As if 2020 couldn’t have got any worse, rumours are circulating that we may be facing a blue cheese shortage this Christmas. Fans of Stilton, the classic festive cheese board centrepiece, will no doubt be the most fearful: for many, it is one of few times a year that the blue-veined cheese is eaten, and Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without the creamy, crumbly, intensely rich blue cheese.
Cheese production has been greatly impacted by Covid-19. During the first lockdown, when sales to hotels, restaurants, events, farmers markets and exports all nosedived, production ground to a standstill. The Colston Bassett Dairy in Nottinghamshire, one of just six artisan Stilton producers in the three counties where it can be made (the others being Derbyshire and Leicestershire), ceased production of its Stilton and Shropshire blue for 10 weeks, a shortfall of 12,500 cheeses, some of which would have been produced with Christmas in mind.
Robin Skailes, chairman of the Stilton Cheese Makers Association, says predicting Christmas demand is tricky. “We didn’t know what areas of the market were going to be open or shut. We’ve been cautious.”
Yet cheese experts who spoke to Telegraph Food reassured customers that, despite stories to the contrary emerging this week, they will be able to find Stilton this winter. Hero Hirsh, head of retail at Paxton & Whitfield, said: “I’m sure it’s been quite a difficult year for all cheese producers to predict, but we’re not seeing shortages of Stilton, or any other blue cheese. We’re looking forward to providing it this year.”
Paxton & Whitfield get their Stilton from the Cropwell Bishop Creamery in Nottinghamshire (run by the Skailes family), and Hirsh says “they’re giving us as much as we need.”
She says that, with such a limited range of Stilton suppliers, due to the strict rules around its production, it is vulnerable to a shortage. But with hospitality sales likely to be down this year, there should be enough to go round for consumers. “There will be Stilton on our counters throughout,” said Hirsh. Supermarkets echoed her by saying they have good supplies of “the king of English cheeses”.
Nevertheless, with consumer patterns difficult to predict this year, both Hirsh and cheese writer Patrick McGuigan urged the public to be organised. While purchasing cheese now is too early (it won’t be in its best condition come December 25), you can get ahead by pre-ordering, with many cheesemongers already taking orders or offering click and collect for the Christmas period.
If you’re dead set on browsing the shops, McGuigan recommends buying your cheese a week before the big day, as long as they’re correctly stored. Keep them in the salad drawer so they’re not exposed to the air current, which dries out the cheese, and make sure they’re wrapped in the wax paper they come in. “A good cheesemonger won’t sell you cheese that won’t be good on Christmas. If you let them know when you’re eating it, they’ll make sure it’s in good nick for Christmas day.”
While Stilton may not be off the menu, there is a whole world of blue cheeses out there and worth exploring this Christmas. Here are the experts’ tips:
Stichelton is named after the original name for the Stilton village, and is made both within the catchment area for the Stilton PDO and to a traditional Stilton recipe. There is one key difference: it is made with unpasteurised milk, meaning it cannot call itself Stilton.
“Some would argue it gives it a more complex flavour,” says Hirsh. “There’s a lot more batch variation, which is really exciting. Some can be juicy, fruity, really savourite, marmite-y, with lots of umami. It’s wonderful with tawny port.”
Sparkenhoe makes a brilliant red Leicester, according to McGuigan, and this is their attempt to branch into a Stilton style cheese. “It’s quite savoury with a fudgy texture, and it’s quite dense. It has a real long savoury quality about it, a bit of space and tang from the blue mould.” McGuigan favours sweet drinks with blue cheeses, to balance the salt, like with salted caramel, and suggest port, tokaji, sauternes, or even mead, cider, a stout or porter.
This Northern Irish cheese is made by Mike Thompson to a Stilton recipe. “It’s a really well balanced cheese,” says McGuigan. “It’s got a sweet creaminess, a pepperiness and spiciness from the blue. It has an interesting fruitiness near the rhind. That’s the thing with Stilton and Stilton-style cheeses – they’re brilliant cheeses. Stilton is one of the world’s great cheeses, it can hold its own against a roquefort or gorgonzola.”
British and Irish blues
Cote Hill blue
This cheese has been made in Lincolnshire for over 30 years, and matures slowly over three months to create a soft, aromatic cheese. “This is definitely one I’m having this year,” says Hirsh. “I absolutely fell in love with it when we started stocking it 10 years ago. It’s made by a couple Michael and Mary Davenport, who are lovely.”
Hirsh describes it as a very interesting cheese, a bit like a brie, but blue. It’s very soft and ripens with a squishy consistency. Unlike a brie, the rhind has blue mould, and due to the unpasteurised milk it has an “incredible full flavour, an indulgent texture, with a good balance of butteriness and spiciness. Where you’d have a Stilton, I’d substitute in a Cote Hill blue.”
This cheese, made in Tipperary, has been going for three decades, and is praised for its consistent quality. “It’s made with cow’s milk and has similarities to Stilton, but a much softer texture,” Hirsh explains. “It almost has this spreadable consistency. It has a really nice, balanced flavour, and probably a similar strength to Stilton but a much more yielding texture.” Hirsh says most blue cheeses go well with oatcakes.
A sheep milk cheese from Scotland, the Lanark Blue tends to be milder than Stilton, but still packs a punch. McGuigan explains that “it can be quite changeable, but in the winter tends to be punchy – salty, tangy and with a nice spicy kick. There is also an underlying creaminess thanks to the rich milk from the farm's own flock of lacaune sheep.
Foreign blues to consider
Arguably the world’s most famous blue cheese, roquefort has been made in the caves of the eponymous southern French region for centuries. Unlike most blues on this list, it’s made with sheep’s milk. “It’s really full of flavour,” says Hirsh. “There’s a balance of sweet caramel and salty that makes roquefort special. It’s not a blue for beginners by any stretch.” Hirsh recommends drinking it with a sauternes, tokaji or monbazillac wine.
This less well known French cow’s milk cheese from the Auvergne in central France is, in Hirsh’s words, “France’s answer to Stilton.” It’s made in a similar drum shape, with a recipe dating back to the eighth century.
“It’s totally different to roquefort, super creamy and really savoury, almost spreadable in consistency. It’s a very indulgent cheese.” It goes wonderfully with monbazillac, and Paxton & Whitfield often infuse the cheese in the sweet wine for a festive treat.
Also from the Auvergne, McGuigan is a fan of blu d'Auvergne, which is often referred to as a cow's milk alternative to Roquefort. “It's a blue with a soft yielding texture and rich buttery flavour with a salt and pepper finish,” says McGuigan.