and fruits, such as dates or cranberries.
This is where the future lies for Cropwell, according to Ben.
He says: “We will continue our product development, realising there are always new possibilities, and keep on taking in what our market and customers want.”
The history of the business is a strong backbone to the body of the company and there, right at the heart of it, is cheese.