Stilton, the English village, lies 70 miles north of London on the Great North Road, around the distance that a speedy horseman can travel in one day.
En route from London to Edinburgh, a horseman was fortified there by ale, bread and cheese, which was made by the local dairy farmers and stored in the cellars of Stilton’s main hostelry, the Bell Inn. Here it naturally developed its distinctive blue strain. The original recipe for Stilton is attributed to Mrs Frances Pawlett from Wymondham, a little village “near” Stilton.
The advent of the mail coaches in 1790 meant that the cheeses were taken to a wider market, including the gentlemen’s clubs of London and wealthier private houses. Port drinking was in fashion at the time as the British Government sought to reduce the import of French wines (they were fighting Napoleon at the time) with punitive taxes. Thus was born the port-stilton partnership.
Unfortunately, Stilton no longer makes Stilton. It lost it in the mid-19th century when the railways began and Stilton production moved north. In fact, it is illegal to produce Stilton there – the village is in Cambridgeshire whilst the production of Stilton is restricted to Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire.
Today, Penicillium roqueforti is introduced artificially. As each cheese is placed inside a large rectangular box and as the lid is closed, long metallic spikes pierce the cheese to the core. This speeds up the blue veining. Salt is also added. Stiltons are not weighted; they reduce from 28 lbs to around 16 lbs by evaporation.According to experts, stilton is best when it is 12 weeks old; younger than that it has not developed its full creamy favour. Older it can be dry and unappetising.
Jake Young, of Wymondham, wrote to me, commenting on this info, and adding the following: Stilton Cheese is made from full-cream milk with additional cream.
There were problems with soft cheeses containing the listeria bacterium in the late 1980s, but Stilton manufacturers were allowed to continue using unpasteurised milk.
Locally, it’s made in Melton Mowbray, a town 7 miles west of Wymondham, and the villages Long Clawson and Colston Bassett, both to the north of Melton Mowbray. Colston Bassett is just over the border into Nottinghamshire. Long Clawson Dairy owns a cheese-shop/deli in Melton Mowbray called Mrs Paulet’s Pantry.
Many people like the immature White Stilton. It isn’t as “chalky” as other hard white cheeses such as Cheshire. Over the past decade Long Clawson Dairy has produced white Stilton varieties with additions of dried apricots, fruitcake etc.
Melton Mowbray was famed in the 19th century for fox-hunting. The surplus whey from Stilton cheese production was fed to pigs which found their way into Melton Mowbray Pies. Weighing a pound or so, the hot-water pastry of these still hand-made pies allowed them to survive a day’s hunting to be eaten “on the hoof”. (In the 1960s my father developed a technique for canning pies with precooked pastry. They received worldwide publicity. After school I would take parcels down to the Post Office. Most were bound for old Poms in Oz.)
Once I was talking to a “true local” from a village a few miles to the north who, hearing where I’m from, told me how her grandmother would come to live in Wymondham each year for the cheese-making season, in the early years of the 20th century. There’s a house in the village with a cylindrical stone set into a recess high up a wall. It is, of course, reputed to symbolise a Stilton cheese. The cellars of the old Manor House were opened up for a local TV investigation, which found the right strains of bacteria still clinging to the walls.
More recently, school friends had holiday jobs going along the shelves of maturing cheeses and turning them over. A student from Paris came over to learn the secrets of tofu-making in Melton Mowbray. Given a meagre trainee’s wage, he survived by also working with the cheese makers. As with Mozzarella cheese etc., the European Union is keen to offer protection to regional specialities, and this is offered to stilton as long as the products don’t betray their past quality standards.
The village of Stilton is 30-or-so miles away, and south of Stamford, one of the principal old coaching towns of the Great North Road (now called the A1). The old lanes, with wide grass verges, leading from Wymondham and neighbouring villages toward the A1 are still called “drifts”. Cattle from the north being driven down (i.e. on the hoof) to London for the winter markets would stop off in the area. There are other tracks, never made into roads, where geese were driven across from East Anglia to Nottingham’s famous Goose Fair (now an enormous autumn fun-fair).
Stilton cheese was probably never made at Stilton, though it was made in its old county of Huntingdonshire, now absorbed by Cambridgeshire. So the cheese was once made more locally to its major selling point. It would be interesting to know what the locals at the time thought of their produce being hijacked for the London market.
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