If you are looking for a business that is not very profitable, try making stilton. It is laborious to manufacture, requiring a lot of personal attention and hand work. For just cheese, after all. But since it is classed as a luxury cheese, its producers are required to pay a premium for the milk they buy, because in England such prices are regulated by the style of the product. And 28 pounds of milk -- 17 gallons worth -- shrink down to a mere 15 to 17 pounds of finished cheese, which is one wheel of stilton. What's more, 40 percent of its sales are squeezed into a three-month period before Christmas, so from the end of August through the fall the factories must run "at 120 percent capacity."
"It's a lot like Baron Rothschild with his wine," said Bob Reader, manager of Long Clawson Dairy, one of England's largest and most respected stilton producers; it's a good thing Long Clawson has a thriving milk production and other cheeses to cushion its stilton making. "Except for the fact they make no noise, they are more trouble than babies," a stilton-making farm wife has been quoted by everyone from Reader to Evan Jones, author of "The World of Cheese".
On the other hand, stilton is the only English cheese not subject to quotas in the United States. So now there is a strong push to market it to Americans. "We used to let people come and buy it," said Reader wryly of his company's traditional marketing procedure. But this cooperative dairy has now entered the modern commercial age: "Now we are starting to sell it." They are not only designing new boxes for export and educational materials to accompany the cheese, but have made a videotape to teach the purveyors themselves about the cheese.
Cheesemaking used to be women's work. In fact, the making of stilton was begun in the early 18th century by a farm wife, though which particular one remains in dispute. Now only 50 percent of the cheesemakers at Long Clawson are women.
And two centuries after its origin, when the process has largely moved from farm to factory, it has become necessary to protect the definition of this distinctive English cheese. By early this century the quality was declining, and it took until 1969 for a British High Court to back the definition of stilton. Patrick Rance in "The Great British Cheese Book" (which an English connoisseur is likely to carry around as a Frenchman does his "Michelin") explains that definition as "a blue or white cheese made from full-cream milk with no applied pressure, forming its own crust or coat and made in cylindrical form, the milk coming from English dairy herds in the district of Melton Mowbray and surrounding areas falling within the counties of Leicestershire (now including Rutland), Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire." As Rance bemoans, the judgment came too late to exclude pasteurization, so that only Colston Bassett Dairy now makes an unpasteurized stilton, which is considered richer in flavor. The only additives allowed in stilton are rennet, a starter and salt. The moisture content of a finished stilton is not more than 42 percent, and the fat and dry matter are at least 48 percent.
The most troublesome part of that definition, once you have obtained the whole milk from the properly situated dairy herds, is the lack of pressure. That's what makes the cheese so fragile.
Long Clawson makes 250,000 stiltons a year, which is about 30 percent of all stiltons made. In a typical east midlands village of 800 people, the dairy employes 350 people. The largest of its three stilton factories, though, is in the nearby town of Hose. There the production is overseen by Sam Willder, who began making Long Clawson stilton 23 years ago at age 15.
In those days, said Willder, farmers brought milk in 10-gallon churns, and the cheese was made in 80-gallon pans. Now the milk arrives in tankers, and 9,800 gallons per day are transformed into 560 cheeses. Does the resulting cheese taste different? "Yes," said Willder, "it's bound to have changed." The cheese has become milder, less mellow; and quality has become more consistent. "But so has the public's taste changed over the past 20 years."
Nowadays they don't just wait until molds from the air alight on the cheese to turn it blue. They add cultures from Denmark, the same used for Danish blue cheese. Rennet is added to coagulate the milk, and thus the process starts: After an hour and a half the milk can be cut with knives, which allows the whey to be released. For another hour and a half the curd is left to settle and develop acidity, then the whey is removed -- to be fed to pigs. The curd is left in vats overnight to further drain with no pressure on it. By the next morning the solid mass can be cut into blocks and milled into walnut-sized pieces. At that point salt is mixed by hand -- 10 ounces per 28 pounds of curd -- and the curd is put in molds and left in air-conditioned rooms -- called, with British directness, hastener rooms -- to age and drain further.
