When contemplating the impact of food heritage on modern tastes, one has to look no further than cheesemaking, an age-old tradition dating back over 4, 000 years. I can still remember the first time I sampled a piece. I was watching my father spoon a bright orange crumble onto a hard cracker biscuit. He broke off a small corner and handed it to me. The overwhelming sensation was the taste, the flavour layered in its complexity from the first bite to the last. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was tasting something far beyond the cheese itself; I was tasting the land. I could taste the process it took to make it, from the milk of the cow right through to the grass it had grazed on, even the rain that had fallen on the ground beneath it. The correlation between land and taste had never been more poignant than in that moment and it led to a discovery. I am on my way to meet Joe Schneider, cheesemaker and co-founder of one of the rarest cheeses in the UK, Stichelton, to see first-hand just how vital it is to preserve this endangered heritage.
In 2004, together with his partner Neal’s Yard Dairy founder Randolph Hodgson, Joe Schneider set about the idea of returning to the traditional style of producing a Stilton-style cheese using unpasteurised milk, on a dairy farm in Cuckney, on the edge of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. In 1996, all production of Stilton using unpasteurised milk ceased, making this tradition of cheesemaking extinct. It’s a heritage dating back generations, when it was last made on a farm as far back as the 1930’s. Despite his quest to resurrect the process, the use of the name ‘Stilton’ was denied by the Stilton Maker Association due to the use of unpasteurised milk which led to the birth of Stichelton. The very name resonates a bygone era, made by combining the words Stichl’ meaning style and ‘Tun’ meaning village, Stichelton was one of the early Anglo-Saxon names used historically for the village of Stilton. ‘It is the holy grail of cheesemaking to bring back this process,’ Joe says, as I sit across from him over a cup of coffee. Here at Collingthwaite Farm all aspects of the cheesemaking process are just a few yards away. I can even see the herd of Friesian-Holstein cows from the window. ‘We produce around 43 tonnes a year,’ he tells me, ‘which might sound like a lot but compared to commercial cheese production, it’s quite small.’ This control of quality, and dedication to the culture is what sets Stichelton apart from commercial cheesemaking. Maintaining this tradition is crucial if the legacy is to be preserved, so it’s no surprise that his reasons for preserving this heritage are grounded in philosophy. ‘Cheesemaking is the perfect example of how food and farming go together,’ he explains, referring to the pastures green stretched out beyond his office window. The terroir is as important to him as the cheese itself. ‘There is a connection to the craft that makes this process so fascinating.’ In fact, each part of the process becomes a factor to the overall flavour, a perfect combination between instinct and science. One small tweak, and you find yourself with a whole different cheese. We walk across the field as Joe talks me through this. ‘It’s about the land, the animal and the climate,’ he says. The three factors essential to cheesemaking that sets apart the flavour. ‘That is the pleasure of what we taste.’
Once inside the dairy, my attention turns to the artisanal aspect of the cheese. ‘The process of cheesemaking is the connection to the craft,’ Joe says, as we change into blue aprons and work boots. He walks me through each stage, as we navigate a culture that has all but been abandoned by traditional cheesemakers. ‘The milk is pumped from the dairy directly into the vat,’ Joe says, in a testament to the importance of locality. He doesn’t want to be making cheese in the isolation of a dairy where the milk is delivered by a lorry, far removed from the source of the ingredient. Instead he opts to keep the cows on the land, set out to pasture across 250 acres. By playing an active role in the farming, Joe has the ability to monitor things like quality of diet, ensuring the cows are fed on a mixture of grass, sugar beet and silage. It is a consideration imperative to the well-being of the cow and as Joe explained, directly effects the flavour of the milk. ‘The flora of the milk expresses the land, breed and climate,’ he tells me. ‘It’s the expression of what the milk has to offer.’ From here, I am shown to a metal machine where the milk is pumped directly from the parlour into a large vat, the source of the milk just a few yards away, the freshness of the ingredient adding a complexity to the flavour. A blue penicillium mould is rehydrated the night before and is added to the milk as it is pumped. The milk is then heated before a starter is added, after which a traditional rennet is applied that gives the cheese its unique soft and silky texture. The curds that form sink to the bottom and lie untouched for two hours. The whey is then removed from the top surface of the vat using a traditional saucer shaped ladle. The meticulous nature of production is reminiscent of an ancient ceremony, and witnessing it I feel as if I’ve been transported to another era.
As with each part of this methodical routine, the drainage process is slow. It is important that the curd is well-drained before it begins to acidify. The next morning, these blocks of curd are then run through a peg mill, breaking them up into small, individual pieces. Salt is then added by hand, fluffing the curd to aid its consistency. This milled curd is then added to a tall hoop and turned upside down each day. Once firmed, they are removed from the hoops and taken to the rubbing up room where they are scraped using a knife, blocking out air so that it doesn’t blue prematurely. Lastly, they are taken into the drying out room where the cheese begins to develop a crust. It is this crust that is renowned for its distinctive flavour, only attributed to here. ‘It’s tied to a sense of place,’ Joe says, as he examines the crust on a large wheel. ‘It simply can’t be replicated anywhere else.’ This crust is one of the unusual aspects of Stichelton, a deep orange colour signifying the richness of flavour that has been created through the maturing process. Within a cooler second maturing room, and after six weeks of maturing, the cheeses are pierced to allow air into the cheese so that the blue mould can break down the cheese into a soft texture. The process is arduous and painstaking, but it’s not just the cheese itself that Joe is dedicated to preserving, it is the security of this heritage of cheesemaking.
As Joe hands me a sample to try, I am met with the powerful correlation between taste and memory. It is clearly an inherent part of Collingthwaite Farm. The restoration of the flavour of this cheese protects the very memory of its lineage, and adds a certain romanticism towards the relationship between man and pasture. But to Joe it’s something deeper. ‘It is a war of attrition with dumbed down food,’ he tells me, ‘when we taste something with a certain complexity we are often overwhelmed.’ In the age of mass-production, diversity of flavour has inevitably declined and many traditional practices have since fallen by the wayside. It took this visit to a farm in Cuckney to appreciate the enormity of this threat. But there is still cause for optimism. Through modernisation, regional heritages are often tempered, but they are still there for those who wish to find them. With his unique process and devotion to all elements of traditional cheesemaking, Joe has restored a flavour that is distinctive. Stichelton is a cheese preserved in this very philosophy.
Louise Leverett is a writer and novelist currently living in London. She has recently completed a diploma in ‘Advanced Gastronomy’ at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.