Lanark Blue is a Scottish Blue cheese made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk. Unusually for a sheep’s milk cheese, it’s made year round.
It is made in Carnwath Farm near Strathclyde, Lanarkshire, Scotland by H J Errington and Co, The owner, Humphrey Errington, has 400 sheep (as of 2005.) They are maintained as two separate flocks, one that lambs in March and one that lambs in October. This gives him sheep’s milk year round. The cheese made in the summer, though, is milder than that made in the winter.
Lanark Blue is a farmhouse cheese similar to Rocquefort. It is ivory white with bluish-green veins, and has a salty taste. The white rind has some blue and grey mould on it.
To make Lanark Blue, penicillium roqueforti is added to the milk, then curdled with vegetarian rennet. The curd is put into moulds (but not pressed), dipped in brine, then turned out of the mould and let age for 1 month. It is then wrapped in foil to discourage any more surface mould. The cheese is then aged 2 additional months, during which it is turned 3 times a month. The cheese then has its foil removed, is scraped, and is cut into half-moon wedges that are 4 inches (10 cm) tall, and weigh 3 1/3 pounds (1 1/2 kg.) The wedges are wrapped in fresh foil for packaging and shipping to retailers. Retailers generally sell the cheese in 1/2 pound (250 g) wedges.
The picture of a milkmaid on the packaging foil was done by Errington’s brother Tom (after an oil painting by Robert Herdman.)
Errington also makes Dunsyre Blue Cheese.
45% fat content.
Lanark Blue was created by Humphrey Errington, a Cambridge University graduate, who didn’t know what to do with his history degree. Consequently, in 1981 he was operating a farm called Walston Brahead farm at Ogcastle near Carnwath, Scotland. In 1982, he came up with idea of making cheese and did some experimenting. He was looking for a cheese that made sense to make in Scotland. He was inspired by a blue cheese he saw referred to in the “Cook’s and Housewife’s Manual” by a “Meg Dods” (some speculate that this book was actually written by Sir Walter Scott.) Errington supplemented Meg Dods’s advice with current-day thinking from Janet Galloway, a cheese-making teacher at the West of Scotland Agricultural College in Ayr, Scotland.
He finally brought his Lanark Blue cheese onto the market in Scotland in 1985, and in England in 1986.
Errington had his own testing laboratory, was accredited under the Food from Britain quality scheme, and had 9 years of growing sales. But in December 1994, problems arose suddenly and quickly.
The District Council of Edinburgh, Scotland, had tested samples of Lanark Blue obtained from a shop in Edinburgh and found listeria in the samples. The report got passed to Clydesdale District Council’s Environmental Health Office (EHO), because the cheese was actually made within their region. Clydesdale District Council tested an additional 25 samples, and found 24 of them were contaminated.
Errington was ordered to do a complete recall of all his cheeses and cease selling them, and was told that if he didn’t do this, the EHO would do it for him. The government issued an urgent health alert throughout the entire United Kingdom, and the story hit the newspapers, titled “Killer Cheese.” Government officials told him to expect many deaths. He signed an agreement to recall all the cheese for two months.
Then, a retail buyer called him, and said he’d had tests done on the Lanark Blue in his store, and there was absolutely no evidence of listeria. Errington sent out his cheeses for testing by outside laboratories and they too didn’t find any problem. The outside labs said they found the procedures of the government labs dubious. He was advised by a Dr Richard North to inform the government, and sell his cheese again.
On that basis, in January 1995, Errington announced that he was putting his cheese back on the market. Government officials seized the cheese and went to court, asking for an order to destroy all the cheeses. The court ordered more tests to be done by a lab that both the government and Errington could agree on. A lab was agreed on, but then the government people insisted that all tests were to be done instead by the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), with the government being the sole conduit of communication and results with the SAC. They sent 50 samples. The government said that the SAC had found high levels of listeria, and refused to let Errington look at the findings. The government asked for the cheeses to be destroyed and the court agreed, Errington appealed.
Errington continued fighting for 11 months and 5 more trips to court. He won each time, but the government went back again and again. Though Errington didn’t have the unlimited legal funding that the government officials did, donations totalling over £37,000 came in from the public at large to help him with his legal costs.
He had to go to France to get cheese experts to testify for him because, he said, experts in Britain had been warned not to speak to him. Towards the end of 1995, Clydesdale District Council then attempted to also seize his 1995 production of cheeses. A government’s lawyer defended the Council’s actions, saying that “the Council was not obliged to be seen to be acting reasonably.”
Errington went back to court with 70 certificates from laboratories such as Analytical Services Centre (Food Park) Ltd saying that his cheese was listeria free. One French cheese expert testified that for the claimed high levels of listeria to be present in the cheese, they’d have to be present in the milk in such high quantities that there’d also be problems in the animals, and there was no sign of that. Nor was the listeria was in any of the other cheeses that Errington made.
In final proceedings, though, on 5 December 1995, Errington triumphed with a judge that had lost patience with government officials. The judge found a lack of control in fundamental procedures (including improperly cleaned equipment) at the Scottish Agricultural College, which the government had repeatedly insisted on as being the only source of testing to be referred to. Errington’s defence had pointed out that 63,000 portions of the cheese were estimated to have been eaten, with no one falling sick, but the government officials merely replied that 63,000 was too small a sample size to go on. The judge said their view on this “seems to be contrary to common sense.” He also said that by now, the Council was “lacking in objectivity, insecure, and finding it necessary to support a view at all costs rather than approaching matters in a measured and balanced way.” He said their actions had degraded to harassment.
Yet, the judge granted the Council’s requests to have the seized cheeses destroyed. But, in granting the order for their destruction under the law, he also slyly gave Errington a tremendous boost. By this time, the seized cheeses were of no market value, and Errington would simply have been destitute. But he ordered their destruction in a manner that caused another provision to kick in, which obligated the government to compensate Errington. In this way, the Judge awarded damages worth several hundred thousand pounds to Errington.
Still, Errington’s marriage had broken up owing to the stress. But, as a result of the support network he was forced to form during the battle, Errington created the European Alliance of Traditional and Raw Milk Cheese Producers (EAT) in September 2003.
The Clydesdale District Council steadfastly maintained that they had taken correct actions, and that court action would never have been necessary if Mr Errington had voluntarily complied.
Grigson, Jane. Fare of the Country: Scottish Cheese’s Earthy Poetry. New York Times. Sunday, 4 February 1990.
Jukes, David. UK Food Law Court Cases. Department of Food Biosciences, The University of Reading, UK. Retrieved January 2006 from http://www.foodlaw.rdg.ac.uk/uk/cases.htm