The hand work continues. Every 24 hours the cheese is turned so its weight does not press the curd; when the molds are removed six days later the shapes of the curds are intact. Then comes the rubbing with a spatula -- by hand -- to smooth the surface, seal the coat and reduce the rate of evaporation. The rubbing alone takes 5 1/2 minutes per cheese, and painstaking care is taken to avoid breaking the edges or scraping off too much. Once unmolded the cheese needs a calico bandage to support its shape. Another week of aging in a colder room, and again the cheese is turned every day by hand. Then a warmer room holds the cheese for two to three weeks. The daily turning continues. Finally the cheese is moved to a warehouse for its final aging.
During this aging, ammonia is building up within the cheese, and not only does it need to be released lest the cheese pop, but oxygen must be introduced to turn the veins blue. So at six and seven weeks, the cheese is pierced repeatedly with 16 long stainless steel needles, which make the tracks for oxygen to enter. The flavor beings to change from mild and chalky to the characteristic sharpness. After the cheese has aged a total of seven to nine weeks -- and has been "ironed" or tasted with a long, thin curved metal scoop -- it is ready to ship, though for some markets it is first coated with wax or plastic. American distributors often request that the natural crust be removed before the coating is added.
Stilton is a cheese that softens as it ages; at Long Clawson they recommend 10 weeks as its ideal age, though some people keep their stiltons "until they slide off the table," said Reader. In the days when stilton making was a less controlled process, the cheese took as long as 16 weeks to age. Specialty shops -- Long Clawson supplies Harrod's as well as others, and Sutton Place Gourmet in Washington -- prefer mature cheeses.
Once the cheese is refrigerated, of course, the aging process is slowed and the cheese can be kept longer, but after it is cut it should be eaten within 10 days. Cut stilton can also be frozen successfully. Willder, who eats stilton daily, after dinner, with crackers and french bread, freezes his in one-pound pieces and claims it grows creamier. He admits though, "People look absolutely horrified when I tell them to freeze it." The trick is to freeze it quickly, he says, and thaw it slowly in the refrigerator for about two days. Unwrap the pieces and let them sit at room temperature for a couple hours before serving to let air get to the cheese.
A good stilton has a hard crust, dark and wrinkled, with no cracks; it is said that each manufacturer can identify his own cheese by its crust. The interior should be cream-colored to yellow, its veins greenish blue and well spread (though the marbling concentrates at the center), its texture even. That texture can range from crumbly to smooth and soft to firm, and the veining can be light to heavy. Other than that, there are variations in size and shape depending on the manufacturer, but it is a tall cylinder somewhere around 9 inches high and 15 pounds, and is generally halved horizontally when served. Even in stores, said Willder, the cheese should be turned weekly to preserve the even texture.
As for the traditional scooping out of a stilton, Willder shudders at the very thought. Not only does that expose more surface and dry the remaining cheese, it is wasteful. The modern way to serve stilton is to cut it in wedges one inch deep. While the traditional accompaniment for stilton is port, Willder prefers dry white wine. The cheese goes well with walnuts, crackers, even apple pie.
Nowadays there are baby stiltons -- about five pounds. But Reader admitted that they are not as good as the traditional large ones; "It's a natural product that matures, and we haven't got it right yet," he explained. Long Clawson has developed a cheddar-colored stilton, is playing around with a soft blue cheese, and is beginning to think about a low-fat soft stilton. "Low fat is becoming the in thing," says Willder.
And stilton is intended to become the in cheese.
Here are some recipes that use it to advantage. STILTON BURGERS (4 servings) 1 1/2 pounds ground beef Salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoons finely minced scallions 5 tablespoons sour cream 1/4 pound stilton French bread for serving Garlic for seasoning french bread.
