Christmas Food & Drink: Why Casanova had a passion for blue cheese

Mouldy bread, bugs and curds produce a taste sensation that turns the British on like nothing else at this time of the year

Yankees may dream of a white Christmas, but a lot of Brits are more interested in a blue one. You don't see a blue cheese in months, then like buses they all come along in a row. Big ones, little ones, and ones the size of a small ceramic jar. Blue Stilton is usually among them, because we like to fly the flag. Roquefort and Gorgonzola may be just as prized by epicures, but Stilton belongs to the Victorian heritage of the groaning Christmas table. Sales of Stilton soar by 60 per cent at Christmas, say the Jermyn Street traders Paxton and Whitfield, who are celebrating 200 years of cheesemongering.

In vain did Stilton launch a summer advertising campaign last year in an attempt to increase all-year-round interest in the product. A bikini- clad lovely was depicted sunbathing with a one-pound slab of Blue Stilton on her poolside plate. She wouldn't have kept her svelte shape for long, though, since Blue Stilton, Gorgonzola and Roquefort are far from slimmer- friendly.

Stilton is a world heavyweight champion of calories, weighing in at a delicious 2,080 calories to the pound. Gorgonzola is runner-up vith 1,792 calories per pound and, trailing a long way behind, Roquefort has a modest 1,408. (The first two are made with full-cream cows' milk but Roquefort with ewe's milk.)

Traditionalists have always insisted Stilton is winter fare. "I should no more want Stilton on a hot August day," cries Sir John Squire, a resonant voice from another century, "than I should want boiled silverside and dumplings. Stilton is essentially for the cold months when appetites are robust and need warming up." He'd probably been out fox-hunting all day and returned to a chilly country hall.

But traditions do change and, in many ways, for the better. No one today (outside a London club) would dream of ruining a perfectly good round of Stilton by pouring in good port to keep it moist. It produces a sticky mud which has to be dug out with a silver spoon.

Modern counsel would be to buy no more cheese than you need for the week, say a wedge from the chill cabinet. Keep it in your own fridge, removing it for half an hour to settle at room temperature. After use, wrap it in clingfilm again and return to the fridge.

The taste for blue cheese is a curious and ancient one. But its origins are not lost in the mists of time: we have it on record that when the Romans conquered Gaul they stumbled on the caves of Mount Combalou near Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Here they found local farmers engaged in converting their everyday sheep's cheeses into things of infinite gastronomic pleasure.

In order to effect such a physical change they introduced a blue-grey mould into the curds. Anecdote has it that a shepherd was eating his bread and cheese when he caught sight of a shepherdess, and left his bread and cheese to pursue her. Returning weeks later, he found both bread and cheese covered with silvery blue mould. He threw away the bread but ate the cheese, and we have been doing the same ever since, to the tune of some 17 million Roquefort cheeses a year.

The recipe, if that's what it is, remains essentially the same. Loaves of mixed wheat and rye are specially baked and, under laboratory conditions, injected with pencillin spores. They are left to go mouldy in a controlled humid atmosphere for six weeks. Then the loaves are crumbled and dried, ground to a dust and layered among the cheese curds.

The cheeses are then matured in conditions simulating the original several dozen deep caves which sit beneath a chalky mountain plain. They are ventilated by natural air currents circulating through cracks in the rock known as fleurines. Heavy rainfall in these porous mountains has always ensured high humidity, over 95 per cent. In the lee of the mountains, the sun never reaches the plain and the caves maintain a chill six to 10 degrees centigrade all year round.

If the Romans were the first patrons of Roquefort, it was the Emperor Charlemagne who raised its profile, around the end of the eighth century. Stopping at the nearby Abbey of Vabre he was served the plat du jour, the local sheep's cheese. Watching him pick out the mouldy blue-green bits, his hosts told him: "But, sir, that's the best part." (As is the way with such anecdotes, it's not that the blue bits are best; it's that the whole cheese is delicious and creamy, ripened by the action of the enzymes in the bacteria.)

However, the status of the cheese has never been in doubt. Francois Rabelais said there should always be some Roquefort at hand to accompany wine. Casanova, no less, claimed that Roquefort, consumed with a glass of Chambertin, was the ideal combination to arouse passion. Grimod de la Reyniere, the 18th-century gourmet writer, regarded it as the greatest: "Roquefort should be eaten on one's knees."

Salavador Dal did his bit and is credited with bringing Roquefort to the attention of America where today, allegedly, they consume more Roquefort than is actually made in France. Asked for his impressions of New York on a first visit, Dal said: "It is a Gothic Roquefort." Hacks turned to their dictionaries to find the meanings of Gothic and Roquefort, and so a fashion was born. (What sort of fashion relegates this supreme cheese to a role in a vinegary dressing?)

