History of Stilton
"Drink a pot of ale, eat a scoop of Stilton, every day, you will make 'old bones'." Nineteenth-century saying, Wymondham"Drink a pot of ale, eat a scoop of Stilton, every day, you will make 'old bones'."
Nineteenth-century saying, Wymondham
The Centuries of StiltonTM
There has always been a degree of uncertainty about the evolution of Stilton Cheese.
Thanks to extensive research done by a number of people – including Richard Landy in Stilton, Matthew O’Callaghan in Melton Mowbray and Leicestershire historian Trevor Hickman - we now have a clearer knowledge of the origins of Stilton Cheese and how the cheese evolved.
19th and 20th century texts had suggested that Stilton cheese was never made in the village and that it simply got its name because it was from there that the cheese was first sold. We are now happy to correct that version of history.
Historical evidence has been researched which suggests that a cream cheese was being made and sold in and around the village of Stilton possibly in the late 17th Century and certainly in the early 18th Century and was known as Stilton Cheese. The cheese generally seems to have been matured for a period of time before being sold.
A recipe for Stilton cheese was published in a newsletter by Richard Bradley in 1723 but no details were given on its size or shape or for how long it was matured. From the recipe it appears that this would have been a hard cream cheese (it was pressed and boiled in its whey). In 1724 Daniel Defoe commented in his “Tour through the villages of England & Wales” of Stilton being “famous for cheese” and referred to the cheese as being the “English Parmesan”. A later article by John Lawrence in 1726 suggested that the perfect Stilton should be …”about 7 inches in diameter, 8 inches in height and 18 lbs in weight.” Thus, it seems that some of the cheese being produced in the area was cylindrical and of a comparable size to that being made today. Lawrence also referred to the cheese as the “recently famous Stilton”.
It is clear, prior to Defoe’s visit to Stilton, that the cheese being produced in the area already had an enviable reputation for quality. Perhaps it was because it was a cream cheese made with whole milk to which additional cream was added? This would have set it apart from most other cheeses made at that time which were often made from partially skimmed milk and were considerably cheaper.
With the development of the coaching trade, the town soon became a trading post between London and Edinburgh for many commodities and it is known that one of the innkeepers in the town – Cooper Thornhill, landlord and then subsequently the owner of The Bell Inn - turned this to his advantage by first selling the local cheese from the Bell Inn, not only to passing travellers but also into London. As demand for the cheese grew so Thornhill sought out new sources and, in or around 1743, struck up a commercial arrangement with a renowned cheese-maker from Wymondham in Leicestershire - a lady by the name of Frances Pawlett.
It is said that she supplied cheese to Thornhill and through a co-operative arrangement got other cheese makers in Leicestershire to make Stilton cheese to her recipe. This we believe was a blue veined cream cheese. We have no firm details of its method of manufacture or appearance, but we believe that she pioneered the development of the cheese in Leicestershire. It is not clear whether the blue veining was then achieved through frequent brushing of the coat of the maturing cheese or whether the ageing cheeses simply cracked allowing some to go blue and others not. It must have been a hit or miss affair!
As demand for Stilton Cheese grew, so the production continued to develop in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire (although it is possible that it would still have been made privately in the Stilton area but for personal consumption). Because of its reputation as perhaps the finest cheese of its time and owing to its limited production it commanded a significant price and as a result sometimes-inferior imitations were produced in other Counties. Nor was all of this cheese made to the established methods, being sometimes produced in nets or different sized moulds and sometimes with the omission of the extra cream.
No one person invented Stilton – it evolved over time from this pressed, cooked cream cheese, (some of which may have been blue), to the cheese we have today - an un-pressed semi hard blue veined cheese.
Cooper Thornhill and Frances Pawlett were responsible for the successful commercialisation of Stilton Cheese and the further development of a recipe that is the forerunner of today’s Stilton.
Others have a claim to playing an important role – including Lady Beaumont from the nearby Elton Hall estate who it is claimed made Stilton cheese for her own family use in the 17th century; Mrs Orton, (a farmer’s wife from Little Dalby) is claimed to have made the first Stilton cheeses in Leicestershire in 1730; and it wasn’t until 1759 that Shuckburgh Ashby, owner of Quenby Hall, set up a commercial arrangement to produce Stilton cheese for sale by the then new owner of the Bell Inn.
However, all have played their part some way or other in the development of our cheese, as too did the villagers of Stilton who were pivotal in recognising the potential market for a locally made, high quality cheese. Whether or not this cheese bore any resemblance to today’s Stilton is debateable, as at the time it would have been named as cheese from Stilton or more simply Stilton cheese. Their skills created the reputation of Stilton cheese which others subsequently built on.
The rest as they say is history. The cheese has evolved and today is guaranteed to be blue and produced to a legally binding recipe. There will always be grey areas and gaps in our knowledge as to how Stilton Cheese evolved from a pressed, cooked, cream cheese to an un-pressed blue veined cheese and we are always eager to hear from anyone who can provide any further information on this subject in order to give us an even clearer picture.
The village of Stilton now has a four-lane dual carriageway by-pass and so it is quieter than in the days of Cooper Thornhill; but The Bell Inn is still there serving wonderful food to passing travellers – including Stilton Cheese - and is well worth a visit for anyone interested in good food or the history of Britain’s most famous cheese – Stilton - “The King of English Cheeses”.