Why am I here in Nottinghamshire, wearing blue plastic overshoes, a matching plastic raincoat, and a hairnet? I am standing in a near-sterile dairy, on a mission to find one of Britain’s greatest delicacies, a cheese that I thought had become extinct. This is a tale of loss and rebirth involving an expatriate American, a stubborn Brit, and a cheese filled with history.
In Britain, Christmas used to mean turkey, plum pudding, and a course of creamy, blue-veined Stilton, a raw cow’s-milk cheese with a whispered tang of acidity. But in 1989 there was a food-poisoning scare, and all the victims had in common was that they’d eaten Stilton.
It turned out the cheese wasn’t the culprit. But it was too late—the quasi-governmental Milk Marketing Board persuaded farmers of Colston Bassett, a farm cooperative that had become the sole producer of raw-milk Stilton, to buy expensive pasteurization equipment, and the Minister of Agriculture threatened to prohibit the sale of all unpasteurized cheese. So the last true unpasteurized Stilton was sold in 1990. After that, genuine Stilton disappeared; my tastings of “artisanal” renditions such as Colston Bassett and Cropwell Bishop confirmed it. The cheese had become dry and crumbly in the center, not moistly unctuous and buttery, and the subtle, fruity flavors that marked the aftertaste of old Stilton were gone, replaced by a one-dimensional salty note. As if this weren’t bad enough, thanks to lobbying by the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association, the genuine article could never be made and marketed again under the name Stilton because only pasteurized milk could be used.
Three years ago at a birthday party given by a friend in London, dinner finished with a cheese that not only looked like Stilton but was also buttery and fruity. And, goodness, the fragrance. It reeked of Old England.
Our host said it was an experimental new cheese named Stichelton (pronounced stitch-el-ton). My curiosity was provoked. I had published a story back in 1990 mourning the death of true Stilton, and now it appeared to have been resurrected. I had to find out how this triumph had come about.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Britain’s most renowned cheese monger, Randolph Hodgson, owner of Neal’s Yard Dairy, had a hand in the renaissance. In 1989, he had fought the government’s proposed ban of unpasteurized cheese and won. Then in 2004 Hodgson ran into someone he thought could help him revive his cherished Stilton. Joe Schneider, a charming American with a Cornell degree in agricultural engineering (and who had grown up on Velveeta, like most Americans of his generation), was intrigued by cheese making. He had moved to Holland, where his Ohio-born wife, Audre, had a job, and there he found work that allowed him to learn from local artisans who were making some excellent small-batch cheeses. The couple drifted to Sussex, where Joe worked on a biodynamic farm in East Grinstead before moving on to the Cotswolds to create the wildly successful Daylesford cheddar, a sharp and nutty cheese with a cult following.
One more piece was missing from the puzzle. To make organic cheese you need a steady supply of organic milk, which in turn requires that you have a farm with a closed and regularly tested herd of cows. Serendipity struck: Hodgson met William and Alison Parente, the owners of the stately pile Welbeck Abbey and its 17,000-acre estate, near Nottingham in the Dukeries.