There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Melton Mowbray and the Vale of Belvoir, Stilton Cheese and Pork Pies: Part 1 The Journey

Stilton cheese has six licensed producers, one in Melton Mowbray and four more in the Vale of Belvoir immediately to the north. We thought we might pay them a visit, so we drove the 60 miles to Melton Mowbray.

With the rain just holding off we walked past Anne of Cleves’ house towards the market square. A much restored medieval building it once housed the priests of the town’s chantry chapels. After the dissolution of the monasteries Henry VIII gave the house to Thomas Cromwell who lived there in 1540 but fell from grace after recommending Anne of Cleves to be Henry’s 4th wife and was executed in 1541. Ironically, the house passed to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement but although it bears her name she probably never even visited. It is now a pub.

Anne of Cleves' House, Melton Mowbray
Nearby, the restored Butter Cross sits beside the rather forlorn modern market. Once there were four market crosses, today they would have outnumbered the stalls. We retreated to a coffee house and watched the rain splattering onto the flagstones.
Butter Cross, Melton Mowbray Market
Conveniently the shower stopped as we finished our coffee so we made our way up the High Street to ‘Ye Old Pork Pie Shoppe’ (sic and yugh!) where we bought a Melton Mowbray pork pie. Dickinson & Morris have been artisan pie-makers since 1851 but are no longer a family business and in 1992 were acquired by Samway Brothers, whose food empire stretches from Leicester to Cornwall (Ginsters Pasties). It is well laid out, but an artisan shop should have enthusiastic and knowledgeable employees and the staff gave the impression they would just as happily be selling baked beans or footwear.
Dickinson & Morris, Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe, Melton Mowbray

Back past the market square….

Market Square, Melton Mowbray
We continued towards the Tuxford and Tebbutt creamery. The Carnegie Museum is next door….
Carnegie Museum, Melton Mowbray

…and as it is free we dropped in. There is a display of foxhunting which in its modern (and now illegal) form was developed locally. The rest of the small space was aimed at school groups, which visit regularly. It feels strange to see items from our own childhood in museums (are we that old!) but it was well presented and I did like the chemist’s shop.

Chemist's shop, Carnegie Museum, Melton Mowbray
Tuxford and Tebbutt, established 1780, also give the impression they are a family company but are wholly owned by Arla – the dairy farmers co-operative. Next to this quaint building is the forbidding modern creamery and there did not seem to be any factory shop. Morrison’s was across the road so we decided to peruse their Stilton. It was ‘own label’ and gave no clue to the manufacturer, though I know Tuxford and Tebbutt supply a lot of own label Stilton. Down the road a butcher was advertising Tuxford and Tebbutt Stilton so we bought some there.

Tuxford and Tebbutt, Melton Mowbray
In 1923 the winemakers of Châteauneuf du Pape, fed up with others cashing in on their reputation, sought legal protection for their name. Ten years later, after carefully defining the area and method of production, they succeeded and the appellation contrôlée system was born. The idea spread throughout the wine world, and then to other drinks and foods like olive oil, honey and ham.

In England, where food is considered a commodity rather than a cultural asset, the idea hardly caught on, though Stilton cheesemakers bucked the trend by forming an association to protect the origin and quality of their product in 1933. In 1966 it became the only British cheese to be protected by a trademark and 1996 they applied for and received Protected Designation of Origin status from the EU, so Stilton now* stands alongside such delights as Parma Ham, Camembert and the Almonds of the Douro. In 2009 Melton Mowbray Pork Pies joined the EU’s elite band of protected geographical designations.

