Lucy Appleby: Influential artisan cheesemaker

Click to follow

The cheese was always known as "Mrs Appleby's Cheshire", because making it was Lucy Appleby's idea, and it was her ambition to revive a cheese that was nearly extinct. In the 1930s more than 400 farms made genuine, unwaxed, cloth-bound Cheshire cheeses from their own unpasteurised milk; now Appleby's alone keeps this tradition alive, and the firm sells more than one and a half tons of it every week.

One of eight children, she was born Florence Lucy Walley on Lighteach Farm in Whitchurch, Shropshire, in 1920, and was educated at the high school there, before being sent to Reasheath Agricultural College at Nantwich, where she learned cheesemaking. In 1940, shortly after leaving college, Lucy met and married a local farmer called Lancelot Appleby, and in 1942, already an accomplished cheese-maker, she and Lance moved to Hawkstone Abbey Farm in Shropshire, where she put aside her vocation temporarily to bring up their seven children.

Ten years on, in 1952, she felt able to take up cheesemaking again. It might seem odd to produce Cheshire cheese in Shropshire, but in fact Hawkstone Abbey Farm is on part of the Cheshire Plain, and only 10 miles over the border with Cheshire. Its soil contains the alum and the salts that give the cheese its particular tang, and supports the plant life that expert tasters can detect in the milk from the farm's Friesian herd. The front view of the farmhouse looks very grand. In fact the house was never part of an abbey, but was gentrified in the late-Victorian era, giving it windows that might well have graced a monastery, and which overlook parkland. The more prosaic back of the house gives on to the dairy.

Cheshire cheese is made much like cheddar (now the name of a process, rather than a geographical designation) or Lancashire. Lucy Appleby and her successors (her son Edward now runs the business and the cheesemaker is Gary Gray) introduce a very small amount of starter into the milk, then the vegetable rennet and natural dye made from annatto seeds. It is the small quantity of starter, say some authorities, that protects Appleby's from the over-acidity that mars some other Cheshire cheeses. The annatto is purely to give the cheese its characteristic reddish colour, and has no effect at all on the taste – indeed, it replaces the carrot juice used for this purpose in days gone by, which no doubt contributed some not very controllable taste of its own.

Following the curdling caused by the rennet, the curd is cut repeatedly and stirred, then the vat is heated, which reduces and shrinks the curd particles by expelling moisture. The whey is drained off, and the compacted curd cut and stacked separately on each side of the vat to drain completely – this is different from cheddaring, in which the slabs of curd are stacked on top of each other to encourage them to form a close texture. Then the cylindrical cheesemoulds are filled and pressed with one of the 14 Victorian presses salvaged when a neighbouring farm gave up making cheese.

When unmoulded, the huge, 40lb cheeses are smoothed and made a bit sticky with a domestic iron, so that the calico binding will adhere to the top and bottom of the cheese, which is then rolled in a length of cloth. The cloth has to be tight and firm, to avoid cracking and blueing later in the life of the cheese. The cheese, tagged with its date, is turned every day for the first fortnight or so, to prevent moisture accumulating at the bottom. It then begins its maturation, which can last anything from two months to a year, growing steadily saltier and deeper in taste, but without losing too much moisture.

Wax binding was just becoming fashionable when Lucy Appleby resumed cheesemaking, but she refused to have anything to do with it, on the grounds that the proper ripening and flavour of the cheese depended on its ability to breathe; so she stuck to her guns and her calico. In the early days, though, she followed most other Cheshire cheesemakers and sold her produce through the Milk Marketing Board. This was before the MMB began discouraging small producers from marketing their own cheeses.

When this happened in the early 1980s, and most cheesemakers caved in to the big supermarkets that insisted on buying cheese in industrial quantities, which therefore had to be made by industrial methods, Appleby went her own way, and began to market her cheese using the family name. This allowed her to continue to make artisanal cheese, but it wasn't always easy to sell.

In 1982, having broken with the MMB, Appleby had a good deal of surplus cheese. She dealt with this by loading a wheel into the Land Rover and driving to the Covent Garden premises of Randolph Hodgson's Neal's Yard Dairy. Hodgson was her natural ally – I can remember hearing from him then about Mrs Appleby's amazing cheese, how he had never before tasted anything like it and that it gave him a different view of what Cheshire cheese ought to taste like.

Hodgson's marketing and selling skills made Appleby a commercial success, and he and Lucy Appleby together founded the Specialist Cheesemakers Association with the aim of lobbying for the preservation of cheeses made from unpasteurised milk. She encouraged fellow cheesemakers in Lancashire to go back to using cloth binding; and, with another partner, Hodgson himself has recently had a success in reviving unpasteurised Stilton (though a risible law means it can't be marketed under that name, but has to be called "Stichelton.")

In her sixties by this time, Appleby remained crucial to the cheesemaking part of the business – she was the cheese's most severe critic, and a one-woman quality control. In 2000 Lance and Lucy Appleby were both appointed MBE. Their cheese is exported to the United States, the Caribbean and to Singapore. But it is perhaps only now that we are so food-conscious, and see that losing a cheese is akin to losing a biological species, that we can recognise the full measure of Lucy Appleby's achievement. She did nothing less than rescue, preserve and secure a future for a vital part of Britain's cultural heritage.

Paul Levy

Florence Lucy Walley, cheesemaker: born Whitchurch, Shropshire 1 February 1920; MBE 2000; married 1940 Lancelot Appleby (four daughters, two sons, and one son deceased); died 24 April 2008.