The star of the Christmas cheeses
In a rural enclave of central England, just off the historic coaching route between London and York formerly known as the Great North Road, there is a celebrated cluster of cheese dairies. Their fame rests on one magnificent product: Stilton, oth...
In a rural enclave of central England, just off the historic coaching route between London and York formerly known as the Great North Road, there is a celebrated cluster of cheese dairies. Their fame rests on one magnificent product: Stilton, otherwise known as "the King of English cheeses," which is an indispensable part of any self-respecting British Christmas.
This grand, cylindrical, semi-hard blue cheese has always enjoyed a royal reputation, which its producers have gone to great lengths to nurture. As Jenny Linford, author of "Great British Cheeses," observes, Stilton is one of only a handful of British cheeses to have been protected and defined by law. In 1936, the producers banded together to form the Stilton Cheese Makers' Association, or SCMA, for promotional purposes and to manage the brand and ensure quality production. In 1996 they secured Protected Designation of Origin status for their cheese, a label reserved for traditional products that are prepared, processed and produced within a specific region and thus have unique properties.
Stilton has a raw-milk counterpart in Stichelton
Six dairies in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire are responsible for rolling out more than 1 million Stiltons every year, with sales climaxing around Christmas. The SCMA, in its wisdom, has specified the use of pasteurized milk for its cheese. Raw-milk cheese fans can seek out Stilton's alter ego Stichelton, which has taken the ancient name of the village of Stilton (where -- perversely -- it may no longer be made, because the village falls outside today's permitted production area).
Even though all Stilton must now be made from pasteurized milk, there are significant and interesting variations from dairy to dairy. "Very few people realize how much Stilton cheeses can vary depending on the creamery which makes them," Linford commented in a recent email. Her recommendation is to sample cheeses from different producers until you find one you like. Her personal preference is for Colston Bassett Stilton, made specially for Neal's Yard Dairy; I have a soft spot for Cropwell Bishop Creamery.
You may be vaguely familiar (or even helplessly infatuated) with Stilton, but if you're not, what can you expect from this festive cheese? Its nicely nubbly crust is an appealing, burnished gold color, dotted with small, regularly occurring holes -- evidence the maturing cheese was pierced with needles to allow the characteristic internal blue veins to develop. Flavorwise, I like to place it in the center of the blue cheese spectrum, somewhere between the salty, crumbly Roquefort from southern France and the luscious Gorgonzola from northern Italy. Its pale ivory paste flecked with blue delivers a smooth, satisfying, mushroomy punch that speaks to me of middle England (and of Christmas).
Most often, Stilton is presented in smallish, ready-cut wedges, which is fine. But at least once in the life of any trembling cheese-lover, the chance to go for bust with a half-cylinder, typically weighing about 9 pounds (4 kilograms), will present itself. Seize it. Fold over a snow-white linen napkin, wrap it around the cheese like a corset and fix with a couple of pins.
If you can lay hands on a Stilton scoop (see picture), go for it. With the help of this traditional tool, which resembles a tiny trowel, burrow gently into the cut surface of the cheese. In our Yorkshire household, the trick when scooping out a respectable helping of cheese (closely monitored by other family members) was to edge as close to crust as you dared without breaking the wall -- a cardinal sin for which severe penalties were levied. For lack of a scoop, you can cut slender, horizontal slices (with crust) from the top of the cheese -- but never wedges, which would be hugely greedy and punishable by Stilton deprivation for the rest of the year.
Besides the half cylinders, you can also buy whole, infant Stiltons, which weigh in at around 5 pounds (2 kilograms). But in rather the same way that a magnum of wine delivers even more than double the pleasure of a regular 750-milliliter bottle, baby Stiltons never quite match up to the full-sized cheese for sheer pizzazz and total, creamy perfection. Resist the temptation to buy Stilton in a pot -- the pots are nice, but the cheese (overly salted and a bit dry) seldom is.
To go with the cheese, offer a selection of cheese biscuits (with coarse-milled oatcakes leading the pack), slices of rustic country bread or soda bread, or slivers of walnut and dried fruit loaf or even pumpernickel.
And finally, which wine goes best? Port is often invoked, but for my taste this feisty, fortified wine delivers a sledgehammer blow at the end of what is not, by any measure, a light repast (think roast turkey, stuffing, Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, bread sauce, Christmas pudding AND whipped brandy butter). Some favor Sauternes, or Tokaji, "the wine of kings and the king of wines" to partner this "King of English cheeses."
Living here in Alsace, where we faithfully observe the Christmas Stilton tradition, my preference goes to a local, late-harvested Riesling, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer (Domaine Weinbach, René Muré or Zind-Humbrecht all do wonderful Vendanges Tardives). For a real treat, we uncork a treasured Sélection de Grains Nobles, which is not only late harvested but also botrytised and combines depth and complexity with a tingling spine of acidity to counterbalance the wine's natural sweetness.