When I was a very young man I was always on the lookout for ways to supplement my income. A local high-class grocer and provision Merchant took me on and it was here that I was introduced to the mysteries of the grocery trade long before supermarkets arrived in the UK. Warrington, which in those days was in Lancashire, sported many such establishments but Henry Milling and Company Limited was, without doubt, top of the tree. It had been founded in the previous century and Guy Milling, grandson of the founder, was still in overall charge.
The main store was directly in the centre of town and several branches were scattered around the surrounding countryside. Customers entering the main establishment were immediately captivated by the aroma of freshly ground coffee as the beans were roasted on the premises and ground on the counter as the customer waited. Biscuits rarely came in packs. A whole range of large square tins housed them. My favourite was the triangular chocolate Vienna, a rich chocolate wafer biscuit which was so moorish! However, it was cheese that really caught my attention. Having been born in Cheshire the cheese of that county was well-known to me but at the high-class grocers I discovered many new things about this tasty provision. Each week the Milling lorries would disappear into the heart of the Cheshire cheesemaking countryside and return loaded with their precious cargo. The cheese came in two varieties, white and red, although on occasions the blue variety was stocked and sold. The whole cheeses were humped down into the cellar beneath the main shop floor where they were prepared. My job was to strip them by removing the outer layer of cloth in which they were bound and then to give them a ‘crumbly’ appearance, allegedly favoured by customers. To do this one plunged a broad-bladed instrument into the whole cheese several times and then broke the cheese in half. The cheese could then be cut into pieces of any weight the customer required. Lancashire cheese was another good seller. This had a higher fat content than Cheshire and a stronger flavour. To be honest I preferred this to the milder Cheshire. Canadian and New Zealand cheeses were trickier to manage as they came in pairs encased in a securely wired wooden case. It was a pretty hard job to break open the cases in which these cheeses had travelled half way round the world. These cheeses were more solid than their Cheshire counterparts but they had a lovely strong flavour and made delicious cheese on toast. There was always a whole Stilton on offer and a really pungent Gorgonzola nearby. These were not big sellers in Warrington but the folks from across the Mersey bought them. At Christmas, then as today, Stilton cheese was distributed in an assortment of stoneware pots which were popular as gifts. Millings also stocked large orange blocks of Kraft processed cheese which was surprisingly tasty but totally different from the more traditional products. Stinking Bishop and other such exotically named cheeses were never seen. Perhaps they had not been invented then.
At regular intervals a consignment of bacon would arrive in the lorry from the well-known Harris’s of Wiltshire. The cured sides would arrive encased in rough hemp sacks and it was a hard job to throw one such sack over one’s shoulder and then hurl it down the chute into the cellar. Here the sack was cut open and the side hung and boned. One of my menial jobs was to remove the bones from the sides using a piece of string to remove the ribs in order to make sure that as little bacon as possible was left on the bones. Boning the gammon was more tricky but eventually I managed that particular skill.
Back in those pre-supermarket days, window displays were wonderful. The Maypole chain had immaculate arrays of sliced bacon and ham alongside Lipton’s who were also in the town, but the end was approaching. The first supermarkets arrived and although Henry Milling survived the initial attack they eventually went out of business along with so many other local firms. Guy Milling had wanted me to go into his company but I wanted a different life and took myself off to college, but I have never forgotten those early days with the Cheshire cheeses.