Stilton is one of the most well-known blue cheeses in the world — up there with Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Cabrales. As possibly the most traditional English cheese, Stilton is often called the “King of English cheeses” and sometimes (and more controversially!) the “King of Blues.”
Where did the name of the cheese come from? In the early 1700s, the road running between York and London was well-trafficked. One of the key stopping points for travelers on this road was a place called Bell Inn, located in the village of Stilton in Leicestershire. The proprietor of that inn, Cooper Thornhill, started serving his guests a blue cheese made in the nearby town of Melton Mowbray. Responding to its popularity, Mr. Thornhill started selling the cheese to people in London. By the mid-1700s, he was sending an amazing 1,000 wheels a week!
Originally, Stilton was made on small farms but, given its popularity, there was an interest in streamlining production. In 1875, a small factory began producing the cheese and in 1910, the Stilton Makers Association was registered as a trademark. Per regulation, the cheese can only be made in the following counties: Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. During the cheesemaking process, Stilton’s curds are treated in an unusual way — once the curds are released from their mold and can stand on their own, they are left to ripen overnight, which helps contribute to the cheese’s creaminess. Stilton is aged between 9-14 weeks — at 6 weeks the wheel is pierced to allow air in to develop the blue mold — and is allowed to develop a rind (unlike most other blues which are rindless). It takes about 17 gallons of milk to make one 15-lb. wheel of Stilton.
Only seven dairies are licensed to make Stilton today. We get ours from Colston Bassett via Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. Colston Bassett sources its milk from five farms that are situated within a five-mile radius of the dairy. They are the only Stilton producer that actually ladles the curds by hand — important because when cheese is hand-ladled, less of the coagulating enzyme rennet has to be used during cheesemaking, resulting in a creamier texture. It is also noteworthy that we get our Colston Bassett Stilton from Neal’s Yard Dairy because Neal’s Yard gets a unique version of the cheese, available nowhere else in Britain. This Stilton is made with traditional animal rennet (as opposed to vegetable rennet), making it more faithful to the original Stilton recipe. As well, per Neal’s Yard Dairy specifications, the cheese is pierced slightly later and less often than batches destined for other cheese counters, giving the cheese a more balanced flavor.
Stilton is the only cheese in England that is protected by legislation (unlike France, Italy or Spain where the AOC, DOC and DOP systems prevail). And, this is actually where Stichelton comes into the picture. According to current regulations, for a cheese to be called Stilton, it must (among other criteria) be made from pasteurized milk. Stichelton is made with raw, organic milk. As a result, it is presumably closer to the Stilton that farmers were making three centuries ago. However, because the cheese is name-protected, the cheesemakers could not call it “Stilton” and had to get creative. Going back to William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book, they took the old English name for the town of Stilton: Stichelton. Considering that the raw milk version of this cheese could be deemed more historically accurate, it seems appropriate that it was given the historical name for the town. Like Colston Bassett Stilton, Stichelton is hand-ladled and made with animal rennet.
Stichelton is the brainchild of a cheesemaker named Joe Schneider and Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy. Schneider decided to take on the challenge of making raw milk Stilton after great success making Daylesford Cheddar. He started experimenting with Stichelton in 2006, selling through Neal’s Yard Dairy. After working through some initial kinks, he has developed a wonderful cheese.
Someone once said to me, “The best cheese you will ever taste will be a raw milk cheese and the worst cheese you ever taste will be a raw milk cheese.” I always thought that this accurately encapsulated the vagaries of raw milk cheese. It is much easier for cheesemakers to control the results of their products and ensure a consistent flavor when their milk has been pasteurized. By eliminating bacteria in their cheese, they have a more definite idea of how it will age. At the same time, pasteurization can eliminate a lot of the bacteria that gives cheese its wonderful flavor, its terroir and complexity. Raw milk cheeses are more challenging because, although cheesemakers may introduce cultures, they cannot fully predict how the bacteria in the milk will affect the cheese’s flavor. This is why Schneider’s accomplishment is so impressive!
I wish I could find out how Cooper Thornill served Stilton to his guests in the Bell Inn – did he pair it with anything in particular? Was it served with dessert? Was it served with bread? Although I don’t know what he used to showcase this wonderful cheese, some very traditional pairings have evolved over the years. A lot of folks know the cheese crumbled over a salad or a steak. Most traditionally, however, it is served with tawny Port.
Mary is a baker and cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.