Bri­tain’s Big But­tery Blue

In praise of Stil­ton, the per­fect hol­i­day cheese

SAVEUR - - Contents - —Kat Craddock

Stil­ton, the per­fect hol­i­day cheese

Stil­ton has been made since at least as far back as the 18th cen­tury, when it was avail­able at a coach house along the Great North Road out­side of Lon­don. The mas­sive cheeses be­came a sou­venir for peo­ple go­ing into and out of the city and even­tu­ally one of Eng­land’s fa­vorite hol­i­day treats. “The smell of Stil­ton is, for me, the smell of De­cem­ber,” says Fran­cis Per­ci­val, who lives above Neal’s Yard Dairy, Lon­don’s great­est cheese shop, where his wife, Bron­wen, is the buyer. The Per­ci­vals, a cheese power cou­ple, are the coau­thors of Rein­vent­ing the Wheel (Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press) which makes a bi­o­log­i­cal case for re­viv­ing pre-sci­en­tific cheese­mak­ing meth­ods and pays homage to the clas­sic cheeses that have re­sisted the tide of in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion in dairy farm­ing.

Why Christ­mas?

Stil­ton has long been as­so­ci­ated with the hol­i­days. Wheels made from plen­ti­ful sum­mer milk be­gin to ripen to­ward the end of fall and are at their peak through­out win­ter.

“But if you look back,” Bron­wen says, “peo­ple were eat­ing this cheese aged for two years. At that point this whole sea­son­al­ity thing kind of goes out the win­dow. Back then, it was par­tic­u­larly suit­able for festive oc­ca­sions be­cause it was ex­pen­sive. Peo­ple talked about it as the most rare, ex­otic, sought-af­ter cheese avail­able.”

Earn Your Stripes

Slice into a 16-pound drum of Stil­ton and you’ll likely no­tice a few thick, straight veins of blue mold cutting through the oth­er­wise lacy, creamy paste. These lines are the re­sult of pierc­ing the cheese with long nee­dles to has­ten mold growth and speed up the ripen­ing process. Fran­cis says pierc­ing orig­i­nated as a “shady, un­gentle­manly” prac­tice that was most likely not part of the orig­i­nal Stil­ton method. To­day, it is un­usual to come across an un­pierced wheel. The spec­i­men at left is from Colston Bas­sett, a small dairy that pierces less than the larger pro­duc­ers—the cheese has less vein­ing and break­down, and a creamier, smoother paste.

Full Size

The Per­ci­vals sug­gest buy­ing freshly cut slices from a full-size wheel, rather than the pe­tite 2-kilo­gram Stil­ton “truck­les” or small crocks of pot­ted Stil­ton that ap­pear around the hol­i­days. “Put this down, signed by both of us: There is noth­ing worse than the idea that the pot­ted

Stil­ton is in some way a pre­mium prod­uct,” says Fran­cis. And with a smaller wheel, “you end up with a tremen­dous amount of rind to paste,” adds Bron­wen. “They re­ally dry out by the time they’re ripened, then they al­ways tend to have this heavy, awk­ward tex­ture and too much blue.”

What About Those Drips?

Stil­ton, like many blue cheeses, has a ten­dency to weep at room tem­per­a­ture; the liq­uid is nor­mal, and even de­sir­able, ev­i­dence that the cheese has been stored and aged prop­erly. “It’s a pro­tein syrup that is be­ing re­leased by the cheese as it is break­ing down,” says Bron­wen. “I re­ally like that liquor; it means the cheeses are par­tic­u­larly suc­cu­lent, and there’s a sweet­ness to it as well.”

In Good Com­pany

The Per­ci­vals pre­fer to eat their Stil­ton at the end of a meal with a glass of some­thing sweet. Tawny port is the clas­sic ac­com­pa­ni­ment—there’s some­thing al­chem­i­cal about the com­bi­na­tion of salt and sweet­ness—but Fran­cis also sug­gests branch­ing out into other for­ti­fied wines like madeira. Bron­wen ap­pre­ci­ates a well-aged bar­ley wine, such as J.W. Lees Har­vest Ale.

“This is the great thing about Christ­mas eat­ing and drink­ing: It is an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate the eat­ing habits of the 18th cen­tury,” says Fran­cis. “I’m amazed any­one had any time for things like fighting then, be­cause they must have all been blotto all the time. But if you want to serve some re­ally sweet, high-al­co­hol wine at the end of the meal, then Stil­ton is ab­so­lutely the ideal ac­com­pa­ni­ment to it.”

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