Monday, December 22, 2008

Cheddar for Christmas

The traditonal cheese for Christmas in England isn't Cheddar; it's Stilton, a creamy, savory, and syrupy blue cheese made in three counties in the midlands. Stilton is my Christmas cheese of choice as well, but I also add Parmesan to my holiday shopping list. On Christmas Eve, I make a celery bisque with Stilton toasts, and before Christmas dinner, we start off with cocktails and snack on the Stilton left over from the previous evening's soup. My main dish for the holiday meal, a vegetarian one, I use Parmesan in a visually impressive green and red polenta torte. A hearty sauce of mushrooms and Parmesan separates the two layers of polenta, which has been enriched with Parmesan. If Christmas is about celebrating the king of kings, you might as well eat the king of cheeses, too.

Stilton is the right cheese for Christmas. The batches that are ready for eating in December have been made with summer milk, when cows are eating lush pasture. This milk is rich and full-flavored and is the best for making Stilton. This cheese's buttery texture and complex flavors are ideally suited for the winter; in the warmer months it would feel too heavy and warming. In the cold months, however, this is just what you are looking for.

And boy are people looking for it! The lines, or queues, are forming outside the cheese shop, and Stilton, or Stichelton, is on the top of our customers' list. But I would say that the next popular cheese is Cheddar, and amoung the five we sell in the shop, Montgomery's is number one. In fact, it's our best selling cheese.

New Yorkers wouldn't wait in line, like Londoners, for cheese at Christmas. They might queque up for a Barney's warehoue sale or a Vera Wang one, or brunch anywhere, but not cheese. In the U.S. there is no iconic cheese for Christmas, and cheese isn't considered one of the necessary courses for the holiday meal. In England it is, where they eat it after dessert. Very strange. But I fully support bringing out thePort to to drink with Stilton after dinner, provided I'm offered some. Years ago I went to a dinner party in Scotland and after the meal, the men got to enjoy Port at the table, while the women were segregated in the drawing room, with no booze in sight. The injustice!

This Christmas, there's another blue cheese in town that has positioned itself to be an alternative to Stilton. It's called Stichelton, the original Saxon name for the town of Stilton. It's just like Stilton (though by law I shouldn't say this) except for the fact that it's made with raw milk, as Stilton used to be. Up until 1989 Colston Bassett Stilton, the one we sell in the shop, was made with unpasteurized milk, but then in 1990 the Stilton Makers Association required that a cheese wanting to be called Stilton had to be made with pasteurized milk. This was the result of a food scare, even though raw-milk Stilton was determined not to be the culprit of the food-borne illness.

Randloph Hodgson, the owner of Neal's Yard Dairy, missed the depth of flavor that raw milk Colston Bassett had, so he convinced an American cheesemaker in Britain, Joe Schneider, to make a raw milk Stilton. This was dreamed up and agreed upon over many pints at the Wheatsheaf, a pub near Borough Market (where my camera was stolen). The Stilton Makers Association wouldn't accept their cheese as Stilton, so, in a cheeky move, they named in Stilchelton and created packaging very similar to Colston Bassett. It's a great cheese, that's been around for only two years, and still has a way to go. It's savory and almost has a baked-Cheddar taste, and the flavor lingers much longer that the Colston Bassett which slips off your tounge too soon.

For Christmas this year, I think I am going to have Stilton for Christmas Eve and Stiltchelton for Christmas dinner and see which ones my cousins prefer. I'll also have some English goats' and sheep's cheese, but no Cheddar if you can believe it! There are still plenty of other folks buying it for Christmas, but I am going to focus on the blue.

I'll get my Cheddar sooon enough; I'm bringing a modest--but ample--hunk of it on the plane with me to Australia on Boxing Day. It should sustain me over the three days of travel. And my mind will feast on memories of Stichelton.


Alan said...


Hope you had a great Christmas and a good trip to Australia. Missing you back here in Astoria (even though my running is seriously curtailed due to injury).


Anonymous said...

Hey, I thought I was the only one with a plastic wrap (aka cling film) learning disability. My relatives have learned never to leave me to wrap leftovers up after holiday meals because I always get wrapped up in the plastic myself. At least you can get it on the food it was intended for! Another common link...L, RB

anne said...

i bought some cheddar in your honor while in san francisco. but found out that it was from wisconsin, and only distributed by point reyes blue. oh well. it was delish nonetheless!

msdeemc said...

Because Formaggio's didn't have any Scottish cheeses (!) we went with the old standby, Montgomerey's, along with a hunk of Stichelton for Robert Burns day last weekend.