A Phoenix Rises

Hartington Creamery returns
Stilton making to Derbyshire.

Ryan Gee’s recollection of the day the old cheese factory in Hartington, England closed its doors for good is fuzzy at best. He was, after all, only 12 at the time. But he does remember what it did to the parish he grew up in. Like many of the region’s residents, his uncle and granddad lost their jobs, and the community around him lost a major part of its economy.

Until its closure in 2009, Dove Dairy’s presence had been ubiquitous. Its black and white chimney loomed in the background of family photos, and the smell of cheese permeated the clothing of its nearly 250 employees. And then one day it was gone. So, when it came time to choose his own career, Gee didn’t even consider cheesemaking, even though most of his family had worked in the industry for generations. Yet, this year, he found himself the recipient of the Young Cheesemaker of the Year award at the Virtual Cheese Awards. And while the award came as a surprise, it shouldn’t have. At just 24, he is an integral part of Hartington Creamery, the smallest Stilton maker in the world.

The story of Hartington Creamery and Gee’s journey into the world of cheese begins in the old cheese factory. Founded by the Duke of Devonshire, Dove Dairy opened sometime in the 1870s. Stilton production began when J.M. Nuttall bought the company in 1900. At that time, it was one of just three creameries that produced Blue Stilton.

Today, five creameries are licensed to produce Blue and White Stilton, and a sixth creamery is licensed to make White Stilton only. They are located in the counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. Both White and Blue Stilton are protected by a Certification Trade Mark and EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).

The creamery was under private ownership until 1962 when it was purchased by the Milk Marketing Board. In the 1980s, it became Dairy Crest.

In the early 2000s, Dove Dairy’s owners brought forth a new vision for the company, one that included automation that replaced traditional cheesemaking processes. They installed an ALPMA continuous coagulating belt, likely in an attempt to increase production and cut labor costs. The technology had not been used in Stilton production before.

The first batch of cheese turned out brilliantly, says Alan Salt, who worked as the milk processor at the factory for decades. But the following batches were highly variable. Consistency is key in Stilton production, and the new equipment, unfortunately, was anything but.

In 2009, the creamery was sold to rival Stilton maker Long Clawson. The company had no intentions of keeping the factory open. They took their newly-purchased market share, moved production to Leistershire, and shut down Dove Dairy for good. At that time, it was one of the oldest creameries in the country.

The closure was devastating to the parish of Hartington. The cheese factory had supplied jobs for some 250 people in the area, all of whom were left unemployed. It didn’t just put people out of work, though. It crushed local businesses, everything from guesthouses to pubs to garages.

Nearly everyone in the village of Hartington has a connection to the old factory. Salt, who is one of the founders of Hartington Creamery where Gee earned his acclaim, had been working with members of the Gee family for decades.

“I’ve worked with four generations of his family,” Salt says. “Four. That’s amazing, you know.”

But if it hadn’t been for Salt and the others who opened Hartington Dairy, that number would have stopped at three. Disappointed that Stilton wasn’t being made in Derbyshire anymore, Salt and ex-Dove Dairy employee Adrian Cartlige had the idea to start their own creamery. Combined, Salt and Cartlige had over 50 years of experience in almost every aspect of cheesemaking. They were the driving force behind the creamery and involved in every step of the process.

The pair was joined by Claire and Garry Millner, owners of the Old Cheese Shop in Hartington. They brought with them business expertise and were able to help navigate building regulations. In 2014, Coombe Castle International, an exporter of cheese, purchased the majority of shares.

In the early days, a local dairy farmer, Robert Gosling, leased the group space for the creamery on his historic Pikehall Farm. In 2019, Gosling bought out the bulk of shares and took over as majority owner. The creamery earned the PDO license for Stilton in 2014 and the PDO license for Dovedale Blue in 2018.

Hartington Creamery now employs 10 people, four of whom are full time. Gee has been an apprentice cheesemaker at the creamery for six years now.

Profile of a Young Cheesemaker

Nestled in the heart of the White Peak region of Derbyshire Peak District, the parish of Hartington is home to approximately 330 people. The scenery in and around the old limestone village is pastoral and picturesque. Pastureland is separated by ancient drystone walls. The stacked-stone constructions are a prominent feature in Derbyshire’s landscape. The River Dove, the waterway that gives Dovedale Blue its name, runs through the scenic limestone valleys, and the surrounding pastureland is dotted with dairy cattle.

The market square in the center of Hartington is surrounded by old limestone buildings, including the Charles Cotton Hotel, the Devonshire Arms and the Beresford Tea Room. Adjacent to the now-closed cheese factory sits the Old Cheese Shop, a thriving specialty food store. Dairy Crest opened the shop in the 1980s, and later sold it to the Millners, who later helped establish Hartington Creamery. Across from the cheese shop sits a duck pond that serves as a place of quiet repose and the village centerpiece. Hartington is the epitome of quaint country living in Britain.

Although Gee grew up in Biggin, a village just up the road from Hartington, much of his childhood was spent in the parish where he now works. There’s not much to do in Hartington when you’re young. Gee spent his youth hanging out with friends, playing football on the village green.

