Cheese sleuth's research is something to savour

Margaret Panikkar with her new booklet Every Farm Made Cheese!
Margaret Panikkar with her new booklet Every Farm Made Cheese!
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Margaret Panikkar turned detective to uncover the hidden history of Lancashire cheese. She tells FIONA FINCH about her decades of research and her new booklet ‘Every Farm Made Cheese!’

For serious foodies one of the highlights of the after dinner cheese board must surely be a piece of the loveliest of Lancashire’s.

Neil Kenyon of Dewlay leaning on a cheese press stone

Neil Kenyon of Dewlay leaning on a cheese press stone

Yet for too many years the county’s distinctive cheese, either tangy or mild, was an unsung treasure.

Those in the Red Rose county knew, of course, which type to buy for the best cheese on toast, which for sandwiches and where to get the best flavoured or textured cheeses.

Now word has spread and a cluster of remaining cheesemakers, located around Garstang and Longridge vie for the accolade of being top cheesemaker.

Prince Charles has visited to see for himself how the cheese is made, spending an afternoon at Dewlay Cheesemakers in Garstang and Lancashire cheese can even be bought in Harrods.

A cheese stone is re-purposed as an ideal sun spot

A cheese stone is re-purposed as an ideal sun spot

Go back a few decades and Lancashire cheese was in such short supply outside the county boundaries that special supplies were sent down by train in the mailbag to the London correspondent of our then sister paper Farmers Guardian.

But go back even further and at one time most Lancashire farms would have made their own cheese.

Local historian and cheese making investigator extraordinary Margaret Panikkar has uncovered the hidden history of this one-time farm industry.

Her new booklet ‘Every Farm Made Cheese! Historical notes of Lancashire cheesemaking before 1840’ unlocks the earlier days of the industry. Her research goes back decades. She explained: “Some 30 years ago whilst travelling around Lancashire I was intrigued by the number of cheese press stones (332 to date) that I saw, reused as bollards, gate stops, mounting blocks, garden ornaments or just dumped in ditches or by the wayside. I couldn’t find anything sensible in printed sources and so began my own research. Cheese making was a very important part of the Lancashire economy.”

The booklet, priced £5, has been sponsored by Dewlay and is on sale at the Dewlay Cheesemakers shop on Garstang By-pass Road, Garstang. The publication is dedicated to the memory of Neil Kenyon, father of current Dewlay managing directors Richard and Nick Kenyon. Nick has written the foreword and notes: “My family has made cheese for three generations but the period that Margaret has researched is far beyond living memory. Cheesemaking is now a sophisticated process using modern equipment and facilities to ensure quality and control and I have the utmost respect for those who made cheese in farmhouses long before electricity came to provide instant heat and light and also before road and rail transport.”

Nick said: “The details of how cheese in Lancashire was made and in particular where it was made (and as the title suggests it was made in virtually every farm and smallholding with a few cattle), who made it, who bought it and how it was transported has been painstakingly teased out by Margaret from old records.”

Margaret, whose home is at Clayton le Dale,near Samlesbury, found the earliest accounts of cheesemaking in the Accrington Grange accounts of 1295. She explained: “The traditional milk from cows on the acid rough Lancashire pasture with a butterfat content of 3.5 per cent was ideal for cheese making.”

Having spotted the cheese stone presses and bases, which are often left in farmyards as decorations or plant stands, and have even been used as the base for the memorial cross at Barton, she set out to discover more about how they worked and when they were introduced,

She concludes cheeses must have been pressed in the earliest days of the industry by placing a large stone of top of the vat. Then an adjustable pressing method was introduced with the advent of more sophisticated equipment. Margaret notes that by the second half of the 16th century a typical Lancashire press was in use, comprising a stone weight set in a wooden frame held by an iron hook and a screw, which went through the top of the frame held by a large wing nut . The nut was turned to lower or raise the weight stone.

She discovered an early record of such a process, described as “a scrue for cheese press” in the Shuttleworth family’s Gawthorpe accounts from 1582 – 1621.

The presses were costly items and as such were listed in estate inventories.

Margaret recalls how an interest became a serious research project after being encouraged to discover more about the presses by the then county archaeologist Ben Edwards. This combined with an interest in farming, stemming back to her childhood in Cheshire when she helped on the farms of some of her doctor father’s patients, meant it was the perfect project.

She has made her own photo collection of cheese presses and base stones. The scrapbooks contain photos from Fernyhalgh near Preston to Nether Wyresdale, Cockerham, Heysham, Rufford, Cabus, Barton, Inskip, Treales and further afield.

Now many presses are sold at auction or for ornament. She said: “I think I got in early just before they would be moved. I would like them just looked after, but in their original position. Unfortunately they are not listed and (for example) at farm sales they are not listed as fixtures they are fittings.”

Margaret’s passion for local history began in retirement. She worked as an orthoptist before her daughters were born and later spent 10 years as county WRVS (Women’s Royal Voluntary Service) organiser. She had seen a course advertised on researching local history from original documents. Utilising her new found skill of being able to decipher and read old documents she was off. Recently widowed it was, she says, “her saviour” and kickstarted a new role – for numerous years she helped with archive enquiries at Stonyhurst College and became a guide at Hoghton Tower, all the while steadily working at her own research projects.

An earlier booklet 'Pressing The Cheese' shared some of that work.The new booklet shares more research and compares cheesemaking now to the earlier days of the industry when Margaret describes it as being “the cash crop of Lancashire farms”.

Margaret said: “It’s a detective story - that’s what local history is. My family used to call me Miss Marple and now they call me Hetty Wainthrop.

*The booklet is now on sale at the Dewlay cheese shop on Garstang By-Pass Road or contact Margaret at margaretpanniker@btinternet.com