The enormous popularity of a throwback cheese released five years ago by Neal's Yard Dairy hasn't persuaded the United Kingdom's Stilton makers to rethink their stance on unpasteurized milk, representatives from the renowned British cheese distributor recently told a group of Seattle cheese lovers.
Stilton's on the bottom, Stichelton's on top.
James Rutter and Katy Gunn of Neal's Yard Dairy this weekend stopped by The Calf and Kid for a formal cheese sampling on their way to the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. The tasting included a Colston Bassett Stilton and a Stichelton - an unpasteurized cow's milk cheese created by Randolph Hodgson, owner of Neal's Yard, and cheesemaker John Schneider. The cheese is meant to emulate the classic Stiltons produced by British dairies before a 1989 listeria scare provoked trademarked Stilton cheesemakers to ban raw milk.
"Stilton is the only product of designated origin that's pasteurized," Rutter said.
In the late 1990s, cheese writer Matthew Fort and Hodgson shared a bit of Colston Bassett's final unpasteurized Stilton: "It was a cheese-eating epiphany, a lactic Everest," Fort wrote years later. Hodgson, who was equally struck by the cheese, began casting about for a cheesemaker willing to use unpasteurized milk in a Stilton-style recipe. He wanted to recreate the oozy, grassy, creamy qualities of the veiny cheese her remembered.
"We approached Billy Kevan (of Colston Bassett) and he said 'not a chance. They'll kick me out of Nottinghamshine'," Rutter recalled. "We finally found someone clever or drunk enough to do it."
Hodgson ended up collaborating with Schneider, a much-admired American-born cheesemaker who was discreetly advised by longtime Stilton producers. Stichelton - named for the village of Stilton's original name - was first sold in 2007, sooner than the Neal's Yard team anticipated.
"It takes a very long time to develop a recipe for something that hasn't been made for 30 years," Rutter said. "Excuse the phrase, you've got to have some balls."
Tasted side-by-side, the differences between a Stilton and Stichleton are stark. Where the Stilton hums, the Stichelton roars.
"I compare it to coffee," Rutter said. "The Stilton is rich and buttery, like a latte. The Stichelton is quite deep, quite dark, like an espresso."
Neal's Yard has sold out its entire Stichelton run, but Rutter says Stilton producers aren't reconsidering their commitment to pasteurized milk, now enshrined in the cheese's official definition.
"It's a shame, but it's a designation," he says.