Humphrey Errington, Lanark Blue and the great cheese battle…

humprhey-erringtonDuring a bleak time for Scottish cheese making, Humphrey Errington decided he wanted to make a true Scottish Farmhouse cheese. Based at Biggar, Lanarkshire (30 miles South of Edinburgh) he researched what would have been traditional to the area.

Sheep! And dairying sheep at that. This research, coupled with a mention of blue cheese in Walter Scott’s books 170 years ago and ancient blue-cheese recipe from the “Cook’s and Housewife’s Manual” (1826, Meg Dodds) gave Humprey an idea.  So he set about sourcing sheep. But dairying sheep are hard to come by and the French didn’t want to sell Humphrey any of their prized Lacaune breed (they produce a really rich milk, perfect for cheese-making, especially Roquefort). What could he do?…

Well, I’ll leave it to Humphrey to explain the details to you, but shall we say a stolen embryo and a smuggled Cheesemaking errington sheep later, and Humphrey had his herd of 400 Lacaune sheep on the windswept Pentland hills. Cheese-making could begin. His first creation, Lanark Blue, was released onto the market in 1985 and was soon followed by Maisie’s Kebbuck and Dunsyre Blue made with unpasteurised cows’ milk from a neighbouring farm.

But things were not all rosy forever. The early 1990s were a difficult time for unpasteurised cheeses, especially Lanark Blue: in 1994 testing found samples contaminated with Listeria. Humphrey was immediately ordered to cease selling and recall all his cheeses. An urgent health warning was issued; Humphrey was told to expect many deaths, and national newspapers called it the ‘Killer Cheese’.

But Humphrey was unsure, none of his tests had pointed to any problem at all, and other retail buyers carried out tests again with negative results and absolutely no evidence of Listeria. So Humphrey sent out cheese for yet more testing. Again, no evidence… in fact the testers advised that the government results were dubious and their methodology incorrect.

Lanark blue draining pictureArmed with this evidence in early 1995, Humphrey announced he would be selling his cheese again. Clydesdale Council seized all the cheese and went to court asking for an order to destroy all the cheeses. The court decided that a lab should be used to verify the findings, but after the testing the court refused to publish the results, yet ordered the cheese to be destroyed.

Humphrey was running out of money. With no cheese to sell and more battles with the court before he could, a campaign to save the cheese was launched. The campaign raised £37,000 from friends and those interested in unpasteurised cheese.

But it took Humphrey another eleven months and five more trips to court. With 70 lab reports, and Dunsyre blue picturetestimonials from numerous cheese experts, in December 1985 a judge finally weighed up the evidence and proclaimed that Humphrey could sell his cheese – stating Clydesdale 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.”

As Humphrey says, “thank goodness eventually common sense prevailed, and we won the case.”

New batches of Lanark blue were finally released onto sale and since then the creation of bodies like the Specialist Cheese-makers Association has meant that Food Safety Officials, experienced microbiologists and cheese-makers talk in a balanced way, so problems like this have not re-arisen….

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