Saturday 27 December 2008

Stilton &!

Those of you with memories which pre-date Marketing, will know that England, like most other countries, doesn't actually produce many sorts of cheese. By the time you have ticked off Cheddar, Cheshire, Caerphilly, Wensleydale, Double Gloucester (at a pinch) and Stilton you have about exhausted the canon. For this reason alone, cheese by itself never played much part in a traditional English menu until French cheese became widely available. Cheese might be offered with biscuits at lunch, after pudding, but was never offered at dinner. More normally it was something for a light snack to be had with a glass of beer...

The exception to this was Stilton, which became a big hit at the turn of the 19th century. The cheese was particularly associated with Christmas. Whole Stiltons were given as gifts, and Grocers started to give them to their customers as a Christmas 'thank you' for the year's business. How much of this was astute marketing by the Stilton producers, how much the effect of the new railways and how much a genuine love of the cheese is hard to tell - but before long a whole Stilton became as much part of the Christmas decorations in grand country houses as a fir tree. The cheese sat in the dining room - generally a sepulchrally chilly space - from Christmas until New Year and - rather atypically - was available to be eaten scooped from the shell with a specially made silver cheese scoop whenever one felt like it. (Most large houses were run with an iron hand on the food supply, and outside meal times there was simply nothing to eat. The Stilton became in a way, a chink in the armour, a sign of generous plenty, something edible that wasn't actually under lock and key).

So it was that as rationing was reduced in the 1950's, the Stilton reappeared once more as part of English Christmas. Smaller cheeses were made but served in the same way in the centrally-heated dining rooms of the flats and terraced houses of those who recalled the grander days between the wars. The cheeses were very expensive. Unfortunately the inevitable happened, the cheese met the heating and dried out horribly, long before they'd been finished off. They were too big to fit into tiny British post-war refrigerators, and a cold larder was not to be had in Dolphin Square, Ashley Gardens or Camden Terrace. After years of food shortage the sight of a dried out cheese which had cost a small fortune was something close to tragedy. Some suggested leaving a damp napkin over the cheese, but this didn't have much effect. The final desperate move was to chuck a glass of port into the mess hoping to soften it enough to eat. The cheese makers were mortified, and the gourmets shuddered ...but for a while the habit caught on. The unattractive blue-red slurry was served and eaten. Eventually the unhappy cheese-makers counter-attacked and in a massive marketing campaign persuaded the Fanny Craddocks and the Marguerite Pattens to lecture their readers and viewers about the iniquity of treating Stilton in this way. The practice died out. Everyone dutifully learnt to slice the cheese in wedges, and it was the last blast of the trumpet for the cheese scoops, which disappeared like the dinosaur, having lost their place in evolution. The last tarnished few can still be found in bric à brac shops or as curiosities on Ebay.

The story really should end here. But like the ghastly moment in many horror movies when the cry of 'Oh my God, It's Alive!" can be heard, the habit is back! Even now there are pictures on the web of a perfectly formed Stilton being cut open, scooped out with what looks like an ordinary tablespoon, pierced all over with a skewer and then, with the aid of a funnel, made soggy with a whole bottle of port. It sounds like food-abuse; it looks like food-abuse. The inhabitants of Melton Mowbray, and those of a nervous disposition should turn away now, the others may look here.

To quote Conrad "The horror, the horror!".

Tonight's Dinner:

Moules Marinières au Cresson

Roast Quails with Potato Mashed in Walnut Oil

Amaretto Soufflé


Anonymous said...

How was Stilton traditionally served in the nineteenth and early twentieth century?

By this I mean how was the cheese conveyed to one's mouth when one had served (or been served) a scoop full?

Commercial crackers were not as common in the earlier century. Slices of bread perhaps? Celery stalks may have been a delicious conveyance, but seem incompatible with the port and cigars. Or, was there a special cheese fork for this course?

I enjoyed this article lots and specially treasure the term "food-abuse"!

Many kind thanks,

Pomiane said...

I think the answer was still 'crackers'. The 1875 Encyclopaedia Britannica in the library here talks at length about Carr's biscuit-making manufactury, and quotes the use of the word 'crackers' (to be eaten with cheese) as early as 1810. My copy of Mrs Beeton, which I think dates from around 1905, is in London, so I won't be able to check what she says until next week - but you can be certain she'll have a very firm opinion on the subject!