“Rediscovering the White Knight”
Posted by James Fell on
In past articles I have noted the demise of some sectors of our regional cheese heritage, most notably Farmhouse Cheshire
In the same graveyard are other names and types I only ever heard about, such as a traditional Derby cheese, which I last saw in 20 kilo blocks more than 30 years ago, looking like mild Cheddar, and far from the original traditional round wheel shape I believe.
White Stilton is one that has slipped too from the eyeline, and I must of course declare an interest, albeit that it’s not something exclusive.
I recall white Stilton at Christmas in my younger days. Sharp, fresh, tangy and in the true Northern tradition, it was enjoyed with rich fruit cake, fresh apples or even crumbled on hot apple pie. Christmas was simply not Christmas without those extras that sat around our Christmas feast, including dates from Egypt, satsuma from Spain and, of course, chocolate coins.
White Stilton is a uniquely difficult cheese to make, produced as it is over two days, and where the pressing of the curd in the hoop is forbidden by the strict PDO regulations that surround this white version and its more illustrious blue offspring.
Probably more than 300 years has passed since it is thought that Blue Stilton evolved from its white mother, and written provable testimony is limited; in all probability Blue Stilton was an accident of creation.
After all, without refrigeration, with open texture and doubtful hygiene techniques, it’s likely it blued just naturally, and the story of the Bell Inn in Stilton, the stage coaches to London and the journeys of great writers acclaiming Blue Stilton carried that to well-deserved fame, whilst White Stilton has slipped into the shadows.
Maybe the crumbly, fractured texture made it less popular on counters as domination of this became the province of multiples in the 90s and deskilling, waste and head office thinking spelt the death sentence of a number of formerly great British favourites. Doubtless the mass prepack brigades found this crumbly icon a hard product to master and just as easy to sideline.
White Stilton was possibly viewed as granddad's cheese, and was wrapped up in the consumer’s mind with whether one liked Blue Stilton; all added to the lack of momentum. A new lease of life arrived in the early 70s, when some enterprising individual thought to add apricots to White Stilton; the first leader of modern additive British cheese arrived from Millway, I believe. That stellar advantage has been steadily eroded, which is a pity as White Stilton is quite simply still the best carrier of sweetness of any crumbly cheese types.
Maybe as a pedigree PDO of some standing, the higher base cost, and indeed the actual erratic nature of supply made it easier for mass-produced cheaper types (Wensleydale et al) made anywhere throughout the UK to steal that advantage in additive cheese. That very limited band of dual makers of both white and Blue Stilton know full well the making challenge around this distinct cheese.
I do predict that White Stilton will be back, whether in its home market or even in export ones, as this lost regional variety recovers its rightful heritage. It may have to modernise and be creative to reach new audiences, but there are several innovative makers in this sector who will come again to new markets; certainly Long Clawson and Shirevale are working hard down that road.
It is generally said that a prophet is never revered in his own land, and the decline of White Stilton’s reputation in UK markets is in stark contrast to the recognition that it enjoys in export markets, where alternative base types have not yet overwhelmed its preference from many buyers, and in the USA in particular where it’s is readily recognised.
In common with many smaller types that frequently are shunned by the major retail players, it may have to seek new markets in food service, export and online. White Stilton will need to innovate and create a new identity for a new generation of buyers, and when it’s again recognised and recovered to its rightful place, it may at least have a full sale and order position in a new dispersed market that will ensure it’s not as vulnerable in the future. Arise the new white knight.