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In Search of English Artisanal Cheese

A bread-making class at the School of Artisan Food, on the Welbeck Estate, in Nottinghamshire.

Photo: Andrew Montgomery

That’s how my wife, Penelope, and I ended up on a three-hour journey from our Oxfordshire house to Sherwood Forest (yes, the one from Robin Hood), a part of the English Midlands completely unknown to us. Here we checked in to Browns Bed & Breakfast, where the gregarious Joan Brown runs three one-bedroom lodges, each with a four-poster bed, views of the manicured garden, and fresh flowers every day. The next morning, a huge breakfast of local eggs, bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes, and mushrooms fortified us for the cheese adventure ahead.

After breakfast, we drove a mile along a rural, single-lane road to the dairy and toured the estate with Alison Parente. Looking for uses for their many vacant buildings (they already had an art gallery, garden center, and a café), the Parentes offered Schneider a tenancy on Collingthwaite Farm, with its existing organic herd of 150 Holstein-Friesian cows, and the challenge of converting a 250-year-old L-shaped barn into a modern dairy.

Schneider’s family now lives in a large Victorian house on the Welbeck Estate, not far from the vast stable block where the Parentes built the School of Artisan Food, which teaches baking, brewing, butchery, preserving, and cheese making to amateurs as well as students of the University of Derby.

Over the course of two days, Schneider showed us how Stichelton, said to be a historic name for Stilton, is made using the original raw-milk method of Colston Bassett.

In the first room, with its titanium-clad fire door, were two stainless-steel vats bought secondhand from Colston Bassett, which was also generous about sharing its know-how. In the first vat a minimal amount of coagulating rennet and a bit of blue mold culture starter are added to the milk and stirred in with an oarlike paddle. “The curd is very fragile,” Schneider explains. “We ladle it by hand into the second shallow vat.” This is only part of the skilled handwork that distinguishes Stichelton from the larger makers of Stilton.

The curds are then milled, salted, and scooped into cylindrical drum molds. Never pressed, the cheese’s buttery texture is achieved purely by the force of gravity. Five days later its outside is smoothed to make the distinctive rind—this is achieved with nothing more high-tech, Schneider shows us with a small grin, than the blade of a Sheffield kitchen knife.

During our visit, builders were just putting the finishing touches on a second maturing room to accommodate the 40 tons Schneider hopes to produce this year. Meanwhile, Colston Bassett will make 400 tons, and Cropwell Bishop about 1,000. Though worldwide demand for artisanal blue cheeses such as Stichelton is increasing, you can see no one is ever going to get rich from making it.

The revival of this old British cheese is restoring a vital part of food culture in the British Isles, giving them something to be swaggeringly proud of, as even some French people adopt the tradition and put Stichelton on their tables at Christmas. After all, as the gastronome Brillat-Savarin once said, “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.” How much greater the contribution to human happiness, then, to have rescued this fabulous cheese from extinction.

Paul Levy is an Oxfordshire-based writer and food critic, and a frequent T+L contributor.


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