Stilton is a truly a British cheese, and protected by both its EU "Protected Designation of Origin" (PDO) status and registered trademark, this is the way it will stay. Clare and John attended a "Stilton Masterclass" to learn the essentials. Hosted by the Academy of Cheese, the evening was led by Robin Skailes of Cropwell Bishop Creamery and Charlie Turnbull, cheese-monger and a Director of the Academy of Cheese.
Stilton can be made only in the counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire using pasteurised cows milk. It was first made at Melton Mowbray but takes its name from the nearby village of Stilton. Legend has it that the village pub, The Bell Inn, was the first place to sell the cheese to travellers on their way south.
Cropwell Bishop Stilton is made in Nottinghamshire using milk from thirteen local farms whose cows graze on the green swards of the Peak District National Park. Despite its creamy taste Cropwell Bishop Stilton requires milk with a relatively low fat content, mainly from Friesian cows. Summer grass fed cows offer the best milk, and this high quality milk coupled with a maturing period of around twelve weeks means the best Stilton of the year is ready for Christmas.
Making Stilton involves adding rennet and a relatively small quantity of starter culture to the milk after it has been pasteurised. The curds form over a period of some twenty hours, much longer than a cheddar-style cheese. Pencillium Roqueforte spores are also added to give the cheese its blue veins once matured. After cutting, draining, milling and salting the curds are placed in cylindrical moulds called "hoops" to give Stilton its traditional shape. The cheeses are then moved for maturing, initially at a relatively high temperature that is reduced over the following weeks.
Early in the maturing process each Cropwell Bishop cheese is smoothed across the surface with a palette knife, to seal the cheese and delay blueing. The cheeses are turned weekly and after five weeks stainless-steel rods pushed into the centre of the truckles to encourage the formation of the blue mould. As a result of all of the steel rods heading for the centre of the cheese this is where the mould grows best and why Stilton is said to mature from the centre.
A serving tip is not to allow anyone to take "the nose" off a wedge of Stilton but serve slivers that offer a fair share of the best tasting core cheese, as well as the outer less-blue cheese near the rind.
After hearing about the making of Cropwell Bishop Stilton, Clare and John were hands on with some "grading". Grading is the process by which producers test the maturity of their cheeses. Cropwell Bishop Creamery grades each cheese at least once over its maturation period and tastes cheese from each batch of production. Grading involves inserting a "grading iron", twisting, and removing a small cylinder of a cheese's paste. This is carefully inspected for colour, blueing, and texture - how the curds are binding together. After inspection, the cylinder of cheese is reinserted into the truckle to allow maturing to continue.
Finally Clare and John tasted Cropwell Bishop Stilton of different maturities. Charlie Turnbull explained that there are steps ahead of placing cheese in your mouth. How does it look? How does it feel? How does it smell? Finally, how does it taste? Words like creamy, salty, mushroomy and spicy are often used to describe the complex, bold flavours of Cropwell Bishop Stilton. The evening finished with a final question for maker Robin Skailes: can you eat the rind? He was very enthusiastic about the flavour of the edible rind, it is simply dried cheese and often has some of the more pungent mushroomy tastes.