When we talk about pairings for blue cheeses like Stilton, the conversation tends to head toward dessert wines like Port, Madeira, or Sauternes. After all, the fortified wine plus assertive, salty blue cheese is a classic combination—and it works.
But that got me thinking: If you are going to eat your cheese for dessert, what other desserts can you have with a cheese like Stilton?
I’ve always had a sweet tooth, which I believe is inherited from every woman on my mother’s side of the family, so it’s no surprise that I felt compelled to take on this research project. It was a selfless pursuit.
Last week’s Celebration Cheese was the Neal’s Yard Dairy Colston Bassett Stilton. It was a no-brainer for me to involve the little guy in this dessert adventure. I also brought along his buddy, Cascadia Creamery’s Glacier Blue.
During all of the times when we didn’t have Stilton in the case, I recommended Glacier Blue as the next best thing. (This was before we started carrying Jasper Hill’s Bayley Hazen; now we have three cheeses to represent this profile.)
Stilton and Glacier Blue are different beasts on their own, but they share enough similarities to satisfy one’s desire for the other. Naturally I wanted to find out if they paired with dessert-y things in the same way.
The common characteristics between the two cheeses are typically their creamy textures, saltiness without being too salty, and their strength of flavor without being “too strong” or “too blue.”
The Colston Bassett Stilton, which has a pale, cream-colored paste, and crumbly, dark-blue veins underneath a sticky, brownish-orange natural rind, has a bold aroma of sweet cream, hay, dust, and a bit of black pepper. The cheese’s flavor is tangy and peppery, with notes of cream, warm milk, and vanilla in the paste, and a peppery, earthy rind. The texture is incredibly rich and fudgy.
Glacier Blue has a gray-brown, wrinkly rind and a whitish-yellow paste with blue-green, dusty veins and eye holes; it appears firmer than the crumbly Stilton. Glacier Blue smells earthy, musty, and spicy, with notes of leather and cream.
Like Stilton, Glacier Blue tastes of sweet cream and has a rich, fudgy mouthfeel. But it also has a smooth, milky flavor, with more salt to it and a rind that tastes peppery, but also musty and a wee bit citrusy.
Tawny port is the classic pairing for Stilton and cheeses like it.[i] You can also pair them with sweeter white wines, like Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Riesling, or lighter reds like Gamay, Malvasia, and Zinfandel.[ii]
I chose to go a different route with my drink pairing, choosing instead a barley wine: a high-alcohol beer that you can take home and age for a few years before drinking. Barley wines typically have an alcohol content of eight to twelve percent, are more viscous and syrupy than most beers, and are more bitter, or hops-forward, than malty. In the beer world, they serve the same purpose as a fortified wine.
As Janet Fletcher best put it, “Some call it the brewer’s answer to port, a beverage for sipping contemplatively at the end of a winter meal, preferably fireside.”[iii]
I picked a local barley wine, Fremont Brewing’s B-Bomb Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Winter Ale. It is a blend of three different ages of winter ale, all aged together in American oak Bourbon barrels that are roughly the same age as the ales being blended.[iv]
Poured into my glass, the B-Bomb was dark brown, opaque, with no head and minor fizz. It smelled heavy, sugary, and syrupy, with a hint of cherries. When sipped, the B-Bomb was tongue-coatingly thick, but smooth, tasting of chocolate fudge or chocolate-covered cherries. It was fruity, but balanced, with an oaky finish that was almost tangy.
Pairing the Stilton with the B-Bomb was a pleasant experience that I would like to recreate. They were smooth together, like eating chocolate fudge or a liqueur-filled chocolate.
The pairing was less successful with Glacier Blue. Again, it was kind of like eating Brandy Beans, but the beer washed out the cheese so that I got almost none of Glacier Blue’s flavor notes.
Pairing the cheeses with actual tawny port provided a similar scenario: Stilton went smashingly with the wine, whereas Glacier Blue was overpowered.
The message is clear: if you’re going to do some fortified beer- or wine-drinking after dinner, pick the Stilton.
People make a lot of fun of fruitcake at Christmas, yet we still make, buy, and eat them—so they can’t be that bad. Seeing as this was a seasonal pursuit, I picked two holiday fruitcakes to pair with my blue cheeses: an Italian Pannetone and a German Stollen (straight-up, not marzipan-filled).
Both of these cakes are dense and bready, with dried fruits and nuts in them. They are sweet without being knock-you-out sweet, but a little goes a long way. I always like to dip them in hot liquids like coffee, or tea, but they are not half bad with barley wine or port.
Glacier Blue loves fruitcake. With the Pannetone, it produced a satisfyingly salty-and-sweet flavor, and the textures balanced each other. With the Stollen, the Glacier Blue was less dessert-y and more midnight-snacky: the combination was like medium Cheddar on rye bread—not bluey, and sticky but satisfying. Both pairings were very good, and I went for seconds.
Stilton and Pannetone produced waves of sweet and salty flavors, bread upfront and cheese on the finish; they did not complement each other, but instead competed in my mouth. The Stilton and Stollen pairing was like eating cheese and bread with a hint of something sweet. It was OK, but not remarkable, and didn’t feel like dessert.
Glacier Blue definitely won the day with Christmas breads.
Since not all that is sweet is a bread or a drink, I also tried pairing the cheeses with a jam. I picked Quince & Apple’s Tart Cherry and White Tea preserves, which bills itself as a suitable pairing for creamy blue cheeses and buttery brie-style cheeses.
I smeared some on the Glacier Blue and took a bite. It was like eating cherry pie with an earthy undertone. The combination was not very complex, but produced a blended experience of the two foods’ flavors; it was good.
Next I tasted a dollop of the preserves on the Stilton. It was also like eating cherry pie at first, but then finished with an intensified flavor of blue mold. It was not balanced, and it did not make my mouth happy.
Again, Glacier Blue was the clear winner with sugary things.
I wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of Stilton and sweet foods quite yet. So I went a step further and pillaged Santa’s cookie plate.
A simple snickerdoodle cookie with a wedge of Stilton on top was the winner I was looking for. The cookie brought out the sweet cream flavors in the cheese, and the cinnamon-sugar brought down the cheese’s earthier, spicier flavors. It was a true marriage of savory and sweet, but still dessert.
With the Glacier Blue, the snickerdoodle still shone bright—as I knew it would by this point. Again, the cookie took down the mustier flavors of the cheese, highlighting the sweetness of the milk and the fudgy texture.
If the blue is too strong, you can drizzle some honey on top and further marry the cheese to the cookie. This is a no-fail pairing.
So, you can’t go wrong with a sugar cookie and blue cheese, it seems.
But as a general rule, opt for Stilton when you are planning a lighter after-dinner nightcap with a fortified beverage—wine, beer, or liqueur. Reach for Glacier Blue if you’re bringing out lots of sweet, bready goodies like Christmas cakes, breads, and cookies.
[i] McCalman, Max. “Stilton” and “Malvasia delle Lipari.” Max McCalman’s Wine + Cheese Pairing Swatchboook. Clarkson Potter: New York, 2005.
[iii] Fletcher, Janet. Cheese & Beer. Andrews McMeel: Kansas City, MO, 2013. 9.
[iv] Fremont Brewing. “B-Bomb.” Fremont Brewing. Fremontbrewing.com/bbomb/. Accessed 18 December 2018. <<https://www.fremontbrewing.com/bbomb/>>.