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Thanks to extensive research 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 origin and evolution of The King of Cheeses. Texts from the 19th & 20th century had suggested that Stilton cheese was not made in the village, simply taking its name from the area where it was first sold. However, plenty of evidence has been uncovered now to disprove this. Cream cheese was being made and sold in and around the village of Stilton, possibly in the late C17th and certainly in the early C18th, and this was known as Stilton Cheese. Evidence suggests this cheese was matured for a period 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).
Drink a pot of ale, eat a scoop of Stilton, every day, you will make ‘old bones’
Nineteenth-century saying, Wymondham
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 seven inches in diameter, eight inches in height and 18 lbs in weight.” So it seems that some of the cheese being produced in the area was cylindrical and a similar size to that being made today. Lawrence also referred to the cheese as the “recently famous Stilton”. So it is clear, that prior to Defoe’s visit to Stilton, the cheese being produced in the area already had an enviable reputation for quality. Perhaps it was because it was 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. 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 selling the local cheese from the Bell Inn, not only to passing travellers but also into London. As demand for the cheese grew, Thornhill sought out new sources and, in approx 1743, he 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 through a co-operative arrangement and got other cheesemakers in Leicestershire to make Stilton cheese to her recipe. This, we believe, was a blue veined cream cheese. It is unclear whether the blue veining was then achieved through frequent brushing 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 at that time, and owing to its limited production, it commanded a significant price. As a result, sometimes-inferior imitations were produced in other counties. Nor was all of this cheese made to the established methods, some would have been produced in nets or different sized moulds, sometimes with the omission of the extra cream. So it is clear that 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 unpressed 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 did the villagers of Stilton who recognised the potential market for a locally made, high quality cheese. Whether or not this cheese bore any resemblance to today’s Stilton is debatable, but their skills created the reputation of Stilton cheese, which others successfully built upon. The rest, as they say, is history. The cheese has evolved and today it is produced to a legally binding recipe. There will always be grey areas and gaps in our knowledge as to how Stilton Cheese evolved and we are always eager to hear from anyone who can help us to complete the story. The village of Stilton now has a bypass, and so it is much quieter than in the days of Cooper Thornhill; but The Bell Inn is still serving wonderful food to passing travellers. The village 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’.