Picture: Raw vs. Pasteurized: Stilton vs. Stichelton by Madame Frommage
When I was a kid, my mother once asked me to pick up some bacon from the supermarket on my way home. I came home with a packet of something called ‘Not Bacon,’ a soy-based meat alternative (the ‘Not’ on the label, I swear, did not seem so big and obvious at the store). Years later I got excited when I saw a ‘coconut bacon sandwich’ on a cafe menu, thinking it was some kind of coconut-infused bacon – it was coconut flakes flavoured with liquid smoke and paprika.
When I first saw Stichelton cheese I was weary of being punked in a similar way. It was like seeing a bottle of sparkling wine labelled ‘Shampayne’. It looked like Stilton, big grey-brown cylinders with a creamy yellowish interior invaded by blue-green veins, but was I being fooled into something, possibly a dairy-free imitation of my favourite British cheese?
Quite the opposite. Not only is Stichelton Stilton, it’s the best Stilton I’ve ever tasted.
It’s made on a small dairy in Nottinghamshire, with the milk from a single herd of cows kept on the farm, to a centuries-old process, using traditional rennet from calves’ stomachs and ancient bacteria strains, unpressed and hand-ladled. It’s about as authentic as they come – except, it’s not.
Stichelton cannot be called Stilton because it is made with raw, unpasteurised milk. The history of Stilton cheese is difficult to trace precisely, but it’s safe to say that using raw milk was the original way to make it. Daniel Defoe’s oft-quoted 1727 mention of the village of Stilton as ‘famous for cheese, which is called our English Parmesan’ appeared over a century before pasteurisation was invented.
That said, milk was rightly blamed for the spread of bacteria and disease (including tuberculosis) a hundred years ago and using pasteurised milk had become the norm for Stilton cheesemakers by the mid-20th century. The last raw-milk Blue Stilton, made by Colston Bassett, was discontinued in 1989 after the words ‘food poisoning outbreak’ and ‘raw-milk Stilton’ appeared very close together in newspapers. Scientific analysis proved this association to be false, but the damage had been done and authentic, unpasteurised Stilton was gone.
Or at least until 2006, when Joe Schneider (in partnership with Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy in London) started making Blue Stilton. Except he had to call it Stichelton (an old spelling, from the Lincoln Rolls in the 13th century, of the town in Cambridgeshire after which the cheese is named), because in between Colston Bassett deciding to pasteurise their milk and Schneider starting his Stilton production, in 1996, Stilton had been granted Protected Designation of Origin status by the European Union.
This scheme is designed to ensure that products with distinctive qualities and characteristics (connected to their historical area of production) can be distinguished from copycats. Products approved under this scheme can only be traded under that name (within the EU and in other countries where it’s written into trade agreements) if they are produced in a particular geographical region, using produce from that region, adhering to strictly defined processes. Punishment for using the name without adhering to the standards can range from confiscation and destruction to fines and imprisonment.
Right now, only six dairies make Blue Stilton cheese. All are in one of the three counties determined in the PDO regulations to be Stilton’s historical area of production: Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire (fun side note: the town of Stilton itself is in Cambridgeshire, so anybody making Stilton in Stilton could not call it Stilton, either).
Stichelton is made in this historical region of production, in Nottinghamshire, and it adheres to every requirement for PDO classification except for the one stating that it must be made from pasteurised milk – remember that Stichelton is made from raw milk drawn from a single local herd, unlike the official Stilton producers who largely use pasteurised mixed batches from various sources, including milk from outside these three allowable counties ‘in times of shortage’.
In other words, if you’re talking about history and authenticity, Stichelton is more of a Stilton than is Stilton. So how did it happen that we got such a glaring glitch in the system designed to protect authenticity?
Well, you could claim conspiracy, that it’s another example of large-scale producers flexing their muscle to push out smaller ones. The EU’s PDO designation was approved after a request submitted by the British government, on behalf of the Stilton Cheesemakers Association, which is made up of those 6 companies currently producing all cheese labelled as Stilton. It wouldn’t be a huge stretch of the imagination to say that they have a strong interest in keeping a monopoly on production.
Or you could simply blame the bureaucratic logjam encountered if you ever try to amend the PDO regulations, which Joe Schneider is currently trying to do but has had (at best) lukewarm cooperation from the Stilton Cheesemakers Association, the British government and the EU. Of course the UK’s decision to leave the European Union throws a whole new layer of uncertainty and confusion over the whole thing, too, as the PDO designation could simply evaporate with no equivalent to replace it.
The situation is paradoxical; and it is language that provides a solution. By changing a word instead of changing the product, we are still able to enjoy products according to their traditions and origins, if not according to legal regulations. In this way, maybe Stichelton is in fact a cause for hope: that one day we will pay more attention to actual products than the things that represent them.