With its distinctive blue veins, Stilton has a long heritage as a cheese of quality, although its origins remain unknown
A large, drum-shaped cheese sits proudly on a table. With its crumble-cream texture, soft, butter-yellow crust and distinctive blue veins, this is Stilton.
Today, Stilton enjoys Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. This dictates that it can only be produced in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, to a legally-binding recipe. Each batch must pass strict quality controls. If one fails, it can only be sold as unnamed ‘blue cheese’. Just six dairies are licensed to create this sumptuous, tangy cheese, while a seventh makes only white Stilton. None of them are in, or even near, the village of Stilton in Cambridgeshire from which its name comes.
For many years, it was claimed that Stilton cheese did not originate in the eponymous village. Recent research, however, has fetched up a recipe dated 1722. This implies that a cheese called Stilton was made in the village in the early 18th century. As a white, pressed, cream cheese, it bore little resemblance to the product known today.
No one knows for certain, but it is believed the distinctive blue veining may have happened by accident. As it aged, the cheeses produced natural cracks into which mould spores would develop. Far from being repulsed, early connoisseurs were delighted by this. The cheese’s flora and fauna are at their most active in and around the rind, ensuring flavour at its most complex. Daniel Defoe, writing in 1724, said he had “pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”
It is unknown what made the cheese mites so tasty to 18th century travellers. While Stilton today is made to methods that remain traditional, modern hygiene standards ensure the rind remains maggot-free.
Stilton cheese’s fame spread. This may have been because it was made with whole milk and extra cream, unlike many cheaper cheeses where part-skimmed milk was used. Geography also played a large role. Sitting on the Great North Road, Stilton was only 70 miles from London. This made it a convenient stopping point for coaches travelling north to York or further. At its height, Stilton was heaving with humanity and horses. A minimum of 300 horses were held at The Bell Inn, with 300 more at The Angel. These would be changed with the tired horses of coaches travelling through. There were a further 14 hostelries in the village, all with accommodation.
Visitors would be aware of Stilton’s large cheese market, held every Wednesday. In 1743, Cooper Thornhill, landlord of The Bell, had an idea. He began working with Frances Pawlett, a cheesemaker from Wymondham, Leicestershire, to make something truly special on a more commercial scale. It is claimed Pawlett came up with a novel way to avoid having to press the whey from her cheeses. She moulded them in ceramic pipes, fired with holes, from which the fluid could drain. It also gave the product the classic drum-shape it retains till this day. Pawlett set out high standards for her ‘Stilton’ cheese, giving it an early reputation for quality.
At first, Cooper Thornhill served it to guests, then sold it to passing travellers. Finally, as news of its superior quality spread, he began supplying Stilton to fashionable cheesemongers in London.
Traditionally, the cheese was made in the summer months, when the local pasture and, therefore, milk was at its richest. The rounds didn’t mature until December, but this made them perfect for Christmas. Stilton’s rich creaminess is still associated with the season’s feast.
The arrival of steam railways killed the coaching trade and Stilton’s hotel business. The cheese industry, though, flourished thanks to improved distribution. However, all six of today’s Stilton dairies remain within a few miles of each other in the crook of three counties.
In the 1790s, the cheese sold at half a crown a pound, twice a day’s wages for an average farm worker. Top quality ingredients and an intense hands-on
process mean it continues to be the luxury product it
has always been.
Making Stilton Cheese
Approximately 16 gallons (72 litres) of milk are needed to make a prime 16lb 8oz (7.5kg) whole cheese. Everything, from the breed of the cow to its health and what it eats, will affect both flavour and texture. To meet the requirements of the Protected Designation of Origin, cattle must be grazed within a certain area.
When Leicestershire cheesemaker Frances Pawlett created Stilton in the 18th century, her milk would have been raw, direct from the cow. Modern Stilton uses pasteurised milk. This is cooled in giant vats, before it is introduced to a live starter culture of friendly bacteria, along with penicillium roqueforti. These are the mould spores that will eventually develop the blue veins. Traditionally, Stilton’s clotting agent has been animal rennet, but in recent years a vegetarian alternative has also been made.
The cheesemaker’s skill
A fine Stilton takes between 10 and 12 weeks from the moment the milk is pasteurised. Most processes are still done by hand. These include mixing the milk in the vats and cutting the curds to ladling, milling or grinding the curds into soft crumbs, and salting. Giant hoops are filled by hand to create the characteristic, cylindrical Stilton shape. There are no machines that can accurately check curds for setting point, or the developing cheeses for quality. This means the skills of individual cheesemakers are tested on
a daily basis.
The cheeses are stored in the ‘hastening’ room in hoops very similar to the moulds Frances Pawlett developed more than 200 years ago. Over four to six days the whey slowly drains away, ensuring the cheeses will not collapse when they are de-hooped. The next process is
to smooth them. The master cheesemaker strokes each cheese round to create a smooth crust. This prevents oxygen activating the blue spores too early.
The rounds are stored in a maturing room to develop the creamy, leathery crust essential for all Stilton cheeses. Variables such as temperature and humidity decide exactly how long each batch will take.
For five weeks they are turned regularly to allow the air to reach each round evenly. Then they are individually pierced with steel needles to introduce air. This activates the mould spores for the blue veins. The blue does not develop in the pierced holes, but in tiny cracks and fissures within the cheese’s loose, crumbly body. The cheese rounds see out their maturation in the blueing store, for between four and six weeks. Here again, they are regularly turned and graded with a long coring tool, or iron, to ensure quality.
Some strange misconceptions have grown up around how Stilton should be served. It is best cut simply, in wedge-shaped slices. The general advice is to ‘cut high, cut low, cut level’. This involves cutting a small wedge in the top, about ½in (1cm) deep. Cutting is continued around it like a shallow cake, slicing it off horizontally to ensure the least amount of air reaches the main body. Scooping exposes more surface area to the air. This dries out the cheese, killing both flavour and texture. It is not recommended if the cheese is not to be eaten at one sitting. Nosing the cheese, that is removing the soft, creamy inner ‘nose’ leaving fellow diners with the hard crust, is not acceptable.
Stilton village’s guide to eating this most tricky of cheeses claims the high cream content not only renders butter unnecessary, it detracts from the experience, making it over-rich.
Words: Sandra Lawrence