If there’s a cheese that’s synonymous with Christmas – of festivities and feasting, family time and food in abundance – then glorious stilton is surely it. Whether you purchase it by the wheel or wedge, there’s something about this rich, creamy, ever-so-slightly tangy cheese that tastes of special occasions and celebrations.
As cheese go, this one is rather exclusive. Its origins have been contested for hundreds of years and nowadays, due to its protected status and EU trademark, stilton is solely produced by six UK dairies, all located in the counties of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.
With its cylindrical shape and crackled golden crust stilton looks rather special too. Most distinctive of all though are the meandering web of fine blue veins that taper out from the middle of the cheese. These are a result of the core being pierced with stainless steel needles at specific points during the aging process, introducing air into the equation and encouraging bacteria to grow. Far from being off putting, this is natural food alchemy at its very best and causes the cheese to develop its creamy, semi-soft texture and distinctive salty-sharp taste.
Stilton is a grown-up cheese – and by that we don’t just mean well matured. It has a real depth of flavour, managing to be at once mellow yet complex-tasting, buttery and rich, with an underlying spiciness. Those who are new to stilton may have to try it a few times before you fall for it, but after that there will be no going back.
This year we say forget about compiling a festive cheese platter filled with myriad different choices. Instead go bold with your board and offer a single generously sized piece of stilton. This makes sense for a whole host of reasons. Rather than guests becoming distracted by an array of options – which may or may not complement each other –, all attention will be focused on this one majestic-looking (and tasting) cheese. A larger piece will also keep better, is likely to be more cost-effective and will yield leftovers perfect for using in the recipes that follow.
To ensure you get the very best from your stilton it’s well worth bearing a few things in mind. Wrap in parchment or wax paper and store in an airtight container in the fridge – this will prevent the cheese from tainting the flavour of other ingredients and vice versa. Remove an hour or so