Stilton co-op has matured with age

January provides a short respite for the hard-working team at one of the UK’s oldest co-operatives.

Back in 1911, a dozen farmers got together to produce Stilton cheese in the tiny village of Long Clawson, near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire.

Today, some 45 farms and 50 million litres of milk every year are involved in the manufacturing process which means there are now three sites producing the classic English after-dinner cheese and a raft of others to suit our increasingly diverse palates.

Peak time of the cheese-lovers year is of course the Christmas season, but come the new tear many people are embarking on post-festive diets — and giving up their favourite high calorie food for a few weeks.

So over at Long Clawson they are now taking stock and getting ready for new challenges in 2009. At the end of last year, the co-operative acquired the speciality division of Dairycest in Hartington, Derbyshire. And, despite the economic downturn, things are looking good for the coming period. However, Long Clawson recently announced it would be looking at the “value” end of the market which is increasingly important to all retailers at a time when people are counting the pennies and making economies.

Long Clawson marketing manager Janice Breeden says: “2009 has been a challenging year for everyone including us, but we’re glad that we have managed to retain our core business and embark on several new initiatives.

“In terms of recent new projects and products people are going more for spreadable cheese so we now have new versions of our Blue Stilton, Double Gloucester with onion, and Wensleydale with cranberry. There are also now three different sliced cheeses which people can try; including cheddar with wholegrain mustard and another Cheddar with hot spices. It’s been a natural evolution over the years which also includes grated and sliced cheese. It’s our job to respond to changing market demand.”

The more exotic dairy mixes now account for almost half of Long Clawson’s output, but good old Stilton is still the mainstay at the co-operative’s head office in the village where it was founded.

Other manufacturing outlets are based in the villages of Bottesford, where the blended cheeses are masterminded and Harby, opened in 1985 by the Prince Of Wales, where the Stilton is matured and graded,

Stilton cheese derives its famous name from the village of Stilton, in Cambridgeshire. The story goes that It was never actually made in Stilton, but was sold there to coach travellers in need of sustenance on the Great North Road, travelling between London and Scotland.

In the 18th century, it was apparently recorded that cheese for the Bell Inn, Stilton, was procured by a Mrs Paulet, a cheese-making farmer’s wife living near Melton Mowbray, for her brother-in-law, Cooper Thornhill. He was reputed to have been the landlord of the inn at that time. This story therefore connects Stilton cheese-making with the area around Melton Mowbray, near to Long Clawson.

Whatever the truth of the matter, true Stilton cheese may only be produced in the neighbouring counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and is protected by a certification trademark.

In recent years, this has led to Stilton being awarded a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) by the European Commission. Which is good news for the 250 people or so who work for the co-op.

Loved especially in Britain, Long Clawson Stilton is also exported all over the world to America, Canada and India, where their curry-friendly paneer cheese is another big success story.

Another speciality product is the Thomas Hoe Stevenson Aged Blue Stilton, which is named after one of the founders of the co-op in 1911.

In the 90 years since it was founded, the farmer co-operative has increased in numbers but its board is still entirely made up of farmers. Turnover, obviously has also increased — last year it was £32 million. And, despite the economic downturn, the prospects for 2009 are good.

Ms Breeden says: “We believe that we are the largest independent Stilton producer in the UK and our market is very loyal. Our cheese is traditionally made, however since 2001 Long Clawson Dairy has been committed to process the latest innovations to improve our production facilities.

“That means in the past few years we have invested some £7.1m to improve our manufacturing capabilities. The new improvements include installing an ultrasonic cheese cutter and an additional 300sqm of cold storage space .

She added: “In 2009, things are likely to be a little tougher for us, but that investment and the fact we are constantly being pro-active means that we are still holding our own and doing well. We are confident that will continue.”

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