“The things to do were more made up by our imagination rather than places to go,” Gee says.

Where there’s not much to do, there aren’t many jobs, either. With that said, Gee is no stranger to hard work. Before taking the job at the creamery, he scrubbed pots and waited tables at the local pub, Devonshire Arms, a job he started when he was just 14 years of age.

Gee admits his entry into the world of cheese was more by chance than desire. In college, he studied catering and hospitality, and while he didn’t have specific plans beyond the education, he was intrigued by the idea of managing a pub.

After finishing college, he continued to work at the pub until one day his uncle Andrew approached him to say there was work at the creamery if he wanted it. He started in 2015, working in both the pub and creamery for a few months before moving to the creamery full time.

In his early days at the new job, Gee’s list of daily tasks was ever-changing. He helped to process, turn and package cheese – pretty much everything other than cheesemaking. The desire to make cheese didn’t come until later when he started to understand the science behind the process.

“That’s when it got really interesting,” Gee says. “To be able to see the process unfold and to go from raw ingredients through the whole process, it was really interesting. Eight weeks down the line what you’ve had a hand in making is now a saleable product.”

Gee makes cheese three to four days each week. Milk is delivered to the creamery and processed the day it is delivered. Weekly, the creamery processes approximately 6,000 liters of milk, delivered from a single dairy just two miles up the road. Curd is separated from the whey and left to drain overnight. The curd is ready the next day for salting and processing. Once processed, the cheese goes into a temperature-controlled maturation store where it needs to be monitored and hand turned as it ages. Stilton takes eight to 10 weeks to mature. It is most popular around Christmas.

Getting Through Tough Times

Like most small businesses around the world, Hartington Creamery was hit hard when the country went into lockdown. The pandemic didn’t impact cheesemaking, but it certainly made selling cheese more difficult. While the creamery supplies cheese to small, local cheese shops like the Old Cheese Shop in Hartington, the bulk of its cheese is sold wholesale to foodservice companies that deliver to restaurants and hotels. During the height of the pandemic, those customers were unable to buy and sell cheese. A few shops were able to stay open because they provided essentials, but the cheese shops were not.

There was obvious concern at the creamery. All the cheese made in January had been ready to sell when lockdown began in March 2020. It had to find new markets, and that meant cutting larger wheels into smaller wedges.

“It was a challenge,” says Gee. “But at the same time, those kinds of challenges are great for innovating.”

Gee says they were lucky to have the experience and tools needed to cut and package cheese properly. By diversifying to include online sales, the creamery was able to actually expand its business. Local support was a huge factor in that growth.

“Part of the appeal of this creamery is because local people set it up,” says Gee. “They wanted to return Stilton cheesemaking back to Derbyshire, back to the parish of Hartington. To have that sort of Phoenix from the ashes story… People thought our cheesemaking business was gone, and then it got brought back.”

At this point, the creamery doesn’t have plans to expand any further. Part of Hartington Creamery’s charm, says Gee, is its small size. It is, after all, the smallest producer of Stilton in the world.

“We’ve got a good thing going,” Gee says. “We’ve got a good customer base, we’re busy at the minute, Christmas is going to be probably the busiest yet because we’ve now got more customers than we’ve ever had.”

Impressing the Judges

While Gee enjoys making Blue and White Stilton, his favorite cheese to make is Dovedale Blue. He enjoys creating new products by tweaking temperature, timing and a host of other aspects to create a twist on traditional favorites.

Gee’s ingenuity is exactly why the Virtual Cheese Award judges singled him out as Young Cheesemaker of the Year. Sarah de Wit, founder of the awards, says the judges were particularly impressed by his ability to make long-standing recipes work in a modern world.

“He’s very innovative for his age and for his experience,” she says.

The judges were also impressed by his can-do spirit and his character as well as his mastery of traditional PDO cheeses.

The judges weren’t the only ones who were impressed by Gee. Hartington Creamer majority owner Gosling says the young cheesemaker has been instrumental in the development of new products, such as Bayley Blue and Devonshire Gold and helping the creamery get through the disruption of the pandemic.

“I have been extremely impressed with Ryan’s methodology and commitment to the skill of this delicate process,” says Gosling. “Cheesemaking at Hartington is an art and a way of life. Any tradition needs to get young people involved to continue to be relevant, and not die.”

It was Gosling who put forward Gee as a candidate for Young Cheesemaker of the Year at the Virtual Cheese Awards.

“I entered him because I believe in him as a person and a cheesemaker,” says Gosling. “It was no surprise to me that the judges recognized these unique attributes when awarding Ryan.”

Gee watched the Virtual Cheese Awards over Zoom with his family. He knew he’d been entered in the competition, but wasn’t prepared to hear his name called out.

“It’s nice to see everything pay off,” he says. “You work hard, and to be able to have that recognition on such a massive stage, it’s crazy.”

“Maybe I can go from young cheesemaker to actual cheesemaker of the year,” he adds.The Virtual Cheese Awards was created in 2020 by Sarah de Wit to celebrate and support Britain’s cheese industry in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s awards ceremony was held online in May.

Subscribe to our Email Newsletter!