Lightly combine ground beef with salt, pepper, scallions and 3 tablespoons sour cream. Form into eight patties. Crumble stilton and mash together with remaining 2 tablespoons sour cream. Mound stilton mixture in the center of 4 patties. Top with remaining patties and seal edges by pressing together. Grill in a hot skillet or broil, turning once, until meat is cooked to your taste (about 2 minutes per side). Serve on french bread, lightly toasted and rubbed with garlic. GRILLED FISH WITH STILTON SAUCE (4 servings) 1 pound fish fillets (such as sole, flounder or halibut) 2 tablespoons butter Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 lemon 1/2 cup whipping cream 1/2 cup stilton, crumbled Cayenne pepper to taste
Dot fish fillets with butter, sprinkle with salt and pepper and the juice of half a lemon. Broil until surface is browned and fish is just turning opaque in the center, about 5 minutes per half inch thickness. In the meantime, combine cream and stilton in a blender or food processor until smooth. Add cayenne to taste. Spread stilton mixture on fish and return to broiler for a couple of minutes until lightly browned. Serve immediately. BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH STILTON (4 servings)
Those two very British staples, brussels sprouts and stilton, are astonishingly complementary. 1 pint brussels sprouts, quartered vertically 3 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons onion, finely minced 2 tablespoons lemon juice Pepper to taste 4 tablespoons crumbled stilton
Bring a saucepan full of salted water to boil and add quartered brussels sprouts. Boil 2 minutes until sprouts are just barely cooked through. Drain and spread on a towel to cool while you make the sauce.
In a skillet melt the butter and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until onion turns soft and translucent but does not brown. Remove from heat and add lemon juice, pepper and stilton; cheese should remain slightly lumpy rather than smooth the sauce. Add brussels sprouts and return to heat, stirring, just until sprouts are warmed through. Serve. CAULIFLOWER AND STILTON FLAN (4 to 6 servings) 8 tablespoons unsalted butter 3/4 cup flour, plus 2 tablespoons 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 to 3 tablespoons water 1 pound cauliflower florets 1 cup onions, skinned and chopped 3/4 cup milk Freshly ground pepper 1/2- 3/4 cup blue stilton cheese, crumbled Generous 1/4 cup English cheddar cheese, grated
Rub 6 tablespoons butter into 3/4 cup flour and salt. Bind to a dough with a little water. Chill in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes.
Roll out the pastry and use to line a 9-inch flan dish or ring placed on a baking sheet. Chill again for 10-15 minutes, then bake in the oven at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes until set (golden brown).
Cook the cauliflower florets in a saucepan of boiling salted water for 4-5 minutes until just tender. Drain well and cool.
Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a pan, saute' the onion until soft, then stir in the 2 tablespoons flour and cook gently for 2 minutes, stirring. Remove the pan from the heat and gradually stir in the milk. Bring to the boil and continue to cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens, then add pepper to taste.
Sprinkle the stilton evenly over the base of the flan. Arrange the cauliflower on top. Spoon over the onion sauce and sprinkle with the cheddar cheese.
Bake at 375 degrees for 25-30 minutes until golden and bubbly. Serve hot.
From "The Dairy Book of Family Cookery" STILTON SOUP (From English Country Cheese Council) (4 to 6 servings) 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 onion, skinned and finely chopped 5 celery sticks, finely chopped 4 tablespoons flour 1/2 cup dry white wine 2 cups chicken stock 1/2 cup milk 4 ounces blue stilton cheese, crumbled Salt and freshly ground pepper 1/2 cup whipping cream
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the onion and celery and cook until soft but not browned -- about 5 minutes. Add the flour and cook for another minute, then move the pan from heat.
Stir in the wine and stock and return to heat. Bring to the boil, stirring continuously until the soup thickens, then simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.
Cool slightly and liquidize or press the soup through a sieve. Return to the rinsed-out pan.
Add the milk and heat gently. Stir in the stilton, seasoning and whipping cream until melted. Do not let the soup boil at this point or it will curdle. Serve hot or chilled.