Issue No. 23: Raw Milk Stilton… Er, Stichelton

I was at a cheese counter the other day. A gentleman looking for blue cheese stood next to me. The cheesemonger asked if he liked Stichelton. He’d never heard of it. She asked if he liked Stilton. That got an enthusiastic nod. But here’s the catch: Stichelton is Stilton, except for a pesky technicality. So why don’t they just have the same name?

Stilton, Stichelton—what’s in a name?

In this case, a lot. Stilton is the name of the lauded blue cheese produced in Nottinghamshire, the middle of England, since the middle of the eighteenth century. Since pasteurization wasn’t invented until a hundred years later, for most of its history Stilton was made with raw (unpasteurized) cow’s milk. However, during the second world war, when nearly all of Britain’s cheese production was centralized, the milk was pasteurized to make war time cheese rations. It happened to all the classic British cheeses—cheddars and cheshires, too. After the war ended almost everyone continued pasteurizing. The final nail in the unpasteurized Stilton coffin came in 1989, when an outbreak of food poisoning was alleged to be caused by a batch of Stilton made with raw milk. Though there was never any conclusive proof that the cheese was the cause, the rules about Stilton were formally changed so that by 1990 all Stilton was made with pasteurized milk. That rule change effectively outlawed traditional Stilton. The cheese that had been made for over two centuries could not be made any more.

Randolph Hodgson, the founder of Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, decided to try to revive the practice of making Stilton the old-fashioned way with raw milk almost a decade ago. He partnered with cheesemaker Joe Schneider, but as they started testing recipes the Stilton Cheesemaker’s Association would have none of it. Joe’s cheese could not be called Stilton in Britain—at least not legally. Rather than give up, they decided to just call it Stichelton, after the village where the first Stilton was made 250 years ago.

A while back, a cheesemonger from Neal’s Yard Dairy told me a story.

“Sometimes,” he said, “secret Stilton agents come into our shop and ask whether we have any ‘raw milk Stilton.’ If I say yes, then bang! We’re threatened with a fine.” I can just see the scene: a clandestine agent in a trenchcoat and sunglasses, yelling “Gotcha!” and slapping a badge down on the cheese counter. It’s sounds silly, but it’s no joke. There are legal ramifications if a British cheesemonger doesn’t clarify that they have Stichelton which, technically, is not quite Stilton.

The US hasn’t been bound by British law since 1776, so we can call this cheese whatever we want. Go ahead, thwart the British cheese police, say it with me: Raw Milk Stilton. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Joe Schneider makes his Raw Milk Stilton from the milk of a single herd of cows on a single farm.

In the cheese world, they call this style of cheesemaking “farmstead.” Since the cows all live and graze together, the milk varies day by day with changes in weather, the seasons, and other local conditions. Every other Stilton in England is made from milk pooled from several farms. That mitigates the variations in the milk. It makes more homogenous—AKA less interesting—cheese.

Joe and his staff of two do all the little things that add up to making a great cheese: they start with great milk; they add very little rennet or starter cultures; they hand-ladle the curds into molds to keep them from breaking up too much and help the cheese develop an incredibly luscious, fudgy texture. But perhaps the most interesting part of the process is how they make the cheese blue. During the cheesemaking, powdered Penicillum roqueforti (the same mold that makes French Roquefort blue) is added to the milk. About eight weeks later, the wheels are pierced with eight-inch long needles. The holes let more oxygen in which allows the mold spores to grow and develop into the blue-green veins that give the cheese its trademark flavor and creamy texture. Sometimes you’ll see a line of dots on the rind or a straight line of blueing running through the interior of the cheese; those show where the needles entered.

Stilton is as much a part of British Christmas as figgy pudding.

In the US it hardly seems like Christmas without a batch of cookies intended for Santa. It’s a tradition at nearly every house that celebrates Christmas. In England at Christmastime, everyone eats Stilton.

Stilton is eaten at Christmas for the same reason that you might eat a goose then: because it’s at its best. Stilton is made year round. While the cows are out to pasture in the summer, they’re eating a more varied diet of grasses and herbs, and the milk they produce is more flavorful. A wheel of Stilton takes about 6 months to reach its peak, so the wheels that are available in December are the ones made with that summer milk. The differences in quality are even more pronounced when the milk is raw, which gives the cheese more complexity, better flavor, and better texture.

Raw Milk Stilton has a rich, savory, oaky flavor that’s deeper than almost any other blue cheese on earth. It also boasts an incredibly creamy texture. In Britain, Stilton is often eaten after dinner with a few walnuts and a glass of port, a combination that I highly recommend. You could spread some Raw Milk Stilton on a steak or toss it into a salad or bake some into scones. But I think it’s best eaten just as is, maybe with a handful of spiced pecans. However you enjoy it, let it warm up to room temperature before serving for the best flavor and texture.