Stilton. Its name evokes tradition and a certain regality. Customarily served in Britain at Christmas, Stilton is often called the "king of cheese" and its PDO (protected designation of origin) status dictates that it can only be produced in three English counties: Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. This year Long Clawson Dairy (one of five Stilton producers) celebrated its 100th year of Stilton-making and produced a limited run of 100-pound Stilton wheels (their usual size is 17 pounds).
Always made in a cylindrical shape and allowed to form a natural rind, this deep-flavoured cheese must be made with pasteurized cow's milk or it cannot be called Stilton. (I may have just scored you a Trivial Pursuit point.)
With Stilton's characteristic "shattered porcelain" veining radiating in thin lines from the core of each wheel, its blue-blooded pedigree is ever on display. A dense, not overly salty blue, it has a slight crumble to its moist, straw yellow paste. Elegant and piquant, its sharpness mellows with age, becoming buttery and complex with a pleasant tang, dark chocolate notes and creamy texture. Full-flavoured but not overwhelming.
As for the ritual of pouring port into your Stilton? British cheese expert Juliet Harbutt explains that the practice was traditionally a way to kill any maggots at the bottom of the Stilton porcelain bell. "With modern refrigeration there is no longer the need to spoil the Stilton or the port," she says. For pairing, she believes that vintage port can overpower this cheese. A better match would be a toffee tawny port, a sweet wine such as Monbazillac or even crisp beer or cider.
But perhaps you're looking for a holiday blue that packs a little more punch. French Roquefort, the other king of cheese (as proclaimed by the philosopher Diderot) packs a wallop of flavour up front. Its salty, spicy, buttery notes smack you in the taste buds and then leave you weak in the knees with creamy, smoky sweetness. Authentic Roquefort can only be made from the milk of local sheep and must be aged in the Combalou caves of Southern France.
In the spirit of holiday shopping, if you can't decide between the two, buy both. Serve them side-by-side with fresh pear, crisp apples and crusty bread. The two blues are distinctive enough to offer a unique taste experience and together would make a striking, luxurious end to a holiday meal.
And maybe your guests can settle this king of cheese thing once and for all.
More blue plate specials
Sure, Stilton and Roquefort get the attention, but they're far from the only blues on the block:
Bleu d'Elizabeth, non-pasteurized cow, Quebec
Local, organic and an award winner (2011 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix – blue category), this blue has been a star on cheese plates and restaurant menus. A friendly blue with crowd appeal – spicy but not aggressive, its sour-cream richness hints of fresh grassy notes and leaves a silken, buttery finish. An elegant after-dinner respite showing great balance and complexity.
Blue Haze, pasteurized cow, Ontario
It's blue, it's smoked, it's a campfire on the cheeseboard. I've never served this at a party without someone falling in love. The cheese is made at the Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac in Quebec and is cold-smoked over cherry and hickory chips in Ontario, developing a caramel-coloured rind to complement its sweet, smoky, tang.
Roaring Forties, pasteurized cow, Australia (King Island)
If I could force feed (in a friendly way) every blue naysayer one type of mouldy fromage, this would be it. Buttery yellow and encased in black wax, its flavour is full but not sharp. More memorable are the sweet, fruity and nutty notes. It's firm, creamy and one of my favourite cheeses – in any category.
Named after the "roaring 40s," perilous westerly winds that blow along the 40th latitude where King Island is located, the milk comes from the island's own herds renowned for their pure, sweet milk.
Erborinato, raw cow, Italy
'Tis the season of pampering, and if you're hoping to indulge your guests, look no further than Erborinato from Italy's Piedmont region. This blue is infused with eight-year-old rum and coated in cocoa powder. A hard-to-get cheese with a $150-a-kilogram price tag, it's currently available at Toronto's Cheese Boutique.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.