by Sinclair Newton
An Irish landlord of my acquaintance once pleaded with me to bring some Stilton cheese over to Ibiza. It was, he said, the one thing he really, really missed in his expatriate diet whilst he lived and worked on the Island.
Christmas is, of course, the best time of year for this blue-veined crumbly cheese which is that texture because it is under no pressure as it is matured on wooden racks in an airy room; it seems to me an ideal state to be in and the cylindrical cheeses even develop a thick skin to go with their peace and quiet. The rind is a crust that forms naturally and is delicious melted into hotpot.
The milk is from cows grazing all summer on the luscious grass of just three delectable counties in the English midlands. It is collected in churns from farm gates all over Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire (now including Rutland). Once, at the Nantwich Cheese Show, which is held in Cheshire and is said to be the biggest show of its kind in the world, I elicited a promise from the boss of Dairy Crest, the company that owns nearly all the stilton production, that they will never attempt to switch production elsewhere and indeed it now has legal status within the EU as a sort of protected food species. He told me they proudly owned Hartington Creamery in the Derbyshire Dales that has been producing Stilton for just over a hundred years, though these years they have to pasteurise the milk.
The focal point of this world-class cheese is the town of Melton Mowbray, just off the Great North Road, around where you can also get the best hand-raised pork pies in the world. There is a connection and it's the way they use the whey left over from the cheese making because it is a superbly nutritious drink for the pigs.
There's actually a village called Stilton just off the A1 from whence the cheese got its name. Allegedly, it all started at the start of the 18th century when a starving traveller stayed the night at the Bell Inn there and demanded sustenance. Well, he probably just asked for a cheese sandwich and the landlord offered up the only food he had - some mouldy cheese that had developed blue veins from natural spores in the air. It was delicious. The pallid white cheese had been transformed and the pub became and remains famous as a result.
There are still some farmhouses where they make their own Stilton and you can find their produce in a few shops in Melton Mowbray, but I find these artisans tend to produce a smoother, creamier version of the cheese with a bitter tang and try as I may can find no reason to criticise Dairy Crest's bulk production. In fact, they have saved one of the nation's treasures by their corporate intervention. It is their Stilton adorning all but one of the world's dining tables this Christmas and I'll explain that in a minute.
They also make very tasty Cheddar called Cathedral City, though quite which Cathedral it refers to is something of a marketing mystery, and they own St. Ivel which has a great future in alcoholic creams and butters. "Would you pass the butter, please?" will take on a whole new meaning for me.
Spain has Manchego, which is great for nibbling, but I don't believe I've ever seen Spanish blue. Perhaps there's nothing in the air tonight.
Port goes well with Stilton, though I suggest it should be in a glass and shun the idea of actually pouring it into the cheese. It ruins them both. I, of course, just take mine with a digestive biscuit or two.
I've been musing about all of this because you can now buy whole Stilton cheeses weighing two kilos from Sainsbury's supermarket (well, you could before Christmas) and no doubt you can still get silver scoops for attacking whole cheeses from the top down.
So I did. I bought two. It was great wheeling them round in my trolley, but it didn't seem to phase the checkout girl.
I gave one to a good friend who appreciates this sort of pretentious foodie nonsense. He cut it in half across the middle and then into eight wedges, each weighing about half a pound, one of which he had after his Christmas lunch. He brought me a wedge later in the evening, distributing two more on the way and has frozen the other four wrapped in cling film.
I sent the other with my mother who was taken for lunch at my sister's with half a dozen other relatives and the suggestion they should eat some and share out the rest. It seemed to me a brilliant way of solving the wretched problem of what to buy them all for Christmas and I felt smug.
Surely they would appreciate all this and tell all their friends about this remarkable festive gift? They might not have a silver scoop between them, but they would be joining in a three-hundred-year-old tradition with some of the best cheese there ever was.
By Boxing Day, that peculiar British institution when you count the empty bottles, I had got the whole cheese back. Not one of them liked Stilton, apparently. My brother in law had been eyeing up the gift they had for me, a toiletry bag from Marks and Sparks, and agreed a swap.
I am delighted, naturally, but I've also got that guilt-ridden feeling that I made a mistake by buying a present I would like myself without thinking about what the recipients would like and buried somewhere in my mind is the recognition that I was wrong in attempting to impose smelly cheese on my in-laws. (Did I mention that Stilton smells like old socks)
Next year I'll buy
another Stilton just for me and I'll get them all hankies.
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