The way Stilton's made (or Gorgonzola, or Cashel Blue, or any other) is not so very different from Roquefort. Blue cheese-making skills are assumed to have been brought here by French monks though the existence of a blue cheese was not acknowledged in this country until the 18th century, when an enterprising Leicestershire farmer's wife started offering her cheeses for sale at the nearby Bell Inn, Stilton.

The inn was a major staging-post on the Great North Road with stables for 200 horses, and site of a weekly farmers' market. So well did the cheese go that an entrepreneurial grain-dealer called Cooper Thornhill bought the Bell as a base for selling to the capital. A great self-publicist, he won a bet of 500 guineas that he could ride the 213-mile round trip from Stilton to Shoreditch in London in 12 hours.

Stilton didn't have Rabelais to endorse the product, unfortunately. Daniel Defoe wrote in 1727 of a Stilton brought to table "with the mites and the maggots around it so thick they bring a spoon for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese."

But Stilton's success has been, in part, due to superb marketing over the years. And in 1936, Stilton cheese-makers were first to protect their name by copyrighting it. Last year they logged another milestone, qualifying for the EC's PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).

Today there are no flies on Stilton, nor bugs nor mites. When I visited Hartington in Derby, the biggest of the Stilton creameries, I found that bugs had been blasted to oblivion, the beneficial along with the bad.

At the end of the 1980s, a listeria scare panicked supermarkets into refusing to take cheese which hadn't been made with pasteurised milk (only Sainsbury's kept faith with traditional craft cheese-makers). The result has been blander, safer cheeses. The Blue Stilton makers, who'd put such store by their traditional craft, were stunned. But now they apply science. "Science, technology and craft in equal parts," cheese-grader John Massey told me. The science involved is esssentially that of the behaviour of the enzymes which ripen and soften the cheese, as well as providing the cosmetic colour effects.

Hartington varied the formulation, changing the proportion of fat in the milk (to four per cent), of the milk sugars, of the protein and the acidity. But everything else is the same: the same starter bacterium (Streptococcus cremoris) to develop lactic acid in the milk. The same rennet to separate the curds. The same Penicillium roquefortii to induce the veining. Once injected, the tall cheeses are hand-rubbed as they have always been, to seal the spores inside, encouraging incubation. Then the cheeses are spiked with needles to let air in, and at once the spores race into the cracks between the unpressed curds, leaving a blue-green trail in their wake.

John Massey talked me through the comparitively short 13-week life cycle of a Blue Stilton. Due to the enzymic reaction it changes from its initial dry, crumbly, sweet and sour state (which we know as White Stilton) to a sticky paste with a bitter taste. At 12 weeks it is creamy and complex but still a little harsh, finally turning the corner in the 13th week to become smoothly butter-rich with no trace of bitterness.

Contrary to popular belief Stilton will not improve further with ageing. Within weeks it will dehydrate and develop ammoniac flavours: "Though some people regard Stilton like this as grown-up," Massey observes. Beyond 16 weeks the cheese becomes hard and the flavours crude. Hence his advice on keeping it in the fridge and wrapping it carefully.

Cashel Blue, my favourite Irish blue cheese, gives every impression of being made to the ancient rules of the first caveman's Roquefort. It is the genius of its makers, Louis and Jane Grubb, who invented it no more than 15 years ago, that they have been able to recreate on their farm in Tipperary an uncompromisingly cold, shoe-soakingly wet, searingly draughty dairy. It is a proper match for the inhospitable caves of Roquefort.

My visit was not one I remember with pleasure except for the wondrous beauty of the cheeses and the warmth, ingenuity and determination of the Grubbs, who overturned every obstacle put in their way as milk farmers: the trials and tribulations of the Irish milk industry, quotas, weather, market swings and so on,

Making cheese was not an easy choice, given the high investment required for a building which must mimic icy, wet French caves, so insulated that it will not vary more than a few degrees in summer and winter, with constant internal humidity whether there's a snowstorm or heatwave outside.

Stilton and the Grubbs' Cashel Blue would head my list of great blues from the British Isles, alongside Humphrey Errington's Dunsyre Blue from Lanarkshire (made with the unpasteurised milk of Ayrshire cows) and his Lanark Blue (ewe's milk, similar to Roquefort). Also on the list, Shropshire Blue, an orange-coloured Stilton from Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire; strong and creamy Chetwynd Blue from County Cork; Blue Vinny from Dorset made with skimmed milk; and Tangy Buxton Blue from Derbyshire. And Robin Congdon's Beenleigh Blue, made of ewe's milk, from near Totnes in Devon.

