While cheese is a festive food in general, a classic holiday combination from England teams up savory wedge of Stilton with the velvety sweetness of a fine Port. Anyone who’s ever tried this dynamic combination will tell you, it is a celebration of flavor on the palate and surely one of the most memorable yuletide pairings.
In England, savoring a slice of Stilton with Port is a holiday tradition that dates back generations. Stilton has deep roots in the English culture. Popular as far back as the 1720’s, Stilton takes its name from the Village of Stilton, though none was ever made there.
The village of Stilton was once was a popular stage-coach stop on the ‘Great North Road’ which linked London and York. Travelers would stop for a meal at The Bell Inn and try a particular local blue cheese. Over time, word spread of the excellent ‘blue cheese from Stilton’ and the cheese — which was actually made miles away — became known simply as ‘Stilton.’
Today, only six dairies in the Stilton consortium in central England are licensed to make the cheese. This keeps quality levels high and a consistently good product is marketed. The flavor profile is buttery, earthy and rich with a distinctive, blue kick. The flavors strive for a balance of richness, saltiness and blue. Savoring a perfectly ripe wedge with the fruity, nutty and complex flavors of Port make for one of my favorite versions of foodie-nirvana.
Why blue cheese at the holidays in particular? This blue, like many others, is at its peak about three months after it’s made. Cheeses made from fall milk are especially rich and satisfying. When the moderate, cooler fall temperatures take hold, there is often a flush of good quality pasture. Well-fed and contented cows make the tastiest milk, which in turn, makes the finest cheese!
Sourcing your Stilton:
If you’re lucky enough to have a great cheese shop in your area. head there first. Your local cheesemonger will know what’s perfectly ripe and delicious on any given day and will turn enough cheese to keep it fresh and ready for your eating pleasure. Many upscale mainstream retailers are keeping a respectable selection of cheese these days, too.
If you can taste the cheese before buying, that’s ideal. If not, seek out a recently cut wedge that is fresh looking. The paste should be firm and moist, not faded. The color just beneath the rind may be slightly darker, but the rind should not be dried or cracked and the aroma should not be ammoniated.
Two exceptional brands to seek out: Colston Bassett and Thomas Hoe Stevenson. A “new” cheese on the market is Stichelton, a raw milk version of the classic blue. Today, all Stilton must be made with pasteurized milk but the Stichelton Dairy in Nottinghamshire has resurrected this traditional recipe.
Tawny Port is an exceptional pairing but other sweet dessert wines deserve consideration as well. Sauternes or any late harvest wine or even Olorosso Sherry can serve as a satisfying, sweet counterpoint to the cheese.
Leftover Stilton? No worries — it’s a versatile and delicious cooking cheese, easily substituted in any recipe calling for blue cheese. Toss it in a quick salad of Spinach, Dried Cranberries and Toasted Walnuts with a light vinaigrette or mix it with Mascarpone for a decadent stuffing for chicken breasts. Don’t miss a great appetizer recipe: Stilton & Bacon Stuffed Mushrooms.