Monday, January 02, 2012

Certifiably Cheese.

I have heard Stilton cheese referred to as ‘The King of Cheeses’, which is, of course, only someone’s opinion, or perhaps someone’s clever marketing. An Italian may disagree, and say that Parmigiano-Regiano is the King, a Frenchman may insist it is Brie de Meaux, and a good Fetta will almost certainly get the vote of a Greek. The appellation is silly. There are only good cheeses and bad cheeses, and amongst the good cheeses, some are superb.

There are two cheeses that I personally associate with the Christmas season. The first is English Wensleydale, because that was the traditional cheese to serve alongside the Christmas cake when I was growing up in Yorkshire. The second is Stilton, for reasons which remain completely obscure to myself.

One thing that can be said with certainty about Stilton cheese is that it is one of the oldest named British cheeses. The first written reference to it appears in 1722, in William Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum (Account of the Curiosities and Antiquities in Great Britain), but I have yet to track down a copy of his actual words on the cheese. The second reference is from the writer Daniel Defoe, in his record if A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, in 1724. He says "We 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." More on cheese mites tomorrow, I promise.

The odd thing about Stilton cheese is that is has never been made in the village of Stilton in Cambridgeshire. It seems that name of the cheese came about because the village – on a major coaching route – was the major point of sale, and eventually ‘the cheese bought in Stilton’ became ‘Stilton cheese’.

In 1969, the Stilton Cheese Makers Association obtained trade-mark status for their product, and in 1996, the cheese was one of the first to be given ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ (PDO) status by the EU. The rules are that:

- it can only be produced in the Counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.
- it must be made from locally produced milk.
- the milk must be pasteurised.
- the curd is not pressed.
- the blue veins must radiate from the centre of the cheese
- the shape of the cheese must be cylindrical.
- it must be allowed to form its own crust

A couple more factoids are:
-it takes 136 pints milk (78 litres) to make one 17 lb (8kg) Stilton cheese.
- it is currently made in only six dairies within the three counties.
- it is one of the few cheeses that freeze well.
One of the greatest mysteries about Stilton cheese to me is the origin of the often-quoted method of scooping out the middle and filling it with port before serving it. I can understand drinking good port with good Stilton, but sabotaging the cheesemakers’ art in an attempt to gild an already tasty lily seems misguided at best.

‘Potting’ is a good way to use up odds and ends of cheese – think of it as making your own cheese spread. In previous times of course, it provided a far more important function – preservation before refrigeration.

To Pot Cheese.
Cut down half a pound of good sound mellow Stilton, with two ounces of fresh butter; add a little mace and made mustard. Beat this well in a mortar, and pressing it close in a potting-can, cover with clarified butter if to be long kept.
The Cooks & Housewife's Manual (1826), by Mrs. Margaret Dodds (pseud.)

In other posts:

If the Italian King of Cheeses (‘Parmesan’) is your preference, a previous post (here) gave it some space, and an earlier post (here) included a nineteenth century recipe cheese ice-cream made with Parmesan.

Quotation for the Day.

People who know nothing about cheeses reel away from Camembert, Roquefort, and Stilton because the plebeian proboscis is not equipped to differentiate between the sordid and the sublime.
Harvey Day.


Keith said...

Excellent post, thank you.

Keef said...

I love stilton, but it's difficult to get here in Madrid (actually, that's a fib - there's one reliable supplier, but their prices are horrendous). An acceptable sub is Bleu d'Auvergne, which most of the supermarkets stock.