Cheesemaking and the Maturing Legacy of Collaboration

Cheesemaking and the Maturing Legacy of Collaboration

One of the highlights of our research programme of 2014 was the opportunity to spend a day at the Stichelton Dairy in Nottinghamshire. The reason for our visit was to speak to Head Cheesemaker, Joe Schneider, about the ten year process of reviving the tradition of making raw milk Stilton. What followed was a unique insight into the nature of collaboration and the highs and lows of working with history.

At the end of the nineteen eighties, due to an incorrectly identified source in a public health scare, the practice of making Stilton cheese using raw or unpasteurised milk, a practice that had been developed over centuries, all but vanished. Late in 2004, Randolph Hodgson, the owner of London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy and the cheesemaker Joe Schneider sat down over a pint and discussed the idea of reviving the tradition. Randolph had wanted to make a raw milk Stilton for a while, 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.”

The initial problem of know-how presented some real difficulties for both 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.”

Setting out to do something that was, at the time, not being done anywhere else was a daunting but exciting task, as there was no ‘recipe’ to follow, nor an experienced artisan producer to learn from. The process took a while to ‘get of the ground’, as Joe and Randolph spent the first two years trying to find the right conditions and environment for their project. They finally found a home on a small dairy farm within the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire and set about building a new dairy.

Joe has a very strong philosophical understanding of the practice of cheese making, 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 is 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 cheese making 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 it it has changed because we are getting better at doing it, it’s 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.”

During our discussion Joe consistently speaks of the importance of collaboration, collaboration between himself and Randolph, between him and his team at the diary, between the diary and the sellers and customers at Neal’s Yard, but also the wider cheese making fraternity. The relationship between Joe and Randolph was obviously crucial at the beginning, but as the product has developed, a broader circle of influences have become 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 relied 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 sudden, in last 4-5 years there has been a resurgence of this kind of approach, with lots of new cheese makers 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 is true to say that after ten years Stichelton is considered to be an important success. Neal’s Yard Diary are shipping it across the globe to places as far flung as the United States, Japan and New Zealand, as well as the prestigious European cheese making countries of France and Italy, something Joe is particularly proud of. However, his and Randolph’s conception of its success lives well beyond the scope of these global marketplaces. “We sell everything we make, we gets 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 once again acknowledges that the success of Stichelton is 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.”

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, is a product of the willingness and desire to exploit the spirit of history with the aim of creating something anew.

As we parted company with Joe I thanked him for the experience and commented on how much he as an individual embodied 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.