It’s not quite as much a seasonal product as turkey, 90% of the annual national consumption of which is said to take place on Christmas day, but the holidays are also high season for the East Midlands producers of Stilton.
I had the opportunity to taste Stilton from one of the remaining artisanal producers, the 99-year old Colston Bassett Dairy, a few weeks back. It was mellow but deeply-flavoured, creamy-textured but not cloying—in every way a great cheese. But it was edged, as I’ve found to be the case on a number of head-to-head tastings, by an upstart from just down the road called Stichelton.
Stichelton is simply raw-milk Stilton, produced, bar a bit of technology, as this very old English cheese had been made for centuries before a listeria scare in 1989 led to mandatory pasteurisation. It’s said to have come out of a conversation at a Borough Market pub between Randall Hodgson, owner of Neals Yard Dairy and long-time champion of English artisanal cheese producers, and an American cheesemaker, Joe Schneider. They tracked down an ‘80s-era culture and convinced owners of a Holstein farm to partner with them with their quest to recreate the complex creaminess and sweetness of pre-pasteurisation Stilton.
To achieve this, Hodgson and Schneider have reintroduced traditional flavour-deepening methods, including the use of only minimal amounts of starter and rennet, hand-ladling the curds and allowing yeasts and bacteria to form a natural rind. The resulting cheese can’t be called Stilton, as EU regulations now prescribe both counties of production (Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire) and the use of pasteurised milk. (It takes its name instead from that given to Stilton village in the medieval Domesday Book.) And with far smaller production capacity, it can’t aspire to capture more than a tiny segment of even the top-end Stilton market. But it’s a real treat for those who are able to try it.
Stilcheton devotees describe the cheese as having a gentle nuttiness on both the nose and palate. The blueing is moderate and integrated, and the texture lush without becoming sloppy. I find it to be both quite savoury, almost meaty, and moreishly sweet. The finish can be fantastically long.