Stilton Cheese and Stilton (2)

Stilton itself was a centre of cheese manufacturing. Daniel Defoe on his travels was less than complimentary about its wares in A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (1725). “It is”, he wrote, “a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to the table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese”.

It was clearly not a plain cheese that was served to Defoe, a self-avowed Cheddar man. His reference to Parmesan is ambiguous; it could be taken literally to refer to a hard, pressed cheese or figuratively to suggest its pre-eminence as a cheese, just as Parmesan was the acknowledged King of Cheeses.

Richard Bradley in 1726[1] published a receipt (recipe), for a cream cheese which he said was the “famous” Stilton cheese. “At the Sign of the Bell”, he wrote, “is much the best Cheese in Town the man of that House keeping strictly to the old Receipt. While others thereabouts seem to leave out a great part of the Cream which is the chief ingredient but for all this the Name this sort of Cheeses has got above others makes it sell for 12d per Pound upon the Spot”.

The cheese was pressed implying that it was hard. Bradley, though, was at pains to refute this in 1732 when he described the cheese as so soft “one may spread it upon Bread like Butter”[2]. Clearly, Bradley infers that John Brownell, the then proprietor of the Bell, was following an old recipe, a point reiterated in the testimony of John Pitts, one of Brownell’s successors, in William Marshall’s A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Huntingdonshire (1811).

Pitts asserted that Stilton was originally made in the village, basing his claim on the reminiscences of Croxton Bray, who, as a boy, was sent out with his three sisters and two brothers to collect cream in the neighbouring villages “for the purpose of making what is called Stilton cheese”. Parish records show that Bray was baptised in 1714 suggesting that this cream-based cheese must have been made in the early 1700s, well before Frances Pawlett and Mrs Orton started making theirs in Leicestershire.

Indeed, Leicestershire’s claim to be the home of Stilton was not asserted with any vigour until the close of the 18th century. William Marshall in The Rural Economy of the Midland Counties (1790) announced that “Leicestershire is, at present, celebrated for its “cream cheese” – known by the name of Stilton Cheese”.

Accounts from the early 19th century suggest that cheese was still produced in Stilton, but that the farmers were slapdash, resulting in “so many faulty and unsound cheeses”. Even in the early 1830s when William Cobbett was compiling his A Geographical Dictionary of England and Wales (1832) Stilton was still manufacturing cheese. He observed that Leicestershire’s cheese “so much resembles in quality that which is made at Stilton…that it is also called Stilton Cheese”.

As the quantity and quality of cheese produced in Stilton waned, the superior dairies in the Vale of Belvoir were quick to fill the vacuum and feed the demand for the tasty cheese. What we know today as Stilton is almost certainly the version developed by Frances Pawlett. To clarify the point, in the 1930s it was suggested that it should be renamed Meltonian Cream Cheese, but the name never caught on, leaving the pickle we have today.

Whether the village of Stilton was the first to make the type of cheese which bears its name may never be settled conclusively. What is clear, though, is that any attempt to revive Bradley’s recipe in the village will have to go by any name but Stilton.

If you enjoyed this, check out More Curious Questions by following the link below:

[1] A general treatise of husbandry and gardening

[2] The Gentleman and Farmer’s Guide for the Increase and Improvement of Cattle

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