Forthright, rich, and blue-veined, there is something of the English gentry in Stilton. Perhaps that is why this pasty blue cheese is known as the King of Cheeses.
Origin and Governance
Despite the toponym, Stilton cheese was never actually made in Stilton town itself, but only peddled there, having been shipped in from more western climes, such as Melton Mowbray. English author Daniel Defoe wrote in 1727 that he had 'passed through Stilton, a town famous for cheese' - this no doubt contributed to the tenacity of the misnomer.
Nevertheless, today, according to the Stilton Cheesemakers' Association1, which was established in 1936, authentic Stilton cheese must be produced within the bounds of the English counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire, a restriction that is governed and policed by the UK Trading Standards Office who granted a certified Trademark in the 1960s. In 1996, European Commission Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) legislation was introduced to protect the Stilton name throughout the EU.
Making a Stilton is a lengthy process which is split into distinct stages:
Fresh, pasteurised cows' milk is poured into a big pot and mixed with rennet2 along with a starter culture and the essential blue mould, Penicillium glaucum.
The curds (coagulated proteins) and the whey are then separated and the curd is allowed to drain overnight. On day two, the curd is cut into blocks after which it is milled, salted and fed (without pressing) into the circular cheese moulds, or 'hoops'.
The moulds are rotated daily for the next five days to facilitate drainage and to ensure that the moisture remains evenly distributed throughout the cheese.
On day eight, the cheese moulds are removed and the cheese itself is sealed, by deft application of a smoothing action to the outer surface, using a knife. This keeps the moisture in and the air out, and encourages a crust to form.
The cheese is then transferred to a cool, humid curing chamber where it is stored on a rack and allowed to ripen, being turned regularly in the interests of homogeneity.
After about six weeks of ripening, the cheese is pierced using stainless steel needles, thereby ensuring aeration of the cheese, which is conducive to the growth of the Penicillium glaucum and hence formation of the characteristic blue veins.
About three weeks later, some ten weeks after first pouring the milk into the vat, the cheese is ready for market. However, before it is sold, the cheese is carefully tested and tasted. If the cheese meets with the taster's satisfaction, it will be sold as Stilton. If it fails for some reason to conform with the requisite taste regime it will be sold off as generic blue cheese.
Criteria Defining Stilton
To be given the name Stilton, a cheese is required, in addition to being made from local milk within Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire, to be of the standard cylindrical shape, with delicate blue veins forming a radial pattern around the centre of the cheese. It must not be pressed and must have been allowed to form its own crust. It must also taste like Stilton does - hence the stringent taste testing.
Depending on individual taste, Stilton can ripen for a further six weeks beyond the ten of the initial manufacture, during which time it will evolve from the crumbly zingy-tasting juvenile cheese into something more mellow, yellow and buttery.
A cheeseboard could be considered spineless without a hefty wedge of Stilton, and a schooner or two of port is the traditional accompaniment.
Otherwise, Stilton can be enjoyed as part of a Ploughman's lunch, along with a hunk of crispy bread, a dollop of pickle and some spicy pickled onions, or as a spouse to broccoli in pie or soup.