Blue cheese lends itself magnificently to cooking, providing texture and taste in spades. Peter Graham's Classic Cheese Cookery (reissued next week by Penguin, pounds 15) is indeed a classic: the recipes below for Soupe gratinee au Roquefort and Green Rabbit are taken from it. Last month chef Paul Gayler (a pioneer of vegetarian haute cuisine) brought out a lavishly illustrated book of 130 of his own cheese recipes, A Passion for Cheese (Kyle Cathie pounds 18 99), from which comes the recipe for Beenleigh Blue tart.

Ripe, sweet pears make an excellent foil for the sharp blue cheese and the aromatic rosemary. You could also use Gorgonzola or Roquefort. The galettes can be assembled several hours in advance and chilled until you are ready to bake them. If you prefer, you can substitute puff pastry for the shortcrust.

Serves 4

2 small egg whites

250g/9oz Beenleigh Blue

1 tablespoon creme fraiche

1 quantity shortcrust or puff pastry

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary, plus a few leaves to garnish

50g/2oz unsalted butter, plus a little melted butter for brushing

2 large, ripe but firm pears, peeled cored and cut into slices 1cm/1/2in thick

1 tablespoon caster sugar

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 egg yolks beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, to glaze

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk the egg whites until just frothy. Put the cheese in a bowl and crush it lightly with a fork, then add the egg whites and creme fraiche and mix to a coarse paste. Season with salt and pepper, then chill.

Roll out the pastry to about 3mm (1/8in) thick. Using a plain or fluted cutter, cut out four 12cm (5in) circles. Put them on a baking sheet and prick well all over with a fork to prevent them rising too much in the oven. Carefully spread the cheese mixture over the pastry rounds, leaving a 1 to 2cm (1/2-3/4in) border, then sprinkle with chopped rosemary and place in the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Melt the butter in a shallow pan, then add the pear slices, sugar and enough water to form a light syrup around the pears - about 3-4 tablespoons. Cook gently for six to eight minutes, until the pears are tender, then leave to cool.

Arrange the pear slices on top of the galettes in neatly overlapping circles and brush with a little melted butter. Sprinkle over the cumin seeds and a few rosemary leaves, season with salt and pepper and bring up the edges of the pastry over the pears to form a crust. Brush the pastry all over with the beaten egg yolks and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden. Cool the galettes slightly before serving.

Serves 4

300g/101/2oz onions, very finely sliced

60g/2oz unsalted butter

1 teaspoon flour

pinch freshly grated nutmeg

200g/7oz rye bread, sliced and toasted

70g/21/2oz Roquefort

freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon cognac

80g/3oz freshly grated Gruyere

Sweat the onions gently in a heavy saucepan with the butter, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. When they are translucent, sprinkle with the flour, continue stirring and cook for a few more minutes until they begin to brown very slightly. Pour in one litre (35fl oz) of water, add the nutmeg, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. In a deep oven dish (or four individual ovenproof soup bowls) put successive layers of toast, crumbled Roquefort and onions. Add a little pepper and the cognac, pour in the onions' cooking liquid, and top with the grated Gruyere. Put into a fairly hot oven (375F/190C/Gas 5) for 20 minutes or until the crust is well browned.

If using individual soup bowls, be careful not to fill them too full, as the soup will puff up slightly in the oven. Roquefort is so salty that additional salt will probably be unnecessary. (You could also use Stilton or any other blue cheese.)

Serves 4

80g/3oz watercress

175g/61/2oz freshly grated blue cheese or Cheddar

40g/11/2oz unsalted butter, softened

pinch salt

freshly ground black pepper

4 large slices good white or brown bread, toasted

2 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and sliced

Wash the watercress and cut off its tougher stalks. Set aside four small sprigs. Blanch the rest, uncovered, in boiling salted water for three minutes, drain, refresh under the cold tap and dry well. Blend the cheese, butter, watercress, salt and a little pepper to a paste.

Put the pieces of toast on lightly buttered small individual fireproof dishes, cover with slices of hard-boiled egg, spread the cheese mixture over them and bake in a fairly hot oven (375F/190C/Gas 5) for 15 minutes or until the surface begins to brown. Garnish with sprigs of watercress, and then serve immediately.

Paxton and Whitfield (93 Jermyn Street, London SW1) nominate the Cropwell Bishop Blue Stilton of Nottinghamshire as "absolutely the best" of all Stiltons, creamy and rich. You can order one for Christmas by mail order; the 16-pounder is pounds 79 plus pounds 9.50 overnight carriage. The "baby", weighing in at 5 to 6lb, is pounds 27.95 plus pounds 7.50 carriage (tel: 0171 930 0259). Other weights can be cut to order.

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