Origin: England (Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire counties)
Age: at least 9 weeks
This “King of English Cheese” has a long and complex story. There is some uncertainty as to its origins. Some sources say that the cheese was never manufactured in Stilton, but first sold there. However, the official Stilton Cheese website states that some form of this cheese was indeed manufactured in that village. The first confirmed references to Stilton cheese seem to have been made in the 18th century, but that Stilton cheese might not have been the blue we know today. There is speculation that the original “Stilton” cheese was a sort of cream cheese with additional cream added. Travel memoirs describe the cheese as the “English parmesan,” or the “recently famous Stilton.”
As the coaching trade grew in the 18th century, so did Stilton as a trading town. One local tavernkeeper, Cooper Thornhill, decided to profit from the increased traffic and peddle some cheese, not only to passing travelers, but through the coach routes into London. As demand for this cheese grew, Thornhill needed to find a larger, more reliable supplier. Thornhill teamed up with a local cheesemaker, Ms. Frances Pawlett, and together, they developed a cooperative with other local cheesemakers and dairies to manufacture large quantities, and commercialize Stilton cheese. The experts suspect the Stilton cheese recipe at this point was a blue cheese recipe, but again, no one is certain!
The manufacture of blue Stilton involves pasteurized cow’s milk and the famous penicillium roqueforti mold responsible for the cheese’s blue veins. Each 17 lb. wheel requires 24 lbs. of milk.
The name “Stilton” is protected under British law by an Certification Trade Mark, and under European Union law as a protected food name. In either case, the cheese must satisfy the following conditions:
*it can only be produced in the three Counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire;
*it must be made from locally produced milk that has been pasteurized before use;
*it can only be made in a cylindrical shape;
*it must be allowed to form its own coat or crust;
*it must never be pressed; AND
*it must have the *magical* blue veins radiating from the centre of the cheese.
What do all of these marks and labels mean? In the case of the E.U.-level protection, the Stilton cheese is protected against imitation. The objective of such protection is to help consumers recognize which products are “authentic,” and which are not. That means you can’t find any French maker (or any other European cheese maker) trying to pass of her cheese as “Stilton,” and if you do, that maker will be subject to sanctions.
The British certification mark is slightly more interesting. To qualify for a certification mark, the cheese needs to undergo regular testing to satisfy nationally-set standards. It is not a trademark, which can be used by individual cheese manufacturers. Instead, it is a symbol saying that the cheese has been tested and has met national standards (like “USDA grade A beef” in the U.S.). That’s enough intellectual property for today!
Now, for the cheese itself. The cheese comes to the store in a round cut down from the original 17 lb. cylinder. The past is orange toward the rind. The past is slightly yellow toward the interior, with moderate blue veining. The bottom is coated in a thin layer of wax, since that part has no rind. The cheese’s aroma is quite earthy, with only a touch of the sharpness you would expect from a blue.
On the tongue, I thought the Stilton to be the mildest (tasteless?) of the blues I’ve tasted so far. There was no sweetness, no saltiness, no smokiness, no spice. There was, however, some of that earthy quality that was also in the aroma (actually, it might have been the aroma). This cheese would probably be a great introduction to blue cheeses, since it has none of the potentially offensive qualities of a blue cheese. This tasting was a bit anticlimactic, actually, given the cheese’s illustrious history and title as the “King of English Cheese.” While researching for this entry, I learned that graders test each cylinder of cheese for quality, and determine if a cheese is worthy of being called “Stilton.” The lesser cheeses are simply named “blue cheese.” After knowing what the Stilton tastes like, I do wonder what the normal “blue cheese” is like.
In no way am I implying that the piece of Stilton cheese at the store is bad! I just think the blue Stilton cheese in general is a bit too mild for my list of favorite cheeses. On the other hand, it can probably be paired with plenty of condiments at the store to enhance the flavor. The shallots in port wine are bound to work, and those Armenian preserved walnuts. With regard to spirits, port would work, muscat, sauternes, sherry, Madeira–the sweeter wines. Riesling, one of the most versatile wines to pair with cheeses, could work as well.