Monday, February 9, 2015

England's King of Cheeses

Stilton (Stihl-tn), a semi-soft, cow's milk blue cheese, was oddly enough, not originally made in Stilton. 

Stilton is named for the place that made it famous, and Stilton is, along with Roquefort and Gorgonzola, one of the world's most famous blue cheeses.

Books have been written about the history of Stilton, which is made in central England in the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. Only a few creameries are licensed to make Stilton. Of these, Colston Bassett, in Nottinghamshire, is the most noteworthy.

While historians debate Stilton's true origins, I'm gonna stick with the story that around 1720 a house keeper in Leicestershire made a cheese that was sold at the Bell Inn, a popular coach house in Stilton. Previously known as Quenby or Lady Beaumont's Cheese, the cheese was so popular with traveler's passing through the inn that the landlord began shipping the cheese to London, where it became know as "the cheese from Stilton". 

Stilton is one of the world's most famous blue cheeses.

Stilton is made with uncooked curds of (usually pasteurized) cow's milk. The cylinders are placed into molds about a foot tall and 8 inches across and allowed to drain. It takes about 17 gallons of milk to make enough curd to fill a cylinder, which weighs 15 to 18 pounds when full.

Once the cheese can stand on its own, it is removed from the mold and left to sit for about 6 weeks. Then it is pierced to allow air to reach the interior of the cheese.

The texture is both creamy and crumbly because the curds are not pressed, so lots of moisture is retained in the cheese.
Stilton is ripened between 8 and 14 weeks. Eight to 14 weeks is a wide range, and the amount of aging has an impact on the assertiveness of the cheese. 

When the cheese is mature, it will have a dry, rough light  reddish brown rind, which is edible, and the interior paste will be ivory to straw yellow with bluish green lines radiating jaggedly from the center of the cheese toward the rind.

Stilton's flavor is rather aggressive when young, but as the cheese ages, the paste yellows slightly and the the flavor mellows, so the color is a good indication of the flavor.

A mature Stilton will have a straw yellow interior (with blue veins), and it will taste buttery with pepper and earthy hints. Sometimes I taste a little tang similar to the tang that comes from eating raw walnuts.

Sometimes Stilton will be sold in small ceramic crocks, but most of the time it will be sold in a wedge cut from a larger wheel. As with all cheeses, remove the plastic wrap and place the cheese in an over-sized plastic container. 

Wrapping blue cheese in aluminum foil seems to make it last longer.

Stilton's traditional accompaniments

Try Stilton with some pears or crumbled on top of cream of broccoli soup.

Stilton is traditionally paired with Port, with the sweetness of the wine contrasting with the salty tang of the cheese. If you want to pair Stilton with Port, I'd suggest a tawny port, which is less sweet than a ruby port and won't overpower the cheese. 

Port is a fortified sweet wine, which is traditionally served at the end of the meal, and while Stilton and Port are a fine way to end a meal, I often want to enjoy cheese before a meal or as a snack on its own.

Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine made from the Glera grape. Its got subtle pear flavors which enhance the flavor of the cheese, and the bubbles refresh your palate and wipe away any residual saltiness.

My favorite match with Stilton is Barleywine, which has a very slight sweetness and rich malty flavors that underscore the earthiness of the cheese.

Whatever you pair with Stilton (if anything at all), you will be enjoying England's "King of Cheeses".

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