The Origins of Stilton

According to an old 19th century saying, ‘if you drink a pot of ale and eat a scoop of Stilton everyday, you will make ‘old bones’.” That’s quite an appropriate adage for Stilton, long known as “the king of cheeses,” and certainly Britain’s favourite blue. The creamy, ivory-hued cheese has a very unique flavour profile. It’s lighter than Italian Gorgonzola, richer than Danish blue and more intense than other UK blues. Made from whole cow’s milk and skewered with Penicillium roqueforti, it has delicate blue-green veins, a slightly crumbly texture and a profile that’s wonderfully pungent and mellow at the same time.

Stilton is so prized and esteemed; it has earned its own certification trademark and PDO (protection designation origin) status. The cheese is made according to strict codes, and only made by authorised creameries in the counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Today there are just six dairies in the entire world licensed to make Stilton. Alone they produce over one million Stilton cheeses each year.

Stilton History

It makes sense that a cheese so adored should have such a storied history. Though the origins of Stilton are somewhat unclear, it is believed the cheese was first made in the early 18th century, somewhere around the Melton Mowbray area. And though the cheese takes its name from the village of Stilton, it’s thought that no Stilton cheese was actually ever made there. Research has thrown up evidence contrary to this though – and the debate about Stilton-cheese-from-Stilton rages on.

In those days, Stilton was a staging post for coaches travelling from London to York and other northern cities. Here horses were changed and travellers were served refreshments at the hostels in town. A landlord at the famous Bell Inn, entrepreneur Cooper Thornhill, is believed to have first served Stilton to travellers after buying it from Frances Pawlett, a farmer’s wife in Melton Mowbray. The soft, creamy, blue cheese was so popular, the village of Stilton became its central market place. Thousands were sold each week.

Pawlett, a skilled cheese maker, is in fact credited as the person who first gave Stilton its unique quality and shape. And along with her husband’s business savvy and Thornhill’s help, she set the standards other blue cheese makers had to follow to make and market Stilton. Today the cheese is made much the same way as it was in the 1700s. It must be made in only a traditional cylindrical shape, it must be allowed to form its own crust, and it must have blue veins radiating from the centre.

Buying and Storing Stilton

When buying Stilton, you will encounter two varieties: the familiar mature Stilton and the young White Stilton. While mature Stilton is allowed to ripen for four to six months, White Stilton is sold at about four weeks of age. No mould spores are added and it has a mild and slightly sour flavour.

Upon returning from the market, wrap Stilton in foil or cling wrap and refrigerate in an airtight container. This prevents the cheese from tainting other foods in the fridge and vice-versa. It will keep for up to two weeks, and during this time, the cheese will continue to mature and mellow.

For longer storage, Stilton also freezes quite nicely. Wrap it well and it can be frozen for up to three months. When ready to use, defrost the cheese slowly by placing it in the refrigerator for 24 hours. This will help maintain the cheese’s glorious creamy-crumbly texture.

Serving Stilton

When serving Stilton on a cheeseboard (or all on its own), always remove it from the refrigerator two hours before eating. It’s best at room temperature.

Stilton is also quite versatile and easy to use when cooking. In soups, salads, starters and main courses, a little of this flavoursome cheese goes a long way. Here are a few simple ways Stilton can be incorporated into your every day recipes:

  • Crumble over soups and salads
  • Add to mashed potatoes
  • Stir into mushroom risotto
  • Bake into quiches or flans
  • Melt over steak during the last few minutes of cooking

Stilton also makes a great rarebit. Blend the cheese with a little cider and diced apple, spread it on toast, and grill. You can also make an incredible Stilton pizza in a snap. Slice a French loaf in half, cover with tomato sauce and top with a mixture of chopped onions, mushrooms and Stilton. Place it under the grill for five minutes and enjoy a warm, melty piece of heaven.

Wine Pairings for Stilton

When eating Stilton with biscuits, choose a deep-bodied wine like a robust red Shiraz. Sweet dessert and pudding wines such as Sauternes, Muscat and Olorosso Sherry are also classic accompaniments. When using Stilton as part of recipe, your options are even greater. However, some might argue there’s absolutely nothing better than a simple slice of Stilton and a glass of tawny Port. Cheers!

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