It’s hard to believe that we’re now over halfway through the holiday season. Time flies when you’re having fun!
This week’s celebration cheese is a no-brainer for a list like this. It is easily one of the best cheeses in the world, and it is always one of the best cheeses in my case.
There was not a question of ‘whether’ I would include it in the series, but rather of ‘where.’ But it is, of course, a “Christmas cheese.”
The sixth celebration cheese of 2018 is none other than Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Colston Bassett Stilton.
There are other blue cheeses in my set that I love and adore (e.g., Cascadia Creamery’s Glacier Blue, Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen, and Terre des Volcans Bleu d’Auvergne), but the Stilton has always got it going on.
Stilton is the most famous English blue cheese. It’s been made in and near the town of Stilton since at least the beginning of the 18th Century, and most likely even earlier than that.[i] (There is also a white cheese called Stilton, but that is not the cheese we are celebrating this week.)
Stilton is a name-protected cheese (PDO) that can only be made in the English counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and Leicestershire.[ii] Just like the week three and four celebration cheeses, Comté and Gruyère (which also can only be made in specific places), Stilton must be made with local, pasteurized milk, following a specific recipe.
Traditionally made with cream from the previous evening’s milking and whole milk from the morning of the cheese-make, Stilton curds are hand-ladled (much like soft-ripened cheeses such as Brie and Camembert) after they have been allowed to slowly drain out their whey. When the curds are sufficiently dry, they are put into wooden hoops, or molds, where they are given a cylindrical drum-shape.
The wheels are bound with a cloth that is changed every day when the wheel is brushed and rubbed to encourage the cheese to grow a natural rind. The wheels are aged for around nine to fourteen weeks, and typically weigh about seventeen pounds.[iii]
It is important to point out that Stilton was originally a farmhouse cheese, made widely throughout the Stilton-making region, until the late 1800s.[iv] The cheese’s popularity caused it to become a factory-produced cheese, and the increased output that factory plants could provide pretty much put small-time cheesemakers out of business.
Then, during World War I and World War II, the British government called on cheesemakers to only produce hard cheeses that could be sent to the frontlines with soldiers.[v] The focus on making one type of cheese broke the Stilton industry, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that Stilton production recovered.
Cheesemaking after the war was still focused on factory production of high-output, low-cost cheeses, rather than well-crafted artisanal cheeses that tend to take more time and energy to craft. London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy, which sells cheeses and started out by making its own fresh cheeses and yogurt, took up the mission of saving English farmhouse cheeses and small-time cheesemakers who used traditional methods to create their cheeses.[vi]
Neal’s Yard began selecting and buying wheels from these cheesemakers, then selling them in the Neal’s Yard Dairy shop in London. Now Neal’s Yard has multiple locations, a cheese-aging facility, and sells these traditional English cheeses around the world—ensuring that the cheeses are not only known and loved, but that their production techniques are not forgotten.
In 2016, there were six English dairies producing Stilton—both blue and white varieties—with a combined output of more than eight thousand tons of cheese each year.[vii]
Beneath the tacky, brownish-orange rind is a cream-colored paste with teal veins emanating from the wheel’s center. It smells at first like mildew, but then like salt, earth, grass, and cream.
When you take a bite of this Stilton, it is fudgy, dense, sticky, and smooth on the tongue, with only a slight graininess from blue mold pockets. The cheese’s flavor is very spicy—like black pepper and garlic—with notes of sweet cream, leather, and hay.
It is one of those cheeses that is just really exciting for your tongue. It does not ask for much in the way of pairings. At most, it begs you to eat it with very good bread, and possibly with a glass of nice Port wine.
If you had to pick one cheese to be a “Christmas cheese,” this is it: Colston Bassett Stilton is what Santa really wants you to leave him with some snickerdoodle cookies on Christmas Eve.
[i] Coyte, Dominic. “Stilton.” The Oxford Companion to Cheese. Ed. Catherine Donnelly,. Oxford University Press: New York, 2016. 681.
[ii] White, Nigel. “Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association.” Oxford Companion to Cheese. Ed. Donnelly. Oxford University Press: New York, 2016. 682.
[iii] “Stilton PDO.” The World Cheese Book. Ed. Juliet Harbutt. Dorling Kinderlsey: New York, 2008. 192.
[iv] Coyte, 681.
[v] Coyte, 681-2.
[vi] Percival, Francis. “Neal’s Yard Dairy.” Oxford Companion to Cheese. Ed. Donnelly. Oxford University Press: New York, 2016. 511.
[vii] Coyte, 681.