The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

In a previous post, I raved about cheese and Borough Market. Now I find that I missed the grand-daddy of cheese shoppes, that vanguard of fine cheeses, that acme of excellence in fromagerie - Neal's Yard Dairy. Considering that this retailer won a Observer Food Monthly award not three years ago, I have been very, very remiss. I chastise myself.

Randolph Hodgson, the proprietor of this shop, has been fighting a long-drawn war to preserve the knowledge and improve the quality of British specialty cheeses. He insists that customers taste the cheeses before they buy, and he recoils in horror at the idea of the mass-produced supermarket cheeses that one has to buy based entirely on price and the attractiveness of the packaging. Cheese quality improved over the centuries, he avers, then declined with supermarkets and uniform mass production.
I think of it as a Darwinian process,'' he said. ''People make cheeses many times a year, in many ways, and all kinds of factors -- accidents, chance, laziness, intentional changes -- cause variations in the result. In the past, the changes that caused an improvement survived because consumers selected the better cheese. The problem today is that there's very little selection pressure to improve quality, because people don't get to taste cheeses and compare them before buying.

I imagine he'd drop in a faint were I to tell him that some of my happiest moments were when I munched Kraft cheese singles, low-fat, Cheddar-flavoured. Probably chase me out of the shop after he recovered, too.

I am glad to say I've come along a bit since those days. I can tell my Gouda from my Edam, for instance, by cunningly glancing at the label before making a pronouncement. I guess that after eating spicy desi food for the past thirty-odd years, my palate has lost all subtlety and discernment. But I can sometimes even differentiate Stilton from Gorgonzola, and that's saying something. One is English and the other Italian, but that's not what I meant. There's a crumbliness about the former that is not always in the latter. I'll fail a blind tasting test, though. Drat.

Anyway, back to Randolph Hodgson. In 1989, the Stilton Cheese Makers' Association, scared by an outbreak of food-poisoning (allegedly caused by unpasteurised milk, but later shown to have been the result of something else), forbade the use of unpasteurised milk in the production of Stilton. Now here are two ironies. One, for centuries before, Stilton used to be created with raw milk. This had lent it a full flavouring caused by the ripening activity of the harmless bacteria in the milk that was lost when the pasteurisation killed off all the bacteria. The second irony, unrelated to the issue, but one which I want to toss in just to show off my knowledge of trivia, is that the village of Stilton that gives the cheese its name is outside the region that can officially produce the cheese named Stilton. That name is a protected designation of origin, and only cheeses produced according to the Stilton Cheese Makers' Association guidelines in the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire can be given the royal name. Oh yeah, and the milk used should be pasteurised as well.

So here we have Hodgson advocating the use of the best of scientific innovation to preserve the cultural heritage, and producing a cheese that out-Stiltons the best Stiltons, and he can't call it by that name. He names it, instead, Stichelton, which is the original name of the village - as appearing in the Domesday Book.

The New York Times reports that Hodgson has adopted some other traditional methods as well: he uses rennets from the calves' tummies instead of factory-produced moulds; he transfers the curds by hand to a trough for overnight maturation; and he allows the bacteria and yeasts to create an outer rind by avoiding the use of plastic wrap.

Hodgson has applied for an official designation for the Stichelton variant of Stilton. May the force be with him and may his cheeses grow ever cheesier.


If you must learn all that is to be learnt about this finest of cheeses, check out: The History of Stilton Cheese, by Trevor Hickman


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