Success by Degrees—using unpasteurized milk, Stichelton dairy emulates a classic British blue
The boxy blue Land Rover threads its way across Welbeck Estate in central England, heading toward Stichelton Dairy and its eponymous cheese. I sit in the backseat, being seduced at every turn by the irresistibly handsome landscape. Outstretched trees and fields hold green space between tall sandstone buildings fixed to the earth centuries ago; once upon a time these structures were part of the estate’s wealthy farm that employed more than a thousand people. Now many stand empty. The grandeur remains, but there’s a cool stillness to the place, as if it's under a spell. Maybe that’s why I catch myself falling for a cheese I haven’t even met yet.
Stichelton cheesemaker Joe Schneider and his business partner, Randolph Hodgson, seem mostly indifferent to the aesthetic charms of Welbeck. Locating the creamery in a rehabbed grain storage barn on the 17,000-acre estate three years ago, they gave little heed to the view. According to Hodgson, who also owns Neal’s Yard Dairy, London’s celebrated cheese market, their site selection was all about the estate animals—113 milking Holsteins, to be precise. Wanting to craft a farmstead raw milk blue cheese, he explains, “we were zoned in on the dairy, the cows, the milk. And then we met Mick [Lingard], the herdsman. He’s a real gem. That’s when it all clicked.”
Even so, it took 18 months for the two men to convince the estate’s owner and business managers to be a silent third partner in the creamery and rent production space to the operation, as well as allocate the dairy’s milk to the creamery and house the American-born Schneider and his family. The drawn-out discussions were frustrating at the time of the start-up, Schneider admits, but ultimately, he adds, “it was a good balance between our entrepreneurial impulse and this very slow-moving estate. They weren’t thinking five years down the road, they were thinking 50 years on . . . it added a lot of gravitas to the decision-making process.”
For Hodgson, that process actually began more than a decade ago when he voiced the idea, radical at the time, that someone in the British farmstead cheese community resurrect raw milk production of blue cheese using the original Stilton starter culture. Up until 1989, this unpasteurized method had prevailed for centuries. After years of urging various artisanal cheesemakers to step up to the plate—or rather, vat—with no success, he felt obliged to himself. “This cheese needed to be,” he declares. “Someone had to do it.” Having founded Neal’s Yard on a mission to promote and protect endangered old-world British cheesemaking, Hodgson sees Stichelton as much more than a business. Making it is an act of historical, cultural, and gastronomic preservation, not to mention a little political insurgency.
Taking the Temperature
To understand how an innocent 16-pound drum of Stichelton cheese could shoulder such a job, I had to learn a bit about English cheesemaking history—Stilton history in particular. For at least two centuries (historians can’t agree on when the cheese was first made), this most beloved of British blues was produced in three neighboring counties using a particular starter culture, hands-on methodology, and local raw milk. Over time, Stilton evolved into the creamy, complex blue that eventually earned it the title of King of Cheese.
In 1989, however, this venerable King was suddenly rocked by an outbreak of listeria food poisoning in England, which many assumed was caused by the raw milk used in making the cheese. Although it was never proven that the outbreak was a direct result of eating Stilton, the fact that the cheese was put on public trial had a devastating effect on the industry. To reassure consumers and safeguard their livelihoods, the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association (SCMA) voted to pasteurize all milk used in the production of the cheese. The practice became mandatory for any product carrying the Stilton name.
The net effect of this change went well beyond legislating a 161.6°F heat treatment of cow’s milk. Because pasteurization so altered the microbial diversity of the milk, which lent traditional Stilton its essential character, cheesemakers had to shelve the original starter culture—called MT36 in the trade—and switch to a new one. Changing Stilton’s milk and culture also meant making fine-tuned adjustments to the methodology. The Stilton cheesemaker’s instincts that had been developed over generations—what Hodgson calls “the human element in terroir”—suddenly had to be revised.
