The best of Dorset in words and pictures

True Blue

Jo Draper tells the story of Blue Vinney, from its beginnings as a by-product of butter-making to the present day

The Dorchester Butter Factory
The Dorchester Butter Factory in the 1920s. This processed proper butter, not substitutes. Cary & Grimsdell were always advertising for butter in local newpapers.

Dorset Blue Vinney (or Vinny: the spellings are equally common) cheese is venerated by the true sons of Dorset and I have been castigated for suggesting in print that it often used to be not a gourmet’s delight but a hard and nasty cheese. I was comforted afterwards by several elderly gentlemen sidling up to me (singly) and whispering, ‘You were right – it was often awful.’ Blue Vinney is, as the name suggests, a blue-veined cheese, but unlike today’s blue cheeses, it was made from skimmed milk. Skimming removed the cream, and hence the fat. Unfortunately, as with so many foods, it is the fat which makes cheese nice.

Why did Dorset make this distinctive cheese? William Marshall’s Rural Economy of the West of England (1796) states under West Dorset, ‘This has been, since time immemorial, a Dairy District. Formerly, its produce was cheese, made from the neat milk.’ Marshall means whole milk, unskimmed, and he has seen the cheese, ‘some of which I have met with of a very superior quality. Nevertheless, of late years, its produce has been changed to butter, for the London market, to which it is sent in tubs.’ Here is the change which created or expanded the production of the Blue Vinney – in order to make butter, the milk was skimmed of virtually all its cream, which was made into butter. The large quantities of skimmed milk remaining were used for cheese-making. (Until the mid-19th century there was very little sale for fresh milk, because it could not be got to market before it went off. The railways changed that, especially for Dorset.)

Tess preparing to milk in the field
Tess preparing to milk in the field. A wood engraving by Vivien Gribble for the 1926 edition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

James Taylor, a south Dorset farmer, made the link between the butter and cheese explicitly in his evidence to the Enquiry into the State of Agriculture (1836), stating that a great deal of the local butter went to London. ‘There are butter factors [dealers] and they buy it off the dairymen.’ He was asked, ‘Do they make butter altogether or some cheese?’ to which Taylor replied honestly, ‘They make some cheese; the butter is very good, the cheese very bad.’ He later claimed, ‘It is the best butter that can be got.’

So the production of Blue Vinney was caused by the high regard in which Dorset butter was held in London, where it carried a premium price and attracted unscrupulous imitators. In a London court case in 1869, gleefully headlined in the Weymouth Telegram, ‘How “Real Dorset” butter is made in London’, four unemployed labourers had broken into a butter factory in Bromley and stolen 64 tons of suet, value £10. The judge asked what was meant by a butter factory and a witness told him that they made butter. ‘Nonsense. That is quite absurd,’ he replied, but then it was explained that the suet was mixed with the more expensive real butter ‘and it is sold in our shops as “real Dorset” and “real Cambridge”.’

Dairying, along with butter and cheese-making, became more hygienic and scientific from the earlwith their white overalls, mop, broom etc.
Dairying, along with butter and cheese-making, became more hygienic and scientific from the early 20th century, as these cheese-makers at East Stour demonstrate with their white overalls, mop, broom etc. In front of them are their products – three different sizes of cheese.

The same newspaper claimed the next week that much London butter also had tallow added to stretch it, and ‘all the wretched butter-man can say for himself is that the British butter-eater will have butter at a cheaper rate than that of production’, so it had to be adulterated. The newspaper related that a mixture of butter, tallow and suet had to have silica of soda added ‘and various other chemicals must be used in order to effect a “successful fusion” … then you must colour your butter. For this end more chemicals are employed. This is not to grease the wheels of Life – it is to grease the wheels of Death.’

Even after sales of milk increased, Dorset butter kept its market. John Foot, speaking at the Society of Dorset Men annual meeting in 1911, stated that ‘Thirty years ago [ie. in the 1880s] Dorset butters were the standard article that set the market. For years Dorset best was the standing factor, fixing the price and position of every other brand.’ By 1911 imports from Denmark and other continental countries, combined with butter substitutes, had eroded the market, and ambiguous food legislation that led to substitutes and blends being sold as butter had completed the rout of pure Dorset butter.

Three male Dorset milkers in 1911
Three male Dorset milkers in 1911, with artistically arranged aprons

George Mitchell, of the new Agricultural Labourers Union, told a labourers’ meeting in Bridport in 1872 that the farmers ‘took the milk and skimmed it and skimmed it, and then took the bellows and blew it to get all the cream off, and then made cheese out of it [the milk] and gave it to the labourers who had to cut it with a hatchet sometimes, it was so hard’ (Bridport News, July 1872).

Blue Vinney was still being made in quantity in 1912, when the Royal Agricultural Society of England published a report on regional cheeses. They highlighted the problem which was making Blue Vinney a by-word for hard and unpalatable food: ‘Formerly Dorset Blue was made only from hand-skimmed milk. After the milk had been set in shallow vessels and allowed to stand for twenty-four hours the cream was removed with a skimmer … . In dairies where the best varieties of cheese are made, this practice is being still maintained. The skim milk, containing about 1 per cent of butter-fat, makes a very suitable milk for the purpose. Since the introduction of mechanical separators a great many makers use a proportion of separated milk with the hand-skimmed, and in some cases the cheese is made from separated milk alone.’ It was possible to make cheese from this milk, but it wasn’t very nice. The report records that the whole cheese usually weighed about 17 pounds and was fetching 110 shillings per hundredweight wholesale.

Real-life Tesses preparing to milk at Elm Tree Farm
Real-life Tesses preparing to milk at Elm Tree Farm, Holwell in 1919

The Dorset County Chronicle reported in 1938 that many farmers were being prevented from making Blue Vinney by the Milk Marketing Board and ‘this has struck a blow at an old and lucrative farm industry. But the cheeses are still being made in secret.’ Farmers were apparently smuggling them to shops and customers. The Chronicle’s headline was ‘Blue Vinny “smugglers” are busy’. By the 1950s Blue Vinney was a rare cheese, still being made in only a few farmhouse dairies. John Arlott celebrated it in English Cheeses of the South and West (1958) but did admit that it varied in quality dramatically. He only knew one dairy making it, and three out of four cheeses failed.

Blue Vinney jokes abounded in West Dorset – a grocer in Dorchester High Street had three really hard and horrible whole cheeses, so bad that he couldn’t sell them at any price. His wife suggested that he leave them outside the shop one night and hope they would be stolen. The next morning they were gone – problem solved. Sadly, the next night the thieves returned them. Another story remembered in Dorchester in the 1970s: ‘Man had a Blue Vinney cheese that was too hard t’eat, wanted wheelbarrow wheel, zoo he drilled a hole droo the idle of the cheese an’ putt en on. Ader fifteen years hard wear the wheelbarrow fell t’pieces, and ‘ee sold the wheel for woold iron.’

It is clear that while Blue Vinney could be an exotic and delicious cheese, it could also be awful. The making of Dorset butter took too much of the fat from the milk, especially after mechanical separators became common, and the full milk blue cheese often sold as Blue Vinney today bears no relationship to the original. Just one producer – the Dorset Blue Cheese Company – does produce the real thing, but modern methods and the fact that the milk used is only partially skimmed ensure a reliably high standard of taste and consistency and mean that the modern Blue Vinney is unlikely to be used as a wheelbarrow wheel!
[Jo Draper is the author of Dorset Food, recently published by Sutton Publishing.]

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