To some, blue cheese of any description is “Stilton”.
To others with a little more cheese knowledge, they know that Stilton is a particular style of blue cheese protected by a Certification Trade Mark and EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) which mean it can only be made to a specific recipe within the three counties of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. In fact, presently there exist only a handful of creameries that make Blue Stilton, specifically Colston Bassett, Cropwell Bishop, Hartington, Long Clawson, Tuxford & Tebbutt and Websters.
And to the real aficionado, they might add another blue to the list, the controversial Stichelton. Yet Stichelton (a name derived from the 12th century spelling of the village of Stilton, Stichl (style) Tun (village)), a cheese made since 2006 on the Wellbeck Estate near Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, “located on the place where the cows were milked, where the grass grows and the rhythm of the farm and its seasons could be felt” cannot be marketed under the name “Stilton”.
The simple answer is ‘Pasteurisation’, the simple process invented by Louis Pasteur whereby milk is heated to kill bacteria and eliminate microbes.
The SCMA was formed in 1936 to represent the interests of the Stilton manufacturers and to raise standards. Following the logic that production of cheese with raw milk runs an elevated risk for consumers because the processing and maturation could cause potentially dangerous pathogens and bacterias such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, they put in place the regulation that Stilton could only be made with pasteurised milk – sensible when creameries on the whole take milk from a number of different local farms to fulfil the large quantities made.
Joe Schneider at Stichelton on the other hand was, and still is determined to use raw (unpasteurised) milk. When raw milk is used in the cheesemaking process, all the natural good bacteria and microflora are left in the milk and the mix is unique to any particular farm. This means that it can be harnessed to create a unique cheese that has a character and taste profile of its own and which will vary seasonally with climate, temperature and feed, amongst other things. These cheeses can be unique and impossible to copy – a real expression of the ‘terroir’ of an individual farm.
In addition to the flavour benefits, the cheese should also not be any less safe than pasteurised cheese. This is partly due to the proximity of the farm on the Wellbeck Estate so that the milk can be pumped directly to the parlour, and partly because cheese making makes milk safe in several ways including the acidifying of the milk using ‘good’ bacteria known as starter culture, preventing potentially harmful bacteria from surviving. Also, cheeses with a low moisture content that harmful bacteria cannot survive. Stichelton is a hard cheese with low humidity and acidity, and thus at very low risk.
So Stilton is not Stilton when it is made with raw milk. Joe Schneider and the team at Stichelton have attempted to get legislation updated so that Stichelton can be marketed as Stilton. Should it be or not? What do you think?