A rare Scottish creamery, converted from a distillery, is where the delicious Mull of Kintyre cheese is crafted. The building may no longer produce whisky, but the ghosts of its previous life add to the unique atmosphere that shapes this award-winning cheese.
It would appear that Paul McCartney and I have a common experience, being bathed with sunshine during an anticipated visit to Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre, a small area forever on the global map thanks to his 1977 song of the same name.
Such is the abundance of wet weather in this region that heaven sent days are highly noted, and apparently for McCartney and his then band Wings, the clouds cleared for the filming of the video that accompanied their musical tribute to Kintyre, where McCartney has owned High Park Farm since 1966.
Although my visit to the creamery that produces Mull of Kintyre cheese is of less prominence than a millionaire musician’s shooting schedule, the sky is just as beholding as it was for the former Beatle.
Had McCartney passed by the Campbeltown Creamery, located on the Medieval sounding Witchburn Road, during a sunny day, he too would have seen the light reflected off the pale walls, leading the eye up to the chimneys that have survived from its first incarnation as a whisky distillery.
I have only a few hours to observe the creamery’s operations, and meet with the First Milk Co-operative that produces this deeply flavorful Cheddar. Mull of Kintyre, which is sold across the UK and increasingly available in America and parts of Europe, consistently wins awards, including gold several times at the annual International Cheese Awards held in Nantwich, England.
Certificates and rosettes line the walls of creamery manager Chris Wareham’s office, where my tour of the site starts with an overview of the history of the building and the fertile farming conditions that produce the milk from cows that graze within a 13-mile radius of the site.
Although this creamery is not an artisan operation, it produces 2,500 metric tons of cheese annually. Unlike many other mid-sized businesses, it knows exactly where the raw milk for its product is being shipped from — 20 minutes down the road.
After donning the always attractive outfit of hair net and Wellington boots, one enters the creamery. There is just the briefest scent of malt in the air, before another door opens, and the over-powering smell of the milk ripening hits your nose. However, that fleeting malt aroma is a reminder of the legacy of what was the Meadowburn Whisky Distillery, which operated from 1824 until its conversion in 1920.
During the process of distilling whisky, a certain amount of the alcohol evaporates, and is known rather sweetly as the ‘angel’s share.’ Chris Wareham is convinced its echoes still exist in the Victorian building, adding to the heady mix of bacteria and giving the cheese its distinct flavor.
“It’s a complex mix that creates a cheese’s flavor,” says Wareham.
“From the condition of the grass the cows eat, to the sugar content of the grass, it all breaks down and goes into the milk. Of course, the breed of the cow can have an effect on cheese flavor, too. And the environment most definitely does.
“We were going to build a new creamery some four years ago, and one of our concerns was if we were to move to a sterile box would we still have those environmental bacteria floating around in the atmosphere? They all have an effect on breaking down the protein in the milk.
“What we were going to do is have blocks of our cheese typed in terms of all the bacteria they contain, and one of the starter houses was going to grow up these cultures for us, sort of essence of Witchburn Road if you like.”
Wareham adds that while many outside the industry may think of that as nonsense, he gives the example of a creamery that moved to a purpose-built new site, only to find that it could not capture the flavor it had once had.
“It took years for them to get it back,” Wareham concludes, with almost a shudder at the thought of such a fate befalling Mull of Kintyre.
Wareham need not worry about further suggestions for tinkering with the product, such is the strong guardianship of the cheese, especially from the farmers that pour their milk into the daily collection.
Campbeltown Creamery has changed ownership over the years, before becoming a Co-operative under First Milk in 1997, but it has always retained its autonomy. While larger firms have swallowed up so many independent dairies in Scotland, Mull of Kintyre’s distance from the nearest major city, Glasgow, at some 130 miles away has meant the business has escaped any corporate takeovers.
This has enabled First Milk to carry on working collaboratively with its members, from projects to improve milk quality to embracing social media as a way of communicating with customers across the globe. Mull of Kintyre Facebook friends will be familiar with the daily slices of life on the farms, and news from events, as these are posted by Linda McLean, who runs Kilmaho Farm.
It’s an entertaining way to reach an audience, who appear to particularly ‘like’ pictures of the cows. Yet, it’s not just the virtual world that McLean befriends to champion the cheese, as she explains when she joins our tour of the site.
Accompanying McLean is fellow farmer Sandy Pirie, who owns Machrihanish Farm, a name that one needs to swallow a lot of air beforehand to say without stumbling. They recall a boat trip to Campbeltown by a group of American golfers, who certainly came away with an appreciation for Mull of Kintyre.
“They were actually sailing around Britain, and stopping off at golf courses,” chuckles Pirie.
“It was a Sunday, and we were meeting them off the boat and giving them a taste of the cheese. One or two were not cheese eaters, but the rest said they would try to get it when they returned home to the states. And they took a bit back to the boat with them as they were having a wine and cheese party.”
Scottish hospitality aside, this hands-on approach to promoting the cheese has an authenticity to it that could not be said of rival Cheddar brands, and only helps to increase its appeal. It’s also a nod to the history of the area’s cheesemaking community, which has always been one to take matters into its own hands.
McLean is just one of the area’s farmers that have part, or for some all, of an original cheesemaking loft leftover from the days when every farm produced its own rounds.
“Many date from the early 1900s, where the milk would be made into cheese and stored, ready for the buyers to come over from Glasgow,” says Wareham.
“Remnants of the cheese industry are scattered across the farms, from an original roof to a full set of equipment in such good condition you could start up production the next day. I’ve been in barns where you can see the hoops where the cheese was stored.”
One element of cheesemaking history that Wareham is less keen to talk about, in a good-natured way, is the production of ‘truckles.’ These were circular cheeses sealed in wax that were then packaged in tubs for the occasion’s market.
They were a product from the time before First Milk, and according to Wareham were a great seller, but labor intensive and wasteful given that Mull of Kintyre is produced in blocks. I’m handed one of the few remaining, and tease Wareham with a declaration that I’ll be forming a petition for a revival of these delightful gifts.
This raises a smile among the gathered, and I get the feeling the idea of resuming production of the ‘wasteful’ product is long-running banter among the farmers. As beautifully packaged as the truckles are, I’m actually on Wareham’s side when it comes to ensuring that every block of Mull of Kintyre that’s crafted makes it onto store shelves. It would be a shame to see even a mouthful of this creamy, rugged Cheddar not to take its rightful place on a cheese lover’s plate.
As I leave Mull of Kintyre, through one of the smallest, and friendliest, airports I’ve ever visited, one hopes that the world will come to know this place not just as the location that inspired Paul McCartney, but also as the home of one of the best Cheddars Scotland has ever produced.