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Extract from Part Seven: Cheese

Stichelton – Nottinghamshire, England

At six o’clock one morning, I stepped into a warm, white-walled dairy on the edge of Sherwood Forest to watch England’s ‘King of Cheeses’ being made, a Stilton in all but name. Joe Schneider works to an old recipe for the blue-veined cheese, but because he uses unpasteurised milk, he’s not allowed to call it Stilton. Rules passed in the 1990s mean the famous cheese can now only be made with pasteurised milk. To avoid prosecution, Schneider called his cheese Stichelton, Old English for the town that gave Stilton its name.

From the large windows of the Stichelton dairy, I could see the cows returning to their field. A layer of yellow cream glinted across the surface of the morning’s milk as it settled in a long, rectangular stainless steel vat. This was the first step in the twenty-four-hour ‘make’ (farmhouse Cheddar can take as little as six hours). People have tried to speed up Stilton recipes, but it can’t be done; making Stichelton is a long and physical process. Just a minuscule (Schneider says ‘homeopathic’) amount of starter culture is added, to encourage the acidity to develop gradually, ensuring each step of the make (something of a slow-motion high-wire act) can be taken ever so gently. This is not a consistent cheese. Most often it is outstanding, but sometimes Schneider will make a Stichelton which is incomparable, up there among the world’s best.

To create the blue veins that run through the cheese, Schneider adds spores of the fungus Penicillium roqueforti at the start of the make. Later, when the cheeses are maturing, holes are pierced into the centre, letting air in and activating the mould. This causes further breakdown of fats and proteins, adding sharper, more piquant flavours, making the texture softer and creamier and giving parts of the ivory coloured cheese its distinctive indigo blue veins. Before it became possible to manufacture Penicillium roqueforti, Stilton makers were said to have used old pieces of leather which they left hanging outside their dairies until they became coated in a delicate layer of mould. They then draped these through the vats to inoculate their milk.

Five hours into that day’s make, the milk had coagulated, and the whey drained away. Schneider now had to move the warm curds from the vat and onto a long cooling table. Most Stilton makers now do this mechanically, but Schneider insists that it has to be done by hand, one ladle at a time. In a single motion he took a scoop from the vat on his right and swung it across to the cooling table on his left. For an hour, I watched him bend, turn and twist, heaving the curds from one side to the other. The room was silent except for the trance-like slip-slapping sound of moist curds falling onto the table. ‘Do it any other way and you’ll damage the curds and change the texture of the cheese,’ he said. I felt I was witnessing the last fragile link in a chain that had been forged centuries before, one that connected humans, animals, pasture and microbes; a beautiful and natural synchronicity. Science had changed that, casting nature as the enemy and giving the laboratory the status of saviour. In this dairy, I could still feel the sense of wonder for that other lost world. ‘To think,’ I said, as I watched the firm curds pile up, ‘a few hours ago it was milk.’

‘And just two days ago,’ Schneider said, ‘it was grass'.

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