Samui Wining & Dining
The Big Cheese

With its fascinating history and is the cheese of choice for many highly individual taste, Stilton

9It is a little strange. That we can comfortably sit and feast on something that smells like old socks. Which looks like the back of an old lady’s legs. Yet many of us regard it as the best part of a meal; eagerly wolfing down appetizers and sides of beef solely in anticipation of a cheese board. A bit of cheddar or brie is fine, but we tend to prize the noble Stilton above all others.

    Long known as ‘The King of Cheeses’, blue Stilton is one of a handful of British cheeses granted the status of a ‘protected designation origin’ (PDO) by the European Commission. Only cheese produced in the three counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire and made according to a strict code may be called Stilton. There are just six dairies licensed to make it and they are subject to regular audit by an independent inspection agency accredited to European Standard EN 45011. Ironically, Stilton cheese cannot legally be made in the village that gave the cheese its name. It was never actually made there and the village is now located in Cambridgeshire, previously it was in the former county of Huntingdonshire.

     Stilton is situated about 80 miles north of London on the old Great North Road. In the 18th century, the town was a staging post for coaches travelling from London to York. Horses would be changed and travellers served light refreshments at one of the hostelries in the town. Cooper Thornhill, an East Midlands entrepreneur, was landlord at the famous Bell Inn and it was he who introduced these travellers to a soft, creamy, blue-veined cheese, which subsequently took its name from the town. Thornhill had bought the cheese from a farmer’s wife by the name of Frances Pawlett who lived in nearby Melton Mowbray.

 

Only cheese produced in the three
counties of Derbyshire,
Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire
and made according to a strict
code may be called Stilton

 

      So esteemed is Stilton’s unique flavour and texture, it’s the only British cheese graced with its own certification trademark. Lighter than Gorgonzola, richer than Danish blue and more intense than other UK blues, Britain’s ‘Historic Blue’ has long been used in the kitchen. Its meltable, full-rounded qualities enliven salads and hors d’oeuvres, soups and sauces, as well as meat, vegetable and fruit dishes. And, even after all this time, the methodology for making the cheese has barely changed.

      Early each morning, fresh pasteurized milk is fed into an open vat to which acid-forming bacteria (starter cultures), a milk clotting agent (such as rennet) and ‘penicillium roqueforti’ (blue mould spores) are added. Once the curds have formed, the whey is removed and the curds allowed to drain overnight. The following morning, the curd is then cut into blocks to allow further drainage before being milled and salted. Each cheese requires about 24 lb (11 kg) of salted curd that is fed into cylindrical moulds. These are then placed on boards and turned daily to allow natural drainage for five or six days. This ensures an even distribution of moisture throughout the cheese so that, as the cheese is never pressed, it creates the flaky, open texture required for the important ‘blueing’ stage.

       After five or six days, the cylinders are removed and the coat of each cheese is sealed by smoothing or wrapping to prevent any air entering the inside of the cheese. It’s then transferred to the store where temperature and humidity are carefully controlled. Each cheese is turned regularly during this ripening period. At about six weeks, the cheese is forming the traditional Stilton crust and it’s then ready for piercing with stainless steel needles. This allows air to enter the body of the cheese and create the magical blue veins associated with Stilton. At about nine weeks of age, by which time each cheese now weighs about 17 lbs (8 kg), the cheese is ready to be sold. But before this happens every cheese must be graded using a cheese iron. This iron is used to bore into the cheese and extract a plug of it. By visual inspection and by smell the grader can determine whether the cheese is up to the mark and able to be sold as Stilton. Cheese that is not up to the mark will be sold as ‘blue cheese’. At this age, Stilton is still quite crumbly and has a slightly acidic taste. Some people prefer a more mature cheese and after another five or six weeks it will have a smoother, almost buttery texture, with a more rounded mellow flavour.

      Almost one million Stilton blue cheeses are made each year with 10% of them exported to more than 40 countries, including Thailand. In more recent times, white Stilton, often blended with apricots, ginger or citrus fruits, has become increasingly popular as a dessert cheese. And some adventurous chefs have even created a Stilton ice-cream, which for any food lover has to be worth a try. Accompanied with a tawny port, a sweet, dark Olorosso sherry or a dessert wine like Sauterne, Gewurztraminer or Muscat it can almost be a meal in itself.

      Three hundred years after first being enjoyed on a small farm in the Midlands of England, Stilton remains a taste of bygone years. And one we’re unlikely to let go of anytime soon.


 

Johnny Paterson



 


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