With two such products Melton Mowbray might appear justified in styling itself ‘Rural Capital of Food’, but with one pie shop, and no effort at all put into promoting Stilton it feels an overblown claim. It is worth taking another look at the picture of the market square, zooming in on the van in the centre. ‘Classic Cuisine - Cheeseburgers, Fries.’ I say no more.
Classic Cuisine, Melton Mowbray
We headed north through lush countryside towards Cropwell Bishop, home of the northernmost of the five Stilton dairies. Melton Mowbray may have looked down at heel but the rural villages were full of prosperous well-kept homes and flowery lanes.
We paused for lunch in Colston Bassett, which also has a dairy. The Martins Arms was a delight…
Martins Arms, Colston Bassett
… and the weather had perked up enough for us to have lunch in the carefully tended garden. The staff were attentive and friendly, the Black Sheep well kept and the Colson Bassett Stilton sandwich substantial enough to share. But, and it seemed an important ‘but’, the chutney in the sandwich overwhelmed the cheese
Martin Arms, Colston Bassett
Only when I paid the bill and read that the Martins Arms had been voted Nottinghamshire’s Best Dining Pub did I realise we had crossed the border from Leicestershire.
PDO rules allow Stilton to be made in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire or Derbyshire from locally sourced cow’s milk. The method of production is defined and the quality protected by a taste test. Perhaps uniquely the village which gives the PDO its name is not included within the designated area. Stilton, in Cambridgeshire, is another 50mins drive east. It was the coach stop on the road north where cheese was marketed, not where it was produced, though this has been disputed.
Cropwell Bishop is a large village on the northern edge of the Vale of Belvoir. The Skailes family founded Somerset Creameries in 1941. They originally owned creameries in Somerset and Melton Mowbray but bought Cropwell Bishop in 1973 when they closed the West Country operation. Major investments were made here in the 1980s and the Melton Mowbray dairy was closed. The ‘Somerset Creameries’ name lingered until 2005 when the company, still run by the Skailes family, became Cropwell Bishop Creamery.
Cropwell Bishop Creamery
There is no access to the creamery, but they do have a proper shop, which offers a proper tasting. They let us loose on their fine classic Stilton, Shropshire Blue, harder, yellower and less interesting than Stilton, a rather ho-hum mature cheddar and the excellent Beauvale, a soft blue cheese reminiscent of Dolcelatte.
Lynne attacks classic Stilton, Cropwell Bishop Creamery
The shop stocks their full range including white Stilton (to my mind, Stilton with something missing) and Stilton with fruit inclusions, cranberries, apricots etc, for those who fail to realise that what white Stilton is actually missing is the blue veins.
Cropwell Bishop shop
 We drove back to Colston Bassett….
Colston Bassett, definitely in Nottinghamshire
…..where the creamery shop only offered one cheese, but at least it was the right one. The company was started in 1913 when the local doctor persuaded farmers and others to invest in starting a creamery. The enterprise has thrived.
Colston Bassett Creamery and shop
The wide Vale of Belvoir is top quality agricultural country, though we saw no cattle despite cheese being its most famous product.
The Vale of Belvoir (pronounced Beaver - don't ask me why)
Long Clawson lives up to its name, being an extraordinarily long thin village. The dairy, right at one end, is not set up for visitors, but there is a fridge by reception from which sales are made.
Clawson Creamery reception (there's a fridge for sales in there)
Another home-grown enterprise, it was founded in 1911 by local farmers and now employs 200 people who make almost 7,000 tonnes of cheese yearly from the milk of 40 farms.
Clawson Creamery, Long Clawson
Websters, in the hamlet of Saxelby, is the fifth local producer. It is a family concern run by two sisters who, according to their website, welcome visitors. Unfortunately we could not find it, though we drove up, then down the main street. Looking at Google street view I can see where it should be, but if they had a sign, I could not see it.
And so, with four pieces of Stilton and a Melton Mowbray pork pie we set off home. Apparently neither Melton Mowbray nor the Stilton industry are very interested in marketing themselves to visitors (though Cropwell Bishop is trying), so although it was a good day out, it was not a great one. Quality food and tourism have much to offer each other, and I would think a successful ‘route de fromage’ could be arranged with  a little effort. 
For completeness I will also mention the sixth Blue Stilton producer based in the Derbyshire Village of Hartington – rather a long way from the other five. Once owned and closed by  Clawson, the creamery reopened in 2012 and has been making Stilton since 2014.
My friends and walking companions Brian and Francis in the Peak District village of Hartington (Feb 2012)
So that is the tourist bit, now what about the tasting….
That is the subject of the next post.
 *We are still in the EU, for now, but after the appalling events of Thursday our days appear numbered. A coalition of the aged and the stupid, led by the venial using a combination of petty nationalism, misinformation and occasionally open racism, produced probably the stupidest decision in modern democratic history, betraying their children, grandchildren and brighter siblings.
Do not think I am not bitter.
If America elects President Trump, they have him for four years. We have effectively elected President Trump in perpetuity.

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