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Turnbulls Guide to Cheese: Stilton

Tasting Stilton, King of English Cheeses

BodyCreamy, smooth, dense, slightly crumbly. Firm yet velvety mouthfeel, with blue veining adding contrasting granularity
Primary TastesNoted savoury/umami, some saltiness, subtle sweetness
Herbal bitterness is important
Dairy flavoursCream and butter
Making flavoursPiquancy, mushroom and earthy quality
Earthy
Ripe pear or dried fruit
Aging flavoursStilton is not typically aged beyond ripening
– intensified savoury, umami, and earthy notes.
– tang from the excessive blue
– butterscotch or caramel
– gritty calcium salts in the blue veins

Blue Stilton Cheese

A history

In 1724 Daniel Defoe wrote in his ‘Tour through the villages of England & Wales’ of Stilton being “famous for cheese” calling it the “English Parmesan”. What this means is not at all clear, and could refer simply to it being England signature cheese without referring to its flavours, but it created a sensation. John Lawrence in 1726 describes “recently famous Stilton” as “about seven inches in diameter, eight inches in height and 18 lbs in weight.” This is a similar shape but about half the weight of a modern stilton. Stilton is going viral.

White Stilton comes from the northern tradition of English cheese, family to Wensleydale, Lancashire and Cheshire, and the Welsh Caerphilly. Its is said these root in the court of William, Conqueror of England in 1066. He asked for Roquefort, and the Cistercian monks who had travelled with him, already famous throughout Europe for their cheesemaking monasteries, took to Yorkshire to make some. Perhaps it was the Yorkshire Dales’ reputation for good sheep – as Roquefort is France’s most famous sheep’s cheese. From here cheesemaking, declining since Roman times, began to expand again.

Blue Stilton does not become a thing until it is taken up by a publican Cooper Thornhill of the Bell Inn, Stilton. The town is in Cambridgeshire on the Great north Road from London to Edinburgh. Stilton is not and was not and was not made in Stilton. Stilton and The Bell Inn is what made the cheese famous, but the making of it is the story of three women.

Lady Beaumont of Elton Hall, made Stilton cheese for her own family’s use in the 1600s, and tales abound of her secret recipe. Perhaps because she was rich she is recorded in history, as no stilton records predate her. It was a Mrs. Orton, wife of a farmer from Little Dalby, is claimed to have made the first commercial Stilton cheeses in Leicestershire in 1730. It was possibly her cheese that Cooper Thornhill encountered on his holidays. He starts to sell the cheese on his tables at his Bell Inn in Stilton, and demand blooms to the point he starts to sell it commercially. It is here that our third lady, Frances Pawlett, a cheese-maker hailing from Wymondham in Leicestershire, enters the story. Thornhill strikes a deal with her to make the cheese, and Pawlett’s develops a unique recipe for Stilton. The exact method of achieving the blue veining remains unknown, as blue moulds were not captured and introduced as they are in Roquefort, but her recipe coalesces the blue cheeses made in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire into Stilton.

During the 19th century, Stilton production expanded significantly. Railways improved transportation, making it easier to distribute the cheese throughout England and beyond. The cheese became a favourite among the British upper class and gained recognition through awards and accolades at various exhibitions.

20th Century Stilton

Introduction of P. roqueforti into the milk to make modern stilton was introduced in the 1940s-1950s, radically changing and improving stilton. Traditional stilton rind was allowed to dry and crack and moulds would to ingress. Makers learning from their European colleagues began introducing mould spores to the milk prior to curdling, and keeping rinds moist and smeared and needling the cheeses. This led to the more consistent creamier cheese we know today.

In 1996, Stilton cheese was granted PDO status by the European Union, recognizing its unique heritage and production methods. This legal protection ensures that only cheese produced in specific regions of England (Leicestershire, Derbyshire, and Nottinghamshire), and adhering to traditional methods, can bear the name “Stilton.” Crucially, stilton must be pasteurised to carry the name. This is contentious, as clearly pasteurisation is a 20th century innovation. Some continue to believe true stilton should not be pasteurised and it is a wrong that raw milk cheeses cannot bear that name, but as we have seen, sttilon has always changed to make better cheese.

Why is a Stilton a Christmas Cheese?

Stilton is a whole milk cheese, the milk is not skimmed. However it is made using a crumbly method traditional for skimmed milk cheeses. Perhaps for this reason, to make the best stilton poor quality milk works best, and the “worst milk” comes cows grazed on the tired pastures at the end of summer – August and September. As stilton ripens for three months, the best stiltons of all are just right at Christmas time.

Stilton and America (19th-20th Century)

Stilton cheese started making its way to America in the 19th century, thanks to the growing British influence in the United States. American epicures, inspired by European culinary traditions, began to develop a taste for Stilton and other British cheeses. Importers began to ship Stilton across the Atlantic, introducing it to American cheese connoisseurs.

In the early 20th century, Stilton cheese gained further recognition in America as it was featured in prestigious restaurants and cheese shops. It became a then-symbol of sophistication and a must-have on fine dining menus.

Size and shape

  1. Cylindrical Shape 7 to 8 inches diameter (18 to 20cms); height approximately 8 to 9 inches (20 to 23cms)
  2. Weight: 15 to 20 pounds (7 to 9kgs)

Smaller stilton may be produced for Christmas, and it is traditional to sell it in ornate jars. For jarred stilton, beware of stilton pressed into the jar as this can ruin the texture.

Serving, and preservation with port

Stilton have been traditionally served in restaurants and pubs by cutting off the top like a lid, and “scooping” (like an ice cream). Some say it was from here that the practice of pouring port into the scooped-out cheese began, as a method of keeping the cheese edible and the flies away. My advice is not to do this! If you like stilton and port, and I do, is keep your stilton in the fridge and your port in the bottle, and let them meet in your mouth!

Tasting Stilton

  1. Body & Texture: Ripe Stilton has creamy texture, smooth, dense, and slightly crumbly. When chewed is has a velvety mouthfeel, with the blue veining adding a subtle contrasting granularity
  2. Tastes: rich savoury and umami, supporting but not pronounced saltiness, with subtle sweetness in creamier stiltons. There can be acidity, but the bitterness is important. It is a gentle but clear herbal bitterness that gives body to the cheese.
  3. Dairy Flavours: creamy and buttery, with some raw milk character
  4. Maker additions: Blueing
    • Blue Veining: significant piquancy, mushroom and earthy quality
    • Earthy Notes: earthy flavours sometimes damp cellar
    • Fruitiness: in good stiltons there may be hints of ripe pear or dried fruit
  5. Aging: Stilton may be considered aged when it is fully ripe (around 3 months) and aged further up to 6 months. This uncommon and may not improve the cheese
    • Intensity: intensified savoury, umami, and earthy notes.
    • Sharpness: Acidity and tang from the excessive blue
    • Cooked milk: potential for butterscotch or caramel
    • Crunch: calcium salts can crystalise in the blue veins giving a gritty texture which has no flavour

Stilton cheese can be poorly made, with excessive bitterness, dryness, mostly dairy notes but otherwise lacking in complexity. At its best it can be the best cheese in the world.

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