The pioneer of blue Stilton was Cooper Thornhill, owner of the Bell Inn on the Great North Road, in the village of Stilton. In 1730, Thornhill discovered a distinctive blue cheese while visiting a small farm near Melton Mowbray in rural Leicestershire - possibly Quenby Hall in Hungarton. He fell in love with the cheese and made a business arrangement that granted the Bell Inn exclusive marketing rights to blue Stilton. Soon thereafter, wagon loads of cheese were being delivered to the inn. Since the main stagecoach routes from London to Northern England passed through the village of Stilton he was able to promote the sale of this cheese and the legend of Stilton rapidly spread.
In 1936 the Stilton Cheesemakers' Association (SCMA) was formed to lobby for regulation to protect the quality and origin of the cheese, and in 1966 Stilton was granted legal protection via a certification trademark, the only British cheese to have received this status.
There are currently just eight dairies licensed to make Stilton, each being subject to regular audit by an independent inspection agency accredited to European Standard EN 45011. At present, all but two of the licensed dairies are based in the Vale of Belvoir, which straddles the Nottinghamshire-Leicestershire border. This area is commonly regarded as the heartland of Stilton production, with dairies located in the town of Melton Mowbray and the villages of Colston Bassett, Cropwell Bishop (two producers), Long Clawson and Saxelbye.
The other Leicestershire dairy is at Quenby Hall in Hungarton, which is outside the generally-accepted boundaries of the Vale of Belvoir. The only dairy currently producing Stilton elsewhere (at Hartington in Derbyshire) owes this fact to a native of the Vale who bought the dairy over a century ago.
To be called blue Stilton, a cheese must:
Stilton has a typical fat content of ~35%, and protein content of ~23%.
Blue Stilton is often eaten with celery or pears. It is also commonly added as a flavouring to vegetable soup, most notably to cream of celery or broccoli. Alternatively it is eaten with various crackers, biscuits and bread. Traditionally, port is drunk with blue Stilton. The cheese is traditionally eaten at Christmas. The rind of the cheese is rarely eaten due to its bitter flavour, and the fact that it may contain anti-molding agents or have been handled without gloves during its manufacture.
White Stilton has not had the Penicillium roqueforti mold introduced into it which would otherwise lead to the blue veining normally associated with Stilton. It is often blended with other materials such as dried fruit, and has even been used as the flavouring for chocolate.
British author G. K. Chesterton wrote a couple of essays on cheese, specifically on the absence of cheese in art. In one of his essays he recalls a time when he, by chance, visited a small town in the fenlands of England, which turned out to be Stilton. His experience in Stilton left a deep impression on him, which he expressed through poetry in his Sonnet to a Stilton Cheese:
- G.K. Chesterton
Stilton is also mentioned in the stop-motion animated short, A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit.