A Band of Merry Cheese
May 15, 2015
Nottinghamshire, Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood country – something special must be going on here – and sure enough it is. This is the home of Stichelton, England's only raw milk Stilton cheese. However it can't be referred to as that because when Stilton applied for DOP status a couple of decades ago, the rule-makers decreed that the milk used for making Stilton must be pasteurised.
Possibly this decision was made in the interests of the larger makers, as this was not always the case. Prior to this ruling in 1989 raw milk Stilton did exist, then commercial interests and the legislators took over...
Re-naming the cheese after the Saxon name for Stilton village, Stichelton, Joe Schneider and his small band of Merry Men (loosely phrased – as there are two women as well) make only 50 tonne a year, which is tiny in terms of cheese production. Other makers averagely produce 6,000 tonne, some of which is stuffed with odd additions like apricots, mango or ginger.
Stichelton is made from organic milk in a joint project with the owners of Collingthwaite Farm, on the magnificent Welback Estate, located in the northern tip of Sherwood Forest. The herdsmen here are converted organic-sceptics as they now can see and do acknowledge the direct link between cow health and milk quality.
Along with Joe Schneider, the other key instigator and partner in Stichelton is Randolph Hodgson, the man behind that mecca of great British cheese, Neal's Yard Dairy. Randolph is a fascinating story in his own right, as essentially he ensured the survival of handcrafted cheese in Britain by working with the makers and guaranteeing many of them a market. The cheese makers are openly grateful and Randolph’s efforts have been recognised recently when he was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement prize at the BBC Food and Farming Awards.
Essentially these two got together over a pint or two of ale we're told, and decided that some traditions certainly should be revived. American by birth, Joe was behind the cheese making for Daylesford Organic, having started his cheese making career producing Greek-style feta for a Turk while he was living in Holland, when his wife was transferred there for work.
In 2006, having put the word out, Randolph and Joe found the right site on an ancient estate, and worked with Collingthwaite Farm to convert them to organic practices in order to secure themselves the necessary milk supply. They then set about creating their cheese from scratch, relying heavily on people's flavour memories, to create a unique cheese which delivers on all fronts. If the term umami puzzles you – just try some Stichelton cheese.
As you can imagine making Stichelton has not been a straightforward process. There has been, and continues to be, a lot of development to achieve (and remain at) the point where Joe and Randolph – and their talented, small collaborative teams are happy with the cheese.
Cheese of this quality involves many daily and seasonal variables, with people making this cheese by hand rather than by machine. They use only a small amount of starter and rennet, hand-ladling is done in a particular way, and the curds are hand-cut and handled carefully as they are fragile. This is followed by slow draining, long natural acidification - with the weather playing a part, along with many other variables, to create and mature the rather lovely looking truckles themselves. What a lot of offspring to be responsible for!
It was very interesting to taste the cheese at various ages from a youthful lemony, creamy stage prior to the piercing (done twice) before the ‘blue’ is developed, to the rich, umami flavours we love. Each batch has its own distinctive personality – standardisation does not exist with this character-filled Sherwood Forest fellow.
The Welbeck Estate itself also has a rich and interesting history and we enjoyed a tour with Joe as our guide. He pointed out the old folks home called 'The Winnings' because it was built from the horse race winnings of one Duke, and the entrance to the miles of tunnels leading to an underground ballroom built by another eccentric Duke. This one had an absolute aversion to sunlight, hence the subterranean location, however the Duke felt he needed a ballroom, which apparently he then never used.
Welbeck remains a family-owned estate, it is open to the public with a school of artisan food, a brewery, art gallery, café and an estate shop. This sells Joe's and other selected Neal's Yard Dairy cheeses, fresh meat and vegetables grown on the estate – and selected gourmet products. We noted these included Ortiz anchovies, El Navarrico piquillo pimientos and chickpeas as well as La Chinata paprika. A tin of which was also to be found in Joe's little work kitchen. He tells us he likes it on his eggs. What is there not to like about this interesting, ground-breaking, modern Robin Hood.