South of the city of Peterborough lies the quiet village of Stilton. Since the middle ages it has been an important posting station and coaching stop, a place of respite for weary travellers making the journey between London and York. Over roughly 1000 years this has bought trade to the town as pedlars of various wares passed on through, stopping for the night in the multitude of inns lining the road. One of these, The Bell Inn, still in existence, dates back to the year 1500 and was not too dissimilar to what we now think of as a 'gastropub'.
Over the years in cities and towns across the country inns, taverns, pubs all began to lose their kitchens until the rediscovery of pub food in the early 90s. Pies, bangers and mash and deep fried Camembert were commonplace all of a sudden but go back a few hundred years and most drinking establishments would have had simple, hearty and local food prepared for passing guests who expected to be fed. London had 'pitchcocked' eels, winkles and cockles served with a hunk of bread and in coaching inns around the rest of Britain one could tuck into delicacies like meat pies, boiled udders, mutton with oysters, pot roasted larks, or 'scotch callops' all served with a brand new style of fashionable, dark, craft ale; porter.
The Bell Inn was an establishment just like any other with a small kitchen catering for guests throughout the day and sourcing only the best, local ingredients. Quenby cheese, made some 30 miles away at the eponymous Hall, was produced throughout the summer by the housekeeper, was a firm regional favourite, served with bread and a pint of beer. It quickly took up the name of the village. Stilton. By 1722, when novelist Daniel Defoe was passing through town, the cheese was already famous.
As the years went on demand for Stilton grew and its production was outsourced to the lush pastures of the Melton Mowbray area and the green fields of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Finally, in 1996 these three counties were granted a Protected Geographical Status. This award scheme, part of an EU culinary preservation effort, stipulates the exact rules of what can legally be called 'Stilton'. For a start it cannot be made in Stilton. They also maintain that the cheese must be unpressed, contain 'blue veins radiating from the centre' and, after the listeria scare of the 1980s, it must be made from pasteurised milk.
It is the pasteurisation of the milk that poses a slight problem. Although it's perfectly possible for true Stilton to be creamy, soft and deeply savoury the historic flavour of the cheese has been lost. Raw milk has it's own wild ideas and tantalisingly complex flavour profiles. The natural bacteria present in the milk aid the maturing process of cheese and are able to elevate something good to something sublime. All the cheesemakers we are supplied by who use raw milk understand the risks but in doing so merely do what all food producers should do - keep their products and their equipment clean and hygienic.
Back on a quiet stretch of the A1, the earliest mention of the little village is in the 1086 Domesday book where it is listed as 'Stichiltone' meaning a 'village at a stile or steep ascent'. It is this early reference to the sleepy hamlet that gives it's name to it's similarly blue veined counterpart 'Stichleton'. Produced by Randolph Hodgson of Neals Yard Dairy and Joe Schneider in Nottinghamshire it is, apart from the name, in every way a traditional Stilton. It is made using calves rennet and raw milk and, these aside, all other Stilton PDO rules are fulfilled. It is something truly special.
Whether pasteurised Colston Bassett or the rebellious Stichleton, December is the best time for eating this sort of cheese. It's obvious association with Christmas is a dead give away but the cheeses, made in high summer from the best quality British milk, have now had just enough time to keep the paste smooth and buttery in texture and creamy in the mouth but with enough blue veins to give that characteristic fruity tang.
Port is the traditional accompaniment but it can often overpower the cheese. A glass of ale, a hunk of cheese and a juicy ripe pear is all you need. Or maybe a mince pie and a glass of madeira to keep things festive.
During the Christmas period we will have both baby Stiltons and Stichleton available to pre order and to sample in store so just pop and speak to a member of staff about trying some for yourself. We also have pre-cut cheeseboard selections (pictured above) available to serve a small gathering of friends and family that we've put together from our favourite dairy based delights.