Interview: ‘My cheese factory hell!’

Being as I am someone who’s passionate about cheese, I often have idle thoughts about the idea of jacking in corporate life and doing a job that’s entirely cheese-related. As referenced in the strapline for this blog, I regularly daydream about the idea of running my own cheese shop – and I’ve even dabbled a fair bit with making my own cheese.

But would working in the cheese industry be all it’s cracked up to be?

Like any seemingly attractive vocation, there’s probably a lot of things about the cheese industry that aren’t quite so glamorous. Indeed, there’s someone who I’ve known a very long time who once had a very short-lived stint of employment in a Stilton factory in Nottinghamshire – an experience he found so harrowing that he only managed to hack it for half a day before walking away, never to return.

In the name of research, I decided it would be interesting to find out the full story of this fleeting career in the cheese industry – so in this blog post, I present a very first Temple of Cheese Interview!

In the interests of protecting the innocent, our interviewee remains anonymous…

When was your ill-fated stint of employment at the cheese factory, and how did it come about? And did you know what you were letting yourself in for?!

It was in the late nineties – I was still a student, and I signed up to an agency who offered me some factory work that they implied would involve packing Christmas stuff. They told me to meet a minibus in Nottingham in the early hours of the morning – there were a few others on the bus, and I envisaged spending a day putting truckles of cheese in a gift box, maybe with bottles of port. I had no idea though of the horrors that awaited me as we drove out of town towards the village of Cropwell Butler.


So what happened when the minibus arrived at the factory?

We were led towards a big warehouse, and after being issued with white coats, hair nets and hats we all had to gather around the most patronising men in the world, who proceeded to spell out our duties. It turned out that our task for the whole day was to break up big wheels of Stilton that had been deemed unfit for human consumption and deposit the shredded pieces into large blue bags – which were then sold to pig farmers in Melton. Apparently this is a key factor in the distinctive taste of Melton Mowbray pork pies!


What has your thoughts been on Stilton prior to this?

I didn’t have any particularly strong feelings either way, I don’t think I’d have eaten it on its own – it tends to be a taste acquired with age I think.


So what were your thoughts as you got started on the job? Were you given any implements to help with the task in hand?

I was pretty horrified. The only implements we had were our hands, clad in thin blue gloves. The background smell of the place was pretty grim, but that is nothing compared to when we were handed our raw material, which frankly was a close facsimile in texture and aroma to a particularly noxious dog shit.


What did the general mood in the camp seem to like among your fellow workers?

Well whereas this was my first day most of them had been doing it for a while, so they were used to it. They were sound people and there was camaraderie – I guess there has to be if you’re doing something like that for a job whilst being overseen by a bunch of clipboard wielding Nazis.


So how long had you signed up to do this for?

It was an undefined period, so I suppose the equivalent then of a zero hours contract. I’d told the agency which days I could work to fit in with my university commitments, and they’d offered up shifts based on that. I only made it ‘til the lunch break though on that first day. The morning was so grim that it drove me to re-take up smoking – I bought some cigarettes off one of my co-workers in the canteen. In the end I just stayed in the canteen all afternoon until the mini-bus came back to collect us. I couldn’t bear the thought of going back in that warehouse!


Were there any repercussions from your refusal to go back in?

One of the clipboard Hitlers came to see what was going on but I told him there was no way I was going back in. They just left me to it. On the bus on the way back to Nottingham a mobile phone was passed around everyone with someone from the agency on the other end, and when it got passed to me they said something like “So we hear things didn’t go brilliantly?” – so one of the clipboard Hitlers must have had words. I expressed disappointment at effectively being mis-sold a job, and told them that I wouldn’t be returning for future shifts! The others on the bus who’d been doing the job for ages must’ve thought I was really up myself!


Did you ever do any more work for that agency, or was that your bridges burned with them?

No, I think there was probably a mutual feeling of resentment! A few days later though I was surprised to receive a pay slip for the half day I’d done.


So have you ever set foot in Cropwell Butler since? And has the sorry experience had any influence on how you feel about the mighty cheese that is Stilton?

To my knowledge I’ve not been to Cropwell Butler, but then I’ve never really had cause to. The whole experience has definitely affected my feelings of any blue type cheese. I have learned to love Cambozola and a few others, but I won’t eat Stilton unless it’s in things – such as in a sauce for a steak. That said, there have been times when I’ve accidentally enjoyed Stilton crumbled in a salad or a sandwich, so I guess it’s all in my head.


Anything else you want to add?

I guess there are a few lessons here – mainly in asking more questions when taking on agency work! Also, I probably could’ve been a bit more daring in trying some Stilton a bit sooner after the experience, rather than letting it build up to such a huge barrier in my head. Next time I order a cheese board, I promise not to ask them to hold the Stilton and to give it a go!


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