On Christmas Day, spare a thought for those at the Hartington Creamery, who'll still be working to bring us the finest Stilton
Hartington Creamery is set on the outskirts of the picturesque village of Hartington in Derbyshire's breathtakingly scenic Peak District. The village may be famous for its regular appearances in Peak Practice, but it is also home to the longest standing Stilton-making site in Britain. It takes 70 litres of milk to make a single Stilton, or "the king of cheese" as some call it, and the cheese is certified as only being allowed to be manufactured in the shires of Leicester, Nottingham and Derby.

The dairy was established in 1870 by the Duke of Devonshire, but it fell into disuse and was eventually reopened by the cheesemaker Thomas Nuttall early this century. In 1926 it was awarded a royal warrant to supply its Stiltons to George V. Nowadays the dairy, which was made a division of Dairy Crest in 1982, makes five different varieties of Stilton and supplies about 20 per cent of the Stilton that ends up on the nation's crackers. It is the only remaining speciality cheese factory in Derbyshire and employs about 170 people from outlying towns and villages, even crossing into neighbouring Staffordshire.

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Simon Perkins

29, process manager

Worked here since 1991

Simon is responsible for the first stage of the cheese-making process. The milk is pasteurised and then, over a 24-hour period, it is made into curds and whey (a la Little Miss Muffet). "On average we have 55 people making Stilton, seven days a week - even on Christmas Day. We haven't had any major disasters but we have sometimes been here until midnight waiting for milk to come in from snowbound farms. We'll be here making cheese while everyone else is out celebrating the millennium".

Steve Peace

40, general manager

Worked here since 1984

"I oversee the entire operation of the factory, and my wife also works here part time," says Steve. This is the grading room, where the chill air is thick with pungent smells. After about three weeks, the cheeses are pierced with needles to allow oxygen to penetrate; a couple of weeks later the blue mould is visible for the first time. "It takes about 12 weeks for a cheese to fully mature. There is space for 90,000 cheeses and we're nearing capacity in the run-up to Christmas."

Shirley Wilkinson

32, senior cheese binder

Worked here since 1995

In the binding room, the surface of the cheese is smoothed to ensure that no moisture leaves it before the maturation process. This is all done by hand with kitchen knives. "There are usually about 10 people working here, and I just have to make sure it runs smoothly," says Shirley. "Learners usually manage about five or six at the beginning, but the norm is about 20 an hour. We don't really get on each other's nerves, we get on pretty well, listening to the radio and talking to break the monotony."

Richard Jones

35, pre-pack planning manager

Worked here since 1990

"I originally came here as a temporary worker but I ended up staying," says Richard, who is responsible for the cheese while it's in storage, during cutting and packaging, right up until it leaves the creamery. "We move about 40 tonnes of Stilton a week but, coming up to Christmas, it can even reach 150 tonnes. We cut one cheese in 250 different ways and sizes. When I started working here I was drawn to milder cheeses but my taste buds have built up and I now favour the strongest Stilton." n

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