Stilton Cheese and Stilton (1)

There are over 700 named British cheeses produced in the United Kingdom. In 2020 sales increased by 15% in volume and seventeen percent in value with Cheddar, the nation’s favourite, accounting for just under half of all cheese sales. Stilton, though, saw sales drop by 30%, the loss of the all-important hospitality sector and the reduction in the number of dinner parties due to the pandemic hitting it hard. A temporary blip, perhaps, as this most social of cheeses makes the perfect finale to a dinner party, its blue-veined creaminess the ideal accompaniment to a glass of port.

Stilton is one of 255 cheese-based products protected under European Union law by its Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) legislation, a status achieved in 1996, which post Brexit was replaced by the far from catchy Designated Origin UK Protected” or GI, Geographical Interest mark. For a cheese to bear the name “Stilton” it must be made in one of three counties, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire, from locally produced pasteurised milk. Currently, there are only six dairies licensed to manufacture the cheese, centred around the Vale of Belvoir, producing around a million full Stilton cheeses a year.

It comes in two forms, the familiar blue and the white which does not have the blue mould added and is less mature. White Stilton may be a rarity today, with five dairies making it and one under licence, but it was not always so. Brian Flynn’s murder mystery, The Padded Door (1932), partly turns on a judge’s predilection for the blue-veined variety over the white which was the standard restaurant fare at the time.    

Seventy miles north of London as the crow flies and strategically positioned alongside the Great North Road, the village of Stilton may have moved administratively from Huntingdonshire to Cambridgeshire in the 1970s, but it has never been in one of the three counties named in the PDO. Why does the cheese bear its name if it cannot be made there?

Frances Pawlett (or Paulet) from Wymondham near Melton Mowbray produced a cheese in the early 1740s which boasted several innovations; she changed the way the curd was crumbled to produce a more open texture, introduced ceramic pipes with holes in them so that the unpressed cheese could drain and mature, pierced it with stainless steel needles to allow the mould to develop, standardised its weight and size to a sixteen pound drum, and extended the cheese-making season from beyond its traditional summer months.

A relative of Pawlett’s, Cooper Thornhill, was proprietor of the Bell Hotel in Stilton in the 1740s, a popular staging post for travellers journeying between London and the north. She supplied the inn with her cheese, and it was so well received that Thornhill was soon operating as a small-scale wholesaler, selling it at half a crown a pound. Other coaching inns followed suit and the fame of the cheese soon spread far and wide. Not having a name, it was referred to as that cheese from Stilton.

Alternatively, Elizabeth Orton from Little Dalby, near Melton Mowbray, may have been the first to make the cheese, using a secret family recipe. It was known as Quenby, but her activities are not documented before 1730. Perhaps, more fancifully, credit is given to its creation to a Mrs Stilton, head dairymaid to the 5th Duchess of Rutland at Belvoir, although there is no documentary evidence to support this.

There will be another helping of this story next week. In the meantime, if you enjoyed this, check out More Curious Questions by following the link below:

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