Pandemic Gives S.O.S. a New Meaning for U.K. Cheesemakers: Save Our Stilton

PIKEHALL, England — First the phones fell silent, then the email inbox abruptly emptied of orders. At Hartington Creamery, one of just six companies that produce Britain’s famous blue Stilton cheese, things looked ominous from the moment the coronavirus lockdown began and pubs and restaurants closed.

But it was when one customer called not to place an order but to return one for a refund that Robert Gosling, the majority shareholder of Hartington Creamery, knew he was in real trouble.

“We had to politely say, ‘You can’t really do that,’” Mr. Gosling said, sitting in a farm building in the scenic Derbyshire countryside.

For many parts of the British economy, the coronavirus pandemic has been a brutal master, with the closure of nonessential stores and the tourism and hospitality industries, plunging the economy into free-fall.

British agriculture has suffered as well. Farmers have had to pour thousands of liters of milk down the drain, and food companies have struggled to use mountains of unwanted beef and potatoes that had been destined for restaurants or fast food outlets. Markets for most of those products have stabilized, but many makers of specialty products are still suffering. Stilton is particularly vulnerable: Just half a dozen companies make the distinctive, crumbly, blue cheese, and the pandemic has pushed some of them close to the edge.

With sales down almost a third on average — Hartington suffered an 80 percent drop — producers are asking Britons to save Stilton by choosing it over continental cheeses, and using it in new recipes or to top burgers.

“We have appealed to the British public to be patriotic and to buy their British blue cheese,” said Kim Kettle, who represents Long Clawson Dairy, a farming cooperative, at the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association.

In particular, the current troubles could deter the next generation from continuing the tradition of cheesemaking, he said.

This being Britain, there is a rich and quirky history behind the emergence of Stilton, one of the country’s most famous food products and one that enjoys special protected status.

By law, those entitled to use the name for their cheese must work from one of three English counties — Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire. The area excludes the village of Stilton, after which the cheese is named, because it lies a little to the southeast, in Cambridgeshire.

Among enthusiasts there is a lively debate about what type of dairy product originated at Stilton and where exactly it was made. But it is known that some variety of cheese could be bought from the Bell Inn at Stilton in the 18th century, and it was described by Daniel Defoe as the “English Parmesan.”

So some have campaigned for the current rules to be changed to allow Stilton to be made at Stilton, though those efforts have so far been unsuccessful.

But for those with the legal right to make Stilton the climate was tough even before the pandemic hit. Not only has the cheese had to jostle on supermarket shelves with continental varieties, the United States slapped a 25 percent tariff on imports of Stilton last year in the latest chapter of an interminable trade dispute over subsidies to aircraft makers.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than at Hartington, a small producer that does not have the scale to fill big export orders or supply the large supermarkets that stayed open during the pandemic. Instead, it relies principally on the local hospitality trade, which shut down.

Commercial cheese production began in this part of Derbyshire around 1875, though it was not until 1900 that Stilton was made here for the first time. That operation ultimately closed in 2009 but the Hartington creamery began producing Stilton in Pikehall in 2012, making around 120 tons of cheese a year.

Inside a farm building on this compact site lie two long vats, the larger of which holds 4,500 liters, or nearly 1,200 gallons, of a pasteurized milk whose liquids and solids slowly separate at a carefully controlled temperature.

But it is in the part of the creamery where dozens of cheeses mature that the impact of the pandemic becomes obvious. Here, where the smell is so strong that it stings the eyes, some of the large round cheeses that should have been eaten in April have ripened, sagged and collapsed to half their normal size — a loss of sales that could cost the company as much as 15,000 pounds, about $19,000.

“I am 65 this year and I have never seen this before — you can’t plan for this,” said Alan Salt, a shareholder in Hartington who helped set up the new creamery and works there several days a week.

“We are lucky we are still going, it’s as simple as that,” Mr. Salt said as he bored a small hole in the side of a cheese to extract a sample to test for taste and texture.

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The creamery also makes several other cheeses, including Peakland White, a crumbly, salty white cheese, and Dovedale Blue, a soft cheese that is “like Stilton and Brie having a love child,” as Mr. Salt put it.

The pandemic has forced Hartington to adapt to survive. By lowering temperatures, it has extended the manufacturing process somewhat and switched to making more dairy products that last longer. But matured Stilton, which has a shelf life of around 42 days, will rot if left unsold — as some of it was when lockdown began abruptly.

Nor is it easy to plan for the future. No one knows exactly when the hospitality sector will reopen, perhaps next month, nor how quickly demand will return once it does.

So, instead of selling large eight-kilo cheeses to wholesalers for use in pubs and restaurants, Hartington is now dividing them into smaller portions that it has been selling online or to small distributors.

“It has been a shock to the system,” said Diana Alcock, a director of the company, who described working at the creamery as being part of a family. “It’s been quite stressful.”

The company has been helped by a £10,000 property tax break from the government and a £50,000 loan through a program designed to help businesses weather the pandemic. But that injection of £60,000 was needed to save the business.

Mr. Gosling said that while things have been tough — and sometimes demoralizing — he is confident the firm will survive. “You find out who the real friends of Hartington Creamery are in times of need,” he said, adding that there seemed to be enough.

“These guys here make cheese lovingly and with their own hands; there’s an art and a magic too it, and a bit of mystery too,” Mr. Gosling said. “It isn’t like making ball bearings in a factory.”

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