Some might argue that stinky cheeses are the most polarizing of them all. You either hate époisses or love it. The smell of gym socks that fills the air upon unwrapping the paper cradling a gooey, oozy washed rind either intrigues you or it makes you want to bundle it back up and place it somewhere far, far away.
In my short experience so far as a cheesemonger, I have found that more so than stinkies, a point of contention among cheese fanatics is a strong, piquant, good old-fashioned blue cheese. Like a Stilton.
Stilton is a classic blue that you may very well have tried yourself. It’s a revered one in the cheese world, having its own association (the Stilton’s Cheesemaker’s Association) and is legally protected under the EU as a Protected Geographical Status cheese.
Stilton is named after the village in England where it was first sold in the seventeenth through nineteenth century. During this time, the town became a major trading post for coach drivers traveling between London and Edinburgh. The Bell Inn Hotel in Stilton began to sell the local cheese to traders passing through the town. People grew to adore what later became known as Stilton cheese, which at the time was creamier than it is today, similar to Crémeux de Bourgogne. In its earlier stages, Stilton featured mites and maggots! English trader and journalist, Daniel Defoe wrote of Stilton in a three-volume account of his travels, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain:
“We pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”
A huge market emerged for Stilton with the help of talented cheesemakers and savvy marketers. As it’s reputation grew, production did not keep up with demand, resulting in a higher and higher price tag on Stilton. This led to the emergence of inferior imitations of the cheese which were produced in other regions in England other than Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire. What is significant about these shires in the production of Stilton is that they sit atop layers of coal which impart iron into the pastures. Many cheesemakers believe that a diet with a hearty amount of iron in it results in cow’s milk that contributes to the natural blueing of Stilton.
Over the years, Stilton cheese has evolved into the semi hard cheese that we know it as today. Before it eventually achieved PDO status in 1996, Stilton-makers wrote their definition of the cheese in 1967 which was authorized by the British High Court. This definition read:
“A blue or white cheese made from full-cream cows’ milk with no applied pressure (in the making or forming), that could be pierced, but NOT inoculated, that forms its own crust or coat and that is made in a cylindrical form, the milk coming from English dairy herds in the district of Melton Mowbray and surrounding areas falling within the counties of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.”
Under Protected Geographical Status which was mandated years later, Stilton follows the same rules set forth by the British High Court plus a few more criteria including the required use of pasteurized cow’s milk.
There is a growing debate in the world of agriculture that you may or may not have heard of concerning the pasteurization of milk. In this blog, I’ve mentioned that cheese made with pasteurized milk lacks the richness and complexity that its raw milk counterpart carries. This is because, in the process of pasteurization, scores of bacteria and proteins are killed off by the heat. Consequently, the flavor plus the nutrition and pathogenic fighting properties that these little guys offer in a cheese, are lost. The FDA has imposed strict regulations regarding the pasteurization of cheese since its invention by Louis Pasteur (a Frenchman, ironically) in the 1800s because they claim that it’s safer for the consumer. However, raw milk is really not any more dangerous than any other natural food. In fact, food-borne illnesses associated with raw dairy compared to vegetables, meat and fish are consistently lower according to the Center for Science in Public Interest.
Although not inherently dangerous, raw milk certainly has the potential to be perilous and when Pasteur invented pasteurization, he was lionized as a public health hero. At the time, the recent industrialization of milk production resulted in very unclean conditions which made for milk ridden with pathogens. Because inspection over raw-milk production was too expensive for most cities to impose, America turned to pasteurization as a cheap, efficient solution.
Today, the few raw-milk producers who sell commercially are very diligent when it comes to safety in production. The Center for Disease Control reported no cases of foodborne illness from raw milk caused by listeria during 1993-2005. Comparatively, factory farms that produce pasteurized milk on a large scale have caused 29 times more illnesses than raw milk from the pathogen, Listeria-monocytogenes according to a USDA/FDA report. This discrepancy in safety between the two milk types is likely due to the pressure that each producer respectively faces. Raw milk is heavily scrutinized by the FDA (thank you industrial agriculture lobby) while factory farms get away with being completely un-transparent regarding their practices. Pasteurization is a cushion that factory farms feel like they can depend on to excuse them from being careful regarding other steps in production including raising cattle. For example, studies show that factory-farmed cattle have 300 times more pathogenic bacteria in their digestive tracts than cattle that are allowed to openly graze in pastures.
So basically, what I have inferred based on the research and eating that I’ve done of raw and pasteurized cheese is that raw-milk cheese, which is always produced on a small scale, is tastier, more nutritious and safer than pasteurized Big-Dairy-produced cheese.
End rant. (It had to happen at some point on this blog.)
In response to this rule over the milk type required of Stilton cheeses, Randolph Hodgson and Joe Schneider have created a new cheese that follows all the same criteria as Stilton but is made with raw cow’s milk instead. They call it Stichelton and they make it at the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire, England.
Just like with Stilton, a mold called blue penicillium is added to the vat of milk at the beginning of the production of Stichelton. Once its curds are fully formed and placed into cylindrical containers, the cheese is left to age for a couple of weeks. Holes are then pierced into each log, allowing air into the cheese which activates the mold which gives the cheese it’s famous blue veins. Nothing is done to the rind of the cheese and it is allowed to develop on its own.
Procuring and Tasting:
Stichelton cheese is not cheap. I purchased a quarter pound of it from the cheese shop I work at, Lucy’s Whey, for a whopping $12. That’s $37.95 per pound. There is only one producer of Stichelton so the whereabouts of where to purchase this cheese is limited and the price is firm. On the bright side, there are endless ways to incorporate this blue cheese into your diet so just consider some of the price as a premium for its multi-functionality.
One such function is as a display piece. Stichelton is a beautiful cheese that has a golden hue with veins of dark blue. It’s natural rind is a burnt white color. The cheese’s texture is creamy but especially crumbly at its blue creases. It’s scent, especially prominent on the rind, smells like an old basement.
As soon as the cheese touched my tongue, it had an instant bite. It’s got that classic metallic taste that most blues have, which is balanced out by the softer flavor of the white of the paste. Near the rind, the paste becomes earthier tasting which mellows out the punch of the blue.
Overall, Stichelton has a strong character, not only in taste but in its appearance. When I was examining it, Stichelton’s cracks and discoloration reminded me of an old person, as strange as that may sound: mature and knowing with the marks and scars to show it.
Cooking with Stichelton:
Stichelton has a strong enough flavor to compete with almost any food. I turned to the classic recipe of a hamburger with blue cheese. Although I just added onions, you could top your burger with almost any ingredient you want because Stichelton is strong enough to stand up against any flavor.
I also ate my Stichelton as breakfast with a side of black coffee. One of the few cheeses to go well with coffee, Stichelton acted as a stimulant in it’s own right; it’s zesty taste woke me right up.
From the creamy, maggot-infested cheese renowned by travelers in seventeenth century Stilton to the dairy of two humble cheesemakers in Nottinghamshire, Stichelton is a cheese with an interesting story and an enduring reputation as a stunning specialty. Even if you aren’t crazy about blues, Stichelton is worth giving them a second chance.