Stilton is one of the world’s great cheeses. So great, in fact, that its name is now protected by English food regulations, much the same way that France restricts what can be called Champagne and Scotland, Scotch.
To earn the time-honored name of Stilton, a cheese must be produced in one of the three English Counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. Critically, Stilton must NOW be made from pasteurized milk.
Stilton was first made in the 1700s. Louis Pasteur wasn’t born until 1822. Clearly, the first Stilton cheese was been made from unpasteurized, raw milk. So what we now enjoy as true and sanctioned Stilton is not, technically speaking, authentically prepared or made in the way it once was.
However, an English cheesemaker called Stichelton is bringing back the old ways of making an English blue cheese from unpasteurized milk. According to Lydia Burns, cheesemonger at Marion Street Cheese Market, “they’re trying to resurrect the original and invoke a form of Stilton that most people haven’t tasted.”
What’s the importance of using unpasteurized milk when making cheese?
In a 2010 segment I created and produced for WBEZ Worldview, I had two sets of camembert made for me by a private cheesemaker. One set used pasteurized and the other unpasteurized milk. I did a taste test with 20 people, and in all but one case, the people who experienced these two paired cheeses knew immediately – sometimes just by sight – which was the raw one. The unpasteurized cheese was more funky looking and seductively smelly, it had more personality and depth, and it was collapsing in on itself, as the life within churned away, creating wonderful flavors.
That is one argument for using raw, rather than pasteurized, milk for making cheese: there's more going on in raw milk so many times -- but certainly not always -- raw milk leads to a cheese of greater complexity.
Recently, Burns set out before me an officially sanctioned Stilton and a Stichelton for a side-by-side tasting, which is really the only way you can compare flavors of anything.
The Stichelton, with fewer blotches of blue mold, didn’t look as tasty. Burns describes it as “deceptively mild, creamy and fudge-y, so it balances the spiciness of the blue cheese.” I found it a lot like biting into a stick of right-out-of-the-refrigerator butter – dense and not as crumbly as a lot of blues. “It’s very luscious,” Burns observed, “and dynamic: it’s so much a product of place and time that it captures those changes throughout the year.”
Much like a wine lover appreciates how a wines from contiguous vineyards vary, or like an opera buff appreciates how a singer’s voice varies between Bayreuth and New York productions, cheese lovers are fascinated by such slight seasonal variation. I recently mentioned on another blog post how the same cheese from the same cheese maker varied significantly depending upon which season the milk was taken. This subtle stuff fascinates anyone who, like me, lives to eat.
The Stilton from Colston Basset packed more punch, the acidity playing against the creaminess, to fill the mouth with deep flavors. This does not mean that pasteurized is better: with a cheese like this, there are a lot of environmental factors to consider (the molds used, the way the cheese was matured, how the affineur brought the cheese to completion). Colston Basset is what I expect a Stilton to be, not as surprising or maybe as interesting across the seasons as the Stichelton, but still, a model of its type and an excellent cheese.
As I was leaving Marion Street Cheese Market, I asked Charles (go-to guy for beer guidance) for a beverage that would pair well with the two blues (I bought some of each to bring home for further "research"). He suggested Cockeyed Cooper, a Bourbon barrel-aged barley wine ale. The smokiness of this ale works well with a blue cheese, as does the slight sweetness; a background hoppiness provides herbal accents without overwhelming the cheese.
For cheese lovers, doing a side-by-side comparison is a fine way to locate the cheeses you like best while exercising and developing the palate to discern fine distinctions between similar cheeses.
Do you have a favorite cheese? I'd love to hear about it and, if possible, compare it to another, similar cheese.