In honor of Woman’s History Month, let’s focus on one the most famous British cheeses ever: Stilton! It was invented by Elizabeth Scarbrow over 300 years ago and is the only British cheese to benefit from the prestigious D.O.P. certification. Only six dairies, located in the three counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, are licensed to produce Blue Stilton. They are regrouped under the aptly-named Stilton Cheese Makers Association.
The production of Stilton:
Stilton is still hand-made by master cheesemakers in a process which remains unchanged for countless years. The entire process takes about nine weeks in total – from milk to shelf. Here, the Stilton Cheese Makers Association takes us through the production steps:
Stage 1 Curd Forming
Fresh, local milk is poured into an open vat. Essential ingredients are added at this stage – acid forming bacteria known as starter cultures, a milk-clotting agent such as rennet and penicillium roqueforti – which is the blue mold spores, essential to give the cheese its famous veining. Now the curds begin to form, whey is removed the the curds are left to drain overnight.
Stage 2: Hoop Filling & Milling
The curds are divided and transferred into the Stilton hoops or molds. They are then left to drain for several days at a set temperature and humidity. The hoops of Stilton are turned regularly to allow an even distribution of moisture to spread through the cheese.
Stage 3: Sealing
After five or six days, the hoops are removed and each cheese roundel is sealed by smoothing or wrapping, to keep air out. The cheesemaker uses a knife to smooth of the edges of the roundel, preventing blue mould growth at this point.
Stage 4: Ripening
The cheeses are now moved to a curing cave, which is carefully controlled for both temperature and humidity. During this ‘ripening’ period, the cheese continues to be turned regularly, for about five weeks.
Stage 5: Piercing
Once the five weeks are up, the roundels are pierced with stainless steel needles to enable the blue mold to develop and give the cheese its characteristic ‘veiny’ appearance. Piercing is repeated a week later, before each cheese is individually graded.
Stage 6: Grading
After about nine weeks, the cheese is ready to be sold. But first it must be graded. A cheese grader is a highly skilled expert, often with years of experience in assessing the quality of cheese. Using a cheese iron, they take a core from the roundel of Stilton, and based on its smell, taste, appearance and texture, decide if it can be sold as Stilton, or just ‘blue cheese’.
Stilton serving tips from the Stilton Cheese Makers Association:
For cheeseboard use, take Stilton out of the fridge up to 2 hours before serving to reach room temperature; this really allows the flavors to develop. Serve with crackers or plum bread and a mango chutney for a change. Sweet wines go especially well with Stilton – Port being the favored choice of many; try a dessert wine for a change or a full bodied robust red wine. Stilton freezes beautifully. Simply cut into easy to handle portions, wrap in cling film or foil and freeze for up to 3 months. De-frost slowly – preferably in the fridge overnight. Allow to reach room temperature before serving.