Stilton is undoubtedly the ‘aristocrat of cheeses’ and has always been a premium-quality product. In the 1790s it sold at half-a-crown (12½p) a pound – more than twice a day’s pay for the average farmworker.
Until 2009, it was generally thought that the unique blue cheese was never actually produced in the village, but took the name ‘Stilton’ through being sold in the village to travellers on the Great North Road. The enterprising Cooper Thornhill, landlord of the Bell Inn between 1730 and 1759, sold it in some quantity but apparently had it made by a relative living near Melton Mowbray.
However, in 2009 research by Richard Landy in Stilton, Matthew O’Callaghan in Melton Mowbray and historian Trevor Hickman uncovered convincing evidence of a cheese that was made in Stilton in the early 18th Century. More details of this discovery can be found in SCAN 293; The Daily Telegraph; The Melton Times; on the BBC website, and on the BBC again (September 2011).
In May 2011 it was decided to challenge the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) that prevents the manufacture of Stilton Cheese in Stilton. Sadly, we were not successful then but remain hopeful.
The extracts below are from Rick Landy’s exhaustive and well-researched history into the true history of Stilton Cheese. Download the full history.
‘Mr. John Pitts, Landlord of the Bell Inn at Stilton says, that he has every reason to believe, that the cheese known under the name of Stilton, was originally made at that place; that one Croxton Bray, a very old man, who died about the year 1777, aged about eighty years, remembers very well when a boy, that he, his brothers and sisters, and the people of Stilton in general, sent their children about to collect all the cream in the neighbouring villages, for the purpose of making what is called Stilton cheese. The receipt for making it is, the cream of the evening and morning, and the new milk all mixed together. This must have been long before Mr. Cooper Thornhill’s time. Mr. Thornhill selling great quantities, and wanting more than could be had at Stilton, and knowing that Leicestershire produced excellent milk, and having relations in that county, he sent a person to them to instruct them in the mode of making it.
None of this cheese is now made at Stilton, though there is every reason to believe that it originated there, and not in Leicestershire.’
Manufacture of cheese in Stilton seems to have continued long after production took off in Leicestershire. There is evidence that it began to decline in quality because The London Encyclopaedia of 1829 reports the agriculturalist Joseph Hazard’s comment that:
‘…though the farmers about Stilton are remarkable for the cleanliness of their dairies, they take very little pains with the rennet; for if they did they would not have so many faulty and unsound cheeses.’
In the early nineteenth century, the travel writer William Cobbett became famous for his published ‘Rides’ through many counties of England. In A Geographical Dictionary of England and Wales, published in 1832, he says of Leicestershire:
‘Cheese has of late years, been made in good quantity, and a large cheese fair is annually held at Leicester for the sale of it. It so much resembles in quality that which is made at Stilton in Huntingdonshire, that it also is called Stilton Cheese.’
For more information about the history of Stilton Cheese, recipes, the making process, and other details, please visit the excellent www.stiltoncheese.co.uk web site.
Stilton cheese can be purchased in the village at The Bell Inn, as can Trevor Hickman’s book ‘A History of Stilton Cheese’.
If you’re into cheese, visit: www.CheeseForum.org.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, Stilton should never be served with a scoop and never drenched in port. It is correctly served in slices: ‘cut high; cut low; cut level’. Scooping it out simply exposes more cheese to the air, causing it to dry out and become unpalatable.
The cheese is naturally very creamy – 17 gallons of full-fat milk go into a 14lb Stilton – so butter is not only unnecessary, it actually detracts from the enjoyment of the cheese itself.