For those of you who have never understood the intrigue of Stilton, or especially if you're among the many who support its well-known title as "The King of Cheese," a new cheese beckons, and is in actuality a closer embodiment of that moniker than anything being marketed as Stilton today. It also happens to be a cheese that made me stop entirely in my tracks from pure gustatory satisfaction.
By unfortunate law, all Stilton must be made from pasteurized milk. In 1989, a food poisoning breakout was linked to a batch of raw milk Stilton from the legendary Colston Basset dairy, arguably (then and now) the best producer of England's most famous cheese. The allegation was ultimately unfounded, but the PDO (protected designation of origin) stipulated nonetheless that Stilton be made with pasteurized milk.
Now, finally, a cheese that's hard to find but worth the hunt is Stichelton, the newest project from famed English cheesemonger Neal's Yard Dairy. With full intention of replicating the original raw cow's milk recipe of Stilton from its glory days, co-creators Randolf Hodgson of Neal's Yard and American cheesemaker Joe Schneider took exacting measure to ensure that their creation, a "cheese no one wants us to make," was the closest thumbprint to the original Stilton it could be.
Remarkably, Hodgson's colleague had obtained and saved the liquid starter culture used for the raw milk version of Colston Basset Stilton, and with incredible foresight gave it to a starter producer who kept it alive for fiteen years. It is this starter that not only transforms liquid milk into curd, but also imparts the unique legacy of Stilton into every wheel of Stichelton.
Only after tasting Stichelton did I understand these most studied efforts. With a caramel-like sweetness and a lingering, distinct note of thick cream, it was in many ways the best blue I had ever tasted. The so-called "real" Stilton pre-1989 has this sweetness, too, and it's this specific quality that the cheesemakers had hoped would emerge in their new venture. Unpressed curds lend a super unique structure to the cheese, emphaiszing its creamy mouthfeel and delicate texture.
A cheese with dichotomous personality, Stichelton is both new and old: a study in tradition, originality, and reverence for an ancient cheesemaking recipe dating back to the 11th century. It's named for the village where Stilton originated.
Stichelton can be found at Zingerman's, Artisanal Cheese, Bedford Cheese Shop, and Whole Foods Bowery. Look for it at other specialty cheese stores. At approximately $20/ half pound it's not cheap, but it's a chance to look (or, rather, taste) into the past and the future of cheesemaking.
(Image: Stichelton Dairy)