The 100 year history of Colston Bassett Stilton

25 November 2013 | 0 Comments

Stilton maker Colston Bassett is 100 years old this year, so here's a short potted history of one of Britain's best-loved cheeses: Stilton.

milking the cows by hand in 1923Colston Bassett has kept to what it does best since 1913 (making cheese), which means that we can enjoy this fantastic fromage today, knowing that little has changed at Colston Bassett Dairy. In its 100  year history there have only been five Dairy Managers - this in itself shows loyalty to the brand. Billy has been a manager at the Dairy since 1999. The Dairy is still run as it was set-up (by a co-operative), and farmer members from within one and half miles of the Dairy supply the milk. Many of the original families are still involved in the business.

A seasonal occupation

For centuries cheese-making was a seasonal occupation for farmers' wives across the farmhouses of the specific region. In the Vale of Belvoir the cheese was Stilton and it had been made for centuries using milk that was surplus to the liquid milk market. Cheese-making took place from April to September. At the start of the 20th century farmers were experiencing pressure from city dairies and the opportunity for producing a more consistent cheese, in a purpose-built dairy by a professional cheese maker, was recognised. This was when cheese-making began to change.

The vision of a local doctor

Stilton cheeseIn 1912 the Colston Bassett village doctor, Dr William Windley, saw a way of producing quality cheese - with the support of local farmers. Whilst on his rounds, he encouraged local farmers to raise capital to build a dairy - he did not stop with farmers but persuaded other patients to subscribe for shares. £1,000 was raised from around 40 people, half an acre of land was purchased from the squire - Mr Knowles - and The Colston Bassett and District Dairy was built. It was not until the 1950's that Stilton was produced throughout the year. During the war years it was thought to be too much of a luxury and a hard-pressed Cheddar-style cheese was made instead.  

Colston Bassett - 100 years on

Tasting the cheesesEvery cheese is tasted as no two are the same, even if they are made on the same day. Each cheese has its own individual quirks due to how they are pierced and how the flavour develops. They are all made in the same traditional way, which includes hand-ladling curds and sealing the cheese by hand. This year has been a significant year for Colston Bassett - celebrating the heritage of their Stilton and also their Shropshire Blue. HRH The Princess Royal visited the Colston Bassett Dairy in May, to see the cheese being made and to meet the people behind this historic product. Shropshire Blue has achieved great success in the Great Taste Awards, being awarded a three star, reaching the top fifty products, and making it into the final contention for the Supreme Champion. In amongst this, the locals have been celebrating with a church blessing, a village event and a bonfire night yet to come. Billy Kevan has been to America for the Fancy Food Show and Italy for the Bra Slow Food Festival with Neal's Yard Dairy.
Now is the busy season as we all enjoy Stilton at Christmas - you can spot a Colston Bassett due to its mellow creaminess. The colour should be a rich cream with blue veining spread throughout. Some festive tips: enjoy with a mince pie, a slice of Christmas cake, ginger biscuits, ginger cake, or alongside ginger wine with a shot of whisky.

What do the experts think of this iconic British cheese?

Maturing cheeseJason Hinds, Sales Director at Neal's Yard Dairy, London, said: "With only four cheesemakers in the last one hundred years, Colston Bassett has maintained a tradition and quality of cheesemaking that is unparalleled in the Stilton world. It is the only Stilton that Neal’s Yard Dairy has carried for the last 33 years, and is a favourite amongst our customers around the world, particularly in the USA and France."

Ann-Marie Dyas, Owner of the Fine Cheese Co, Bath, added: "The Fine Cheese Co. have been selling Colston Bassett for 25 years. During that time Colston Bassett has never wavered from their commitment to artisan methods and quality without compromise. In our book everything is in place for another 100 years of great cheesemaking."

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