For many families, the holidays are synonymous with their Christmas cheese, and, more specifically, with blue cheese. We sell more blue cheese than any other kind of cheese each Christmas. It's rare in December that a customer leaves us without a wedge, or indeed a whole wheel of Stilton. Read on to learn about the origins of blue cheese, how it forms (both accidentally and intentionally) and how it's come to be a part of our Christmas tradition.
How does blue cheese become blue?
Cheese can become blue intentionally or by accident. When encouraging blueing in cheese, blue mould cultures are added to the milk during the cheesemaking process and remain dormant until the point that the cheese is pierced. Piercing is a process where long, thin metal needles are inserted into the cheese to allow oxygen to activate the moulds present. The outcome of this blueing is a development of blue streaks in between the open textured curd which matures the cheese from the inside out; turning a young, acidic, dry cheese into a softer, mellow, more broken-down cheese as it ages.
When and how much you pierce a cheese will alter the taste and appearance of it. When piercing a Stilton inspired cheese, most producers would wait until the cheese is at least 4 weeks old, as any earlier and the cheese is too fragile to withstand the physical nature of the process and won’t have developed enough of its own flavour. Commercial Stilton producers often pierce cheeses up to 3 times at during the cheeses 4th and 5th weeks which encourages a quick and heavy blueing. This allows the cheeses to be sold quickly and deliver a speedier return on the milk and this increases the volume of cheese produced in a year. In consequence, the blue taste is prevalent, and customers will taste a bright, acidic cheese with a dominant blue flavour.
The cheesemakers we work with prioritise taste over expediency. For example, Joe Schneider, who makes Stichelton, allows his cheeses to mature over 6-7 weeks to develop their own flavour characteristics before piercing. Joe only pierces the Stichelton cheeses twice which reduces the number of holes in the rind of the wheels and reduces blueing. All of these considerations result in a cheese with the blue flavour in the background, rather than the dominating the taste.
Why do I sometimes see streaks of blue in other hard cheeses?
We often see vibrant streaks of blue shooting through a typically non-blue cheese, like a Montgomery’s cheddar or an Appleby’s Cheshire. These are completely natural and edible and are simply the result of air inadvertently reaching the interior of the cheese (much like what happens when a blue cheese is pierced.) This happens more often with cheeses that have more open textures, like the territorials Cheshire, Wensleydale, Lancashire, and Cheddars. Their drier, more ‘friable,’ crystalline textures provide more opportunities for air to become trapped. They can also result from cracks forming in the exterior rind, if the cheese is bumped or knocked during maturation. In both cases, the green mould which happily lives in the air of humid, dark environments (like caves, or a cheese maturation room) gets into the interior of the cheese and proliferates.
This accidental mould in cheeses can be delicious and is sometimes sought after by customers. Rarities like blueing in non-blue cheeses is one of the things that make handmade cheese so special. Each batch, and even each wheel, will be unique and is something Neal’s Yard Dairy celebrates. Some cheeses will differ so much through accidental blueing that they become entirely different cheeses: for example, a blue-veined Appleby’s Cheshire is known as “Green Fade” and is sold as a different product.
Above: Blue moulding in Appleby's Cheshire
Green Fade is a phenomenon that has a long history in Cheshire cheeses. Patrick Rance charts the history of Green Fade in The Great British Cheese Book, from the early accidental wheels that weren't consumed but became popular by Yorkshire miners at the end of the 19th century who used the blue mouldy parts for medicinal purposes, to the present day. The first intentional exploration of Green Fade was in 1894 and is a mission still being pursued to this day.
Sarah Appleby of Appleby’s Cheshire talks of a myth that putting cheeses next to horse tack encouraged the growth of mould in cheeses. On Hawkstone Abbey Farm where Appleby’s Cheshire is made, the cheeses used to be stored in close proximity to the stables, which is where this idea may have come from. Lance Appleby, who founded Appley’s Cheshire along with his wife Lucy in 1952, used to treasure the blue Cheshires although he, like Sarah today, didn’t make them on purpose.
Why do we eat so much blue cheese at Christmas?
The link between Stilton and Christmas is said to be a seasonal one. Often, cheesemakers find that the best milk comes from cows grazing out on pasture in late summer. Our Stiltons typically need 3-5 months to ripen and so are often in their prime for Christmas. However, our cheese Buyer Bronwen Percival points out that historical sources reference Stiltons maturing up to 18 months that would contradict this timing. In any case, the tradition is here to stay, and is one that cheesemakers, retailers, and consumers prepare for each year.
At Neal’s Yard Dairy we take blue cheese seriously and put lots of work into ensuring that customers get the cheese that’s right for when and how they want to eat it at Christmas time. Cheesemakers will be making to numbers we give them in the summer, our Buying Team will be tasting the cheeses at the farms, and then once the cheese arrives with us it gets tasted again. As Jenn Kast wrote in The Stilton Grotto, “if you were to visit our maturing rooms in our Bermondsey railway arches in late October, you would likely see one of our export sales cheesemongers up a ladder in the Colston Bassett area, selecting the perfect cheeses for American customers. In late November, cheeses are being selected and sorted for our many European customers, and by early December the Domestic Wholesale team is evaluating Blues for our UK trade customers.” That’s all before Christmas hits in our shops and our retail cheesemongers start tasting cheeses again ready for our shop customers.