The Stilton Grotto

In this article, Jenn Kast shares a bit of background as to how we go about ensuring we have the perfect blue cheeses for our customers for Christmas. 

Over the past week, cheesemongers in our Covent Garden and Borough Market shops have been building what we fondly refer to as “Stilton Grottos – specific shelves that will house all the blue cheeses to be sold over the Christmas period. Each Grotto has a designated master who will organise and select cheeses for the shop slate and for customers wishing to buy larger pieces. They will taste every cheese in their care several times, making sure that we sell the right cheese at the right time to the right person.   

We didn’t always have a Stilton Grotto in the shops, but from our earliest days we have taken Christmas blue cheese selection for our customers very seriously. During my first Neal’s Yard Dairy Christmas in 1992, there was already an organisational system in place. I was tasked with the daily ordering our stock of Stilton according to ripeness. “Taste, turn and order each cheese for the next day’s trade, most ripe on the bottom shelves, least ripe on the top” – that was my instruction.  

I had spent the previous week shadowing Neal’s Yard Dairy founder, Randolph Hodgson, as he did the same. He showed me how to evaluate the cheese based on sight, feel, smell and flavour. Each wheel I probed I assessed the texture & flavour from the iron: crumbly, silken, apple-y, earthy, sharp, round, soft, mellow... a litany of adjectives to consider before deciding where in the pack it would be located. I was honoured to hold the responsibility of ensuring every customer received a blue cheese perfect for their Christmas, but terrified too. Many Neal’s Yard Dairy cheesemongers since have faced this daunting task.   

In 1992, we had only one shop and sold only one Stilton cheese - the Colston Bassett Stilton. Over the busy Christmas period, I likely tasted 150 cheeses: small change compared to what our Stilton masters do in the shops today. Now we sell traditional English blue cheeses from three different producers, each with their own distinctive character. Additionally, we have 3 shops and a thriving Ecommerce trade. Over the course of December, we expect to sell over 1300 blue cheeses in the retail department alone. That’s a lot of ‘taste, turn and order’.   

With the growth of our business and the entrance of new blue cheese producers, the selection and ordering element of our job has grown too. The sorting process begins much earlier now, involving many other sales streams. 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 or many European customers, and by early December the Domestic Wholesale team is evaluating blue cheeses for our UK trade customers.    

During July and August, as I watched weather reports and spoke with cheesemakers about limited pastures, I had significant concerns about the quality of our 2018 Christmas Stilton. I felt like I needed to start getting to know our Christmas cheeses sooner than ever this year. Stilton served at Christmas is made in the summerJuly through mid-September. The unusually dry and hot weather that dominated this summer was bound to render our Christmas 2018 cheeses different from previous years’, particularly those made with raw milk.  

That concern prompted me to spend an hour or two each week since September tasting through 5-10 cheeses in every batch of Colston Bassett, Stichelton and Sparkenhoe Blue in our maturing rooms. Over the course of three months I’ve gained a sense of the developing flavour profiles of the 2018 blue cheeses, and my concerns are assuaged. Indeed, from what I’ve tastedSummer 2018 has resulted in some outstanding production.      

Sparkenhoe Blue: this was the maiden summer for Sparkenhoe Blue and I feel privileged to have tasted through so many batches. The early summer batches were dryer in texture and as a consequence the characteristic Sparkenhoe milk flavours abundant in their Red Leicester struggled to push through. The August batches, however, are breaking down into a creamier texture that allows for the expression of the rounded, earthy and warm flavours I’ve come to expect from Sparkenhoe raw milk cheeses.    

Stichelton: this is the first summer in which Stichelton has been made using only the uncooled, raw milk from the morning’s milking. This warm, fresh milk retains the diversity and distribution of microflora inherent in the milk. That complexity is deftly expressed in the cheese. The flavour range of Stichelton this year is unparalleled – rich umami flavours accompanied by a juicy citric acidity.   

Colston Bassett Stilton: I have been tasting Colston Bassett Stilton every Christmas in varying capacities since 1992. Every year it delivers: a sweet, slightly mushroomed and always mellow flavour accompanied by the distinctive Colston Bassett buttery texture. This year, the cheese is even brighter with every flavour discernible. The summer’s weather seems to have intensified the classic Colston Bassett Stilton characteristics, improving upon an already extremely impressive run of Christmases.  

Based on my hours of tasting, Summer 2018 produced more intensely flavoured blue cheeses than we have seen for a few years, with clearly defined and distinctive flavours coming from each of our producers.