Of Stilton,” Clifton Fadiman once confessed, “it is hard to speak without emotion. Its azure veins avouching noble lineage, it thrones itself as the world’s most regal blue.” Hard to imagine a piece of cheese inspiring such lyricism? Taste it. Firmer and less salty than other blues, creamy but not oily, uniquely nutty, Stilton is known far and wide as the king of cheeses. At home in England, it is also the cheese of kings, and a favorite of the present royal family. Prince Charles himself is said to be particularly fond of a variation called Huntsman, a combination of Stilton and Double Gloucester cheeses assembled like a layer cake.
Until the turn of the century, Stilton was considered a Christmas delicacy. Farm wives would start batches in July, and the finished cheese would be ready to sell by the holidays. Later, professionals began making it year-round, and in 1962—in an unusual measure—the British courts awarded a trademark to Stilton, limiting production to just seven dairies in the Midland counties of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and parts of Nottinghamshire.
There, Stilton was born, if not named. Accounts and dates differ, but legend has it that around 1750 a Mrs. Paulet, housekeeper to Lady Beaumont, began turning the estate’s excess milk into curds. The cheese proved so tasty she began supplying it to a brother-in-law who was landlord of the Bell Inn in the Huntingdonshire village of Stilton. Soon, the gentry were clamoring for more of “the cheese from Stilton.” The name stuck.
People are still clamoring. Yet Stilton production totals a relatively small 6,000 tons a year. As executive director of the Long Clawson dairy in Leicestershire, John Wiles, 47, is responsible for 1,500 of what many consider to be the finest of those tons. Wiles attributes his dairy’s preeminence to the loamy soil, which provides choice grass. “The milk is very good,” he says modestly, “and thus the cheese is very good.”
Wiles learned cheesemaking from his late father, Thomas George William Wiles, whose own father helped found the Long Clawson Dairy Cooperative in 1911. John Wiles’ grandmother made Stilton in her kitchen and sold it at market on beds of straw. Though the dairy employs more than 100 skilled workers, production remains a family concern. John’s wife, Hilda, 51, helps with accounts while son Thomas George, 19, manages a herd of 140 cattle. Daughter Elizabeth, 24, runs the culture laboratory. Niece Sally Wiles works in another lab, and sister-in-law Marjorie Bottomley faithfully smoothes the coats of the cheese cylinders, an essential step in the eight painstaking weeks of production.
“Except that they make no noise,” an English dairywoman once remarked, “Stiltons are more trouble than babies.” At Long Clawson, Stilton starts as some 14,000 gallons of milk collected daily in sky-blue tank trucks from the 38 member-farmers of the Cooperative. The milk is pumped into 1,000-gallon stainless steel vats to which are added “starters” (penicillin mold cultures grown in the lab) and rennet (a solidifying liquid extracted from the stomach linings of slaughtered calves). Several steps later,” firmed, salted curds are poured into hoops and transferred to the “Hastener Room,” where they sit on muslin-lined wooden squares. The cheese is turned daily to drain, and the cloth changed. After a week, the hoop is removed, the coat is smoothed with a spatula, and the cheese is corseted in muslin for further drying and aging.
Next, in the cool “White Room,” the golden rind develops. At six weeks, White Stilton (moister, cheaper, un-veined) is boxed and marketed. In the humid “Bluing Room” the remaining cheeses are pierced by the needles of a skewering machine to facilitate oxygen entry and mold growth. At eight weeks, the centers are sampled with a cheese iron (like an apple corer) to test for texture and uniformity of veining. The best go to gourmet outlets around the world.
Rising at 6 a.m. in their three-story Victorian farmhouse, the Wileses take a hearty breakfast of porridge, eggs, sausages and bacon—but no Stilton till lunch. When they do indulge, they always slice, never scoop the cheese—a cardinal and common sin related to another, pouring port wine into the scooped-out hole to soften the Stilton. That only ruins both. “Stilton continues to mature slowly after it is made,” Wiles notes. (Four to six months of age is prime.) “It is like chateau-bottled wine. Of course,” he adds, “the French don’t want to know that.” His smile tells that he hardly lets it trouble him.