If Christmas dinner is all about turkey, the Christmas cheeseboard is dominated by Stilton. Certainly in the UK, at least, where your family – and most definitely the in-laws – would expect nothing less.
There’s no doubt that such a choice is traditional – partly because Stilton benefits from being made with rich summer milk, partly because it was historically served in an impressive-looking truckle. The irony is that it’s basically a mouldy cheese we’re celebrating. Like other blue cheeses, Stilton gets its colour from the addition of a blue mould – Penicillium roqueforti – that is spread through the cheese by piercing it periodically with needles. Apart from introducing the characteristic blue veins, this also accelerates the ageing time: blues typically age in three to four months rather than the 12 months or more needed for a good cheddar. ‘Most cheeses are soft or semi-soft, the open texture allowing the blue mould to spread more easily throughout the cheese,’ explains Ned Palmer, in his hugely readable A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles.
That’s the basic technique for making a blue, but there are different styles: the rich buttery Stilton style, which is protected by a crumbly grey rind; softer blues like Gorgonzola and Brie-style cheeses; and sharp, saline blues such as Roquefort. The taste and texture of the cheese will also depend on the type and breed of animal – cow, goat or sheep – what they’re feeding on, the time of year they’re milked and how long the cheese has matured.
‘Many of the smaller farms have been looking at improving how their cows are bred and fed to get the most diverse flavour, and a better texture and mouthfeel. It’s a move away from conventional farming, which focuses on efficiency and costs,’ explains Andy Swinscoe of Yorkshire’s Courtyard Dairy. ‘Part of that involves re-sowing traditional grasses and herbal leys, using hay meadows and less additional feed. The feed and breed affect the structure of the milk – not just the protein and fat quantities but also the type of those fats and proteins within the milk, which determine its flavour.’
Blue cheese can provoke the kind of machismo normally associated with hot sauces, but more heavily blued cheese isn’t necessarily better. What counts is how the cheese’s blueness is distributed. ‘When buying a blue cheese from a dedicated cheesemonger, you will notice that blue cheeses have veining running from edge to edge because they are keeping the cheeses in the right conditions,’ says Patricia Michelson of London’s La Fromagerie. ‘When the veining is in the centre, that means the cheese has been kept too cold and the blue has not been able to spread. So, appearance is important, because the veining of blue threads is the essential part of the taste and breakdown of the cheese.’
There’s obviously much to celebrate in the fact that Stilton has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), but also much to lament. These days it has to be pasteurised, which makes it ironic that the much-acclaimed Stilton-style cheese Stichelton can’t use the name. Not because it’s made by an American or outside the designated regions of origin – it’s made in Derbyshire, one of the three permitted counties, along with Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire – but because it’s made with raw milk.
‘Blue cheese can provoke the kind of machismo normally associated with hot sauces, but more heavily blued cheese isn’t necessarily better.’
The cheese was invented back in 2004 when Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy collaborated with cheesemaker Joe Schneider to try to make Stilton as it used to be made, from unpasteurised milk. Because of the PDO, they had to call it Stichelton (the ancient name for the village of Stilton). It also takes longer to make – 20 weeks on average, compared to 10 for many commercial Stiltons – and is hand-ladled, a laborious procedure (similar to the gentle pressing winemakers try to give their grapes) that treats the curds more carefully and results in a creamier texture.
Doesn’t Schneider feel indignant that he can’t use the name for his cheese? ‘Of course I do, and others should, too,’ he says. ‘No Stilton in the 1920s was made with pasteurised milk. Now, someone who wants to make a cheese in the production area out of their own raw milk can’t do it.’ Although he himself has benefited from it (‘We can sell every bit of cheese we make, so it’s not a financial thing’), the awkward name is a barrier to entry for other small farmhouse cheesemakers, he says.
Is Stichelton as good as Stilton, though? Swinscoe thinks so. ‘For consistency, you can’t rival Colston Bassett Stilton,’ he says. ‘But the highs of Stichelton are impossible to beat – even sweeter and sharper, with incredible butterscotch and yeasty notes. It’s a little glimpse of perfection.’
And supposing you are to defy tradition, and serve another blue; what would that be? There are, of course, the great European blues – Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Cabrales – that would sit on French, Italian and Spanish tables respectively, not so much as part of a cheeseboard but as a hero cheese. On home turf, there is Shropshire Blue (an orange Stilton-type cheese that actually originated in Scotland and is coloured with annatto), and the newer Sparkenhoe Blue, which is made by the producers of the excellent Sparkenhoe Red Leicester. Scotland has Lanark Blue, the country’s answer to Roquefort, and more recently the goats’ milk-based Biggar Blue, also made by the Errington family, which has intriguingly truffley notes.
It’s this new generation of unpasteurised British blues that is particularly exciting. I also like Young Buck, a Stilton-type cheese from Northern Ireland; Cote Hill Blue, a seductively soft Brie-style blue from Lincolnshire; and perhaps most of all, Darling (endearingly named after the heroic lighthouse-keeper’s daughter Grace Darling, who rowed a lifeboat to rescue survivors from the shipwrecked SS Forfarshire in 1838). It’s made by Northumberland cheesemaker Doddington and has a strikingly stripy appearance, a rich, almost biscuity flavour and a melt-in-the-mouth texture.
I still love Stilton, of course, but I could just be tempted to stray this year.
Which wines match best with blue cheese?
Port is a given – as is Sauternes if you’re serving Roquefort – but which other wines can you pair with blue cheese?
Most fortified wines work with blue cheese, but Rivesaltes, a massively underrated wine from the Roussillon, is one of the most intriguing, with a similar beguiling nuttiness and oxidative character to an aged Tawny Port and a tremendous ageing capacity.
Amarone and other rich off-dry reds
If you enjoy the brambly sweetness of a Late-Bottled Vintage Port but find the alcohol a little high, Amarone (and other ripasso-style wines) will give you the balancing richness that blue cheeses crave. Especially good, as you’d imagine, with Gorgonzola.
Central Otago Pinot Noir
A recent discovery – and a bit of a surprise to me. A really good Central Otago Pinot can be a sensational pairing, especially with the new generation of blue cheeses that are less aggressively blue.
The dried apricot and marmalade flavour of a 5-puttonyos Tokaji is sensationally good with Stilton, Stichelton and other mellow British blues like Barkham Blue – especially with a bit of bottle age. Light too, at around 11–12% ABV.
Not to everyone’s taste, but if you’re a fan of the deep rich, amber-hued styles that taste irresistibly of quince, try them with a salty sheep’s-milk blue like Beenleigh Blue or Ireland’s Crozier Blue.
This articles appears in the winter 2020 issue of Club Oenologique magazine. To order your copy, see below