Ultimately, most of the producers of pasteurized Stilton achieved remarkable results, and sales of the cheese are as strong as ever. But those who remember the original, like Hodgson, say the new generation of Stilton is just not the same. It’s not lesser, he’s quick to add, it’s just different. Hodgson recalls the pre-1989 cheese vividly: “It was perfectly balanced with a milky, grassy, buttery up-front flavor . . . there was some residual sweetness, and its blue flavors were cool, not peppery . . . there was a sublime, seductive creaminess.” When I ask how he remembers with such clarity the flavor of cheese he tasted more than 20 years ago, Hodgson says he keeps a library of tasting notes that date back further than that. But to truly recall the sensory experience, he adds, “it’s less important for me to make notes that accurately describe the flavor to someone else than to have a memory aid that jogs something in my mind. All I can hope to do is recreate that time.” For that reason, his cheese notes read more like a diary, with details of where he was for a tasting, the time of day, others who attended, and even the weather.
Joe Schneider has neither a personal taste memory for the original raw milk Stilton nor his own cheese notes. Growing up in the 1970s in Syracuse, New York, he had never heard of the venerable blue cheese, let alone tasted it. And his professional work in creameries didn’t begin until 1996, well after the listeria commotion in the Stilton industry. Now, as the lone cheesemaker trying to coax each batch of raw milk toward the flavor ideals of heritage Stilton, Schneider admits, “I’m like a blind man, and Randolph is saying, ‘a little to the left . . . a little to the right.’ There is a definite goal; we’re trying to emulate something that has come before.” With their early attempts, he adds, “I was really nervous about our ability to do this. We made a lot of inedible cheese in the beginning.”
Three years into the project, however, the results are more satisfying. Like planets aligning, sometimes the constellation of tastes in a particular batch of Stichelton will “hit the mark,” Hodgson says, in terms of flavor, texture, and fullness. But success is not a given at any artisanal creamery, especially a newly established one such as Stichelton. “I’ve been blown away by some of the cheeses,” Hodgson remarks, “but now it’s really about having a clearer idea of why. If one [batch] is great, then how did we get there?”
Wrangling the answer is what inspires Schneider. “The thing that draws me to cheesemaking is the mix of empirical science and alchemy. There is so much we can quantify but you can’t get your head around all the variables.” Ultimately, he continues, “you have to develop years of experience and feel your way with a lot of it.”
But in the meantime, Schneider keeps meticulous records of each variable during production and maturation for every batch of Stichelton. Looking at his spreadsheet, I count 60 different factors, that, all combined, affect the daily transformation of 600 gallons of fresh raw milk from Mick’s herd into 32 truckles (cylinders) of aspiring blue cheese. Week to week, the partners will document ultra-fine adjustments to these factors hoping to get control of the “quality parameters” that mirror those of the original Stilton, Hodgson explains, and ultimately “rediscover what was done before.”
Thus far, the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association has not embraced Schneider and Hodgson’s goal to resurrect the style of unpasteurized cheese upon which the Stilton industry was founded. It rejected Hodgson’s 2006 request that the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) for Stilton be amended to include a raw milk version. And the association has restricted the partners from using the name Stilton in any reference to their cheese, recipe, or production. Schneider shakes his head, asking rhetorically, “How do I explain the situation I’m in without using the word Stilton?” He and Hodgson continue to voice their claim thatthe Stilton legacy should belong not to the six companies that produce it but to the English people. “That’s what a PDO is for,” Schneider states. “It is regionality, some evidence of tradition, a certain type of recipe—those things need to be protected. But pasteurization is a modern invention. It is antithetical.”
As the political debate over labeling Stichelton continues, I can’t help but marvel that a tiny microbial heirloom, MT36—which barely survived extinction—is at the center of it all. As the original starter culture, MT36 was nearly lost to the cheese world forever when pasteurization of Stilton in the late 1980s suddenly made it obsolete. But fortunately, one of Hodgson’s Neal’s Yard colleagues, Charlie Westhead, thought to save the last vial of the culture. He sent it to Ray Osborne, a starter producer who kept it alive for 18 years.
By Schneider’s account, the infamous culture deserves its celebrity, not least of all for its value in the cheesemaking room. “It’s very different than using standard modern cultures, known as DVI (direct vat innoculation). With those you just open the sachet and sprinkle it into the vat. But MT36 comes in a frozen liquid that has been inoculated; it has to be warmed for 24 hours to get the bacteria going before adding it to the milk.” Using MT36, he says, “feels more like real cheesemaking.” The vintage culture also behaves differently as the cheese sets and matures. “MT36 is robust with a lot of multivariants, but it works very slowly,” Schneider reports, “adding a lot of complexity to the flavor, with more buttery diacetyl notes . . . and a lighter texture.”
During my visit, I had the chance to taste that complexity as we sampled several twomonth-old drums of Stichelton to choose our favorite for culture’s Centerfold Club offering in this issue (you can still purchase it from our partners at Cowgirl Creamery). It was a close contest, but ultimately the honors went to the crop of 31 cheeses made on July 14, 2009. Densely creamy at the center, our top pick registered a little sweetness between rounded notes of blue, butter, and a gentle tang; closer to the rind the paste was softly crumbly with a meaty flavor and more piquancy. It showed great potential for maturing into the kind of winner that Hodgson calls a Two-Mile Cheese. “When you drive away from the creamery,” he explains, “you can still taste it down the road. The flavor rolls on and on.” As our sample of reserved Stichelton was tagged and marked for pickup by Neal’s Yard Dairy, where it would finish maturing for two to three more months, I knew one thing for certain—I’d be ready to test-drive the cheese as soon as it arrived in the States.
Sidebar: Taking Care
Special Attention in the Creamery
Turning raw milk into aged blue cheese at Stichelton Dairy begins with inoculating the warmed milk (90°F) with a starter culture (MT36) as well as penicillin roqueforti (responsible for the blue veining and flavor). Because MT36 is an old-world liquid culture with complexity and vitality, a very small amount is used and the milk is given a much longer “cure” time than in most modern creameries.
After inoculation, Schneider adds animal rennet, a natural enzyme that coagulates the milk into curd. One of the most critical details in the process comes into play next: when to cut the curd. Cheesemakers call this their “set time.” Schneider has revised his set time after much trial and error. A year ago, he explains, “the curd was lacking body. It tended toward soupy and grainy. Now we add less rennet but leave it to harden longer (about 21⁄2 hours) so the curd has more structure when the blue starts to break it down [during maturation].” The added benefit, he says, is that the blue strain has to work harder. “When you stress the blue it creates more exotic, complex flavors.”
After the curd is cut in the vat, some of the whey that pools on top is drained off. Then the delicate Stichelton curd is gently moved from the vat to a “cooling trolley” by a process of hand ladling. Schneider’s next key step is deciding when to “whey off,” (whey being a verb at this point). This refers to the process of draining all the bottom whey from the curd. “This is a huge decision,” the cheesemaker explains, “because it establishes the wave of acidity throughout the maturing process. Once you pull the whey, your control is gone because the food for the [acidifying] bacteria is in the whey.”
Left to rest and drain overnight, the curd is then cut into blocks that are fed into a milling machine, resulting in crumbled pieces. The crumbled curd is salted, then placed into molds (but not pressed) and moved to the warm Hastening Room to develop the cultures and allow more draining. After five days, the molds are removed and Schneider and his team start the critical step of “rubbing up.” Using blunt knives, they smooth the buttery surface of the cylindrical cheese to create a natural seal so that rogue molds and air can’t invade and cause cracks or other deformities.
The young cheeses are then moved to shelves in the Drying Room, where they are turned regularly. After three weeks, the cheeses are transferred to the cool Maturing Room (55°F). At six weeks, and again at seven weeks, they are mechanically pierced with 12 needles, 16 times around; this breaks the sealed rind at the opportune time, helping the blue mold penetrate the cheese.
Over the ensuing weeks, each batch is tested by inserting a cheese “iron” (a long curved metal scoop) into the center of a cheese to pull out a cross-section. At about 12 weeks, Stichelton leaves the dairy to be further matured at Neal’s Yard Dairy. According to Jason Hinds, wholesale and export manager for Neal’s Yard, this storage time varies according to the final retail destination of the cheese. “If we’re shipping to the U.S., for example,” he explains, “we ship them out young, knowing they’ll develop on the way.”
Written by Elaine Khosrova
Photography by Matt Swift & Kate Arding