I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The “King of English Cheese” is not made where you’d expect it to be—in the village of Stilton.
Let’s meet a lady by the name of Frances Pawlett. In the mid-18th century, she was a renowned cheesemaker in the village of Wymondham near the town of Melton Mowbray in central England. The cheese that she made was blue-veined and creamy, and she sold a lot of her product to a gentleman called Cooper Thornhill.
The venerable Mr. Thornhill operated The Bell Inn. And, where was this hostelry? The village of Stilton, Cambridgeshire of course. Stilton was a stopping point on the coaching route between London and Edinburgh and an excellent trading spot.
Mr. Thornhill was selling lots of this new cheese so, back in Wymondham, Frances Pawlett started contracting neighbouring cheese makers to use her recipe.
This is one version, and perhaps the most plausible, of the history of the commercial development of Stilton Cheese. The Stilton Cheese website notes, somewhat diffidently, “We have no firm details of its method of manufacture or appearance, but we believe that she (Frances Pawlett) pioneered the development of the cheese in Leicestershire.”
Also, there is no evidence about how the Stilton Cheese of Frances Pawlett evolved into the Stilton Cheese that we know today.
The Stilton Rules
There are just six dairies in the world licensed to make Stilton Cheese. All except one have quintessential English names: Colston Bassett Dairy, Cropwell Bishop, Long Clawson Dairy, Quenby Hall, Tuxford & Tebbutt Creamery, and dull and unpretentious Websters. Together, they turn out a million wheels of Stilton a year.
To qualify as a Stilton Cheesemaker you have to be in the English counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, or Derbyshire; they’re in the middle of the country. Stilton enjoys Protected Designation of Origin status, meaning that to carry the name it must be made in those counties and the milk must come from that region as well. So, Stilton Cheese cannot legally be made in Stilton.
Britishcheese.com details other requirements: “The cheese must be allowed to form its own crust, can only be made in a cylindrical shape, must never be pressed, and must have the magical blue veins for which Stilton is famed radiating from the centre of the cheese.”
How to Make Stilton Cheese
Acid-forming bacteria, rennet to clot the milk, and blue mould spores are added to the milk. Then, explains the Stilton Cheese website, “Once the curds have formed, the whey is removed and the curds allowed to drain overnight. The following morning, the curd is then cut into blocks to allow further drainage before being milled and salted.”
Placed in cylindrical moulds, the cheese drains for several days but is never pressed. Then the cheese is sealed to keep air out and left to ripen for about five weeks.
After maturing, the cheese is pierced by stainless steel rods to let air in so the mould spores can go to work. After another month a cheese grader takes a sample to determine if it’s good enough to be sold as “Stilton Cheese,” or simply garden-variety “blue cheese.”
Some people prefer to let the cheese mature a few more weeks so that it develops “a smoother, almost buttery texture, with a more rounded, mellow flavour.”
Destroying the Rounded, Mellow Flavour
A Grammatical Digression
Mould or mold?
British usage is mould for both fungus growth and shaping containers. American English uses mold for both meanings. No wonder English is such a challenge for those brought up in another language.
Bit of a Stink over Origins
Stilton turns out to be the home of Stilton; or does it?
Recently, evidence has emerged that Stilton Cheese was actually first made in the village of Stilton about 50 km (31 miles) southeast of its current home.
Local historian Richard Landy has dug up a recipe dated 1722 for a cheese called Stilton that was made in the village. This was 20 or 30 years before the renowned Frances Pawlett was producing cheese near Melton Mowbray.
The Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association casts doubt on Mr. Landy`s claim. Here’s association secretary Nigel White: “Although a cheese called Stilton was produced in the village, we believe the finished product would bear little resemblance to the blue Stilton Cheese produced in modern times.”
Before refrigeration, making cheese was the best way of preserving milk, so people were making cheese everywhere. Any one of them can claim to be the originators of Stilton Cheese.
The Stiltonians are not going down without a fight. They’ve erected a plaque on the wall of The Bell Inn naming it “the birthplace of Stilton Cheese.”
The inn itself has tried to rebrand its own blue-veined cheese as “Stilton” and has been slapped on the wrist by the European Union. That Protected Designation of Origin rule means the pub must stick with its original name “Bell’s Blue.”
Swede mentioned in this recipe is what the British call rutabaga.
It takes 78 litres (136 pints milk) to make one eight kg (17 lb) Stilton Cheese.
The British Cheese Board says more than 700 varieties of cheese are produced in the United Kingdom and that one cheese—Cheddar—captures 55 percent of the market.
“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” G.K. Chesterton.
- “Stilton really Is the Birthplace of Stilton Cheese.” Richard Savill, The Telegraph, September 22, 2009.
- “Village Stilton is BANNED from Making Cheese which Bears its Name after Officials Refuse to Bend EU Rules.” Mia de Graaf, Mail Online, October 23, 2013.
- “Interesting Facts about Stilton Cheese.” Helen Page, Travelsignposts.com. undated.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 13, 2016:
Thanks for sharing the interesting facts. I haven't tasted Stilton Cheese since childhood. I'm keen to try it again after reading this article.