Using a particular cheese makes such a difference to the overall outcome of a dish. Ask any chef and they will tell you that great food starts with great ingredients, so whilst I develop my recipes I try to use good, local produce and wherever possible I support artisanal producers.
With over 70 Blue cheeses made in the in the UK there are a great deal to choose from. The right cheese will bring balance to a dish affecting saltiness, strength, sweetness and texture. On the lookout for a delicious, local blue veined cheese I discovered Stichelton (www.stichelton.co.uk).
It is the brainchild of Joe Schneider and Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy (www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk) who joined forces to make a classic blue cheese from unpasteurised milk at a new dairy built on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire. It is mature, mellow, simultaneously sweet and strong with a creamy texture and a melt in the mouth richness. It is not so far from where I live, so when Joe kindly offered to show me around the dairy, I jumped at the chance, but explained that being Half Term I had the children with me. “Just bring them along”, he said. “I have all the protective clothing in a small size to accommodate my own kids.”
Joe’s easy charm came across spontaneously, showing us around the dairy chatting about the cheese in an almost paternal way. The whole process is manual, and relies on senses at every stage to decide what needs to be done: the colour, the smell, the amount of liquid that can be seen are all judged by the human eye, nose and palate. The taste and feel of the cheeses are judged daily and changes are made to ensure that the consistency remains the same. There are 4 cheese rooms, and each room has a completely different atmosphere, humidity and aroma.
The characteristics of the cheeses’ development at each stage were surprisingly different. Starting with sweet curd, moving to a crumbly mild texture, followed by a more robust flavour and finally to a fully matured, ripened cheese. It is a skill indeed to be a cheesemaker; at every stage there is a great deal of meticulous attention, judgement and care.
The art of cheese making became more apparent as Joe explained that the consistency of the milk itself can be affected in its richness and make-up by seasonal variations or animal feed, and in turn, to keep a consistent result, each batch has to be treated accordingly. We left the dairy to see the cows on the fields, where we met Mick, the hard working farmer. The herd belongs to the Welbeck Estate and is a closed herd, which means that all the cows are bred from within the herd, and not purchased from other breeders.
Both White Stilton and Blue Stilton are protected by their own Certification Trade Mark and EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and specify that only pasteurized milk can be used. And yet, originally, Stilton would have been made using unpasteurized milk, as pasteurization had only been discovered in 1864. The Stilton website, at www.stiltoncheese.com states,
“There is no doubt that a cream cheese was being made and sold in and around the village of Stilton possibly in the late 17th Century and certainly in the early 18th Century, and was known as Stilton Cheese. The cheese generally seems to have been matured for a period of time before being sold. Indeed a recipe for Stilton cheese was published in a newsletter by Richard Bradley in 1723.”
Nigel White, who is on the board of the Stilton Cheese makers association,(SCMA), explained that pasteurised milk has a reduced risk of bacterial contamination, and the rule was introduced following the recall of a small batch of Stilton in the 1990’s. Worried customers and supermarkets shunned Stilton in a knee-jerk, health scare reaction, and sales fell dramatically. There are now only a very small number of Stilton producers.
It is ironic that Stichelton is actually more like the old Stilton in flavour and characteristics than the pasteurised Stilton cheese itself, and it is being made in exactly the same way that Stilton would have been made originally. Yet to ensure that a repeat of the 1990’s incident does not take place, it cannot be given the same name.
Nigel and the SCMA are full of praise and admiration for Joe and the Stichelton Dairy team and on a more individual basis they would have been willing to have included Stichelton within the Stilton nomenclature. A decision has been taken by the SCMA that not every cheese maker will have the same high level of hygiene standards as the Stichelton Dairy. By overriding the rules for one producer, the SCMA would set a precedent, and the danger of bacterial contamination would rise.
For all the research I ended up carrying out to determine which cheese I used in my “Blue Cheese and Broccoli Quiche” recipe, for my new cookbook “Prepped”, I decided in the end, that there might be plenty of Stiltons to choose from, but for those of us cooks in the know, there is only one cheese with the same character as Stichelton!
Stichelton is available by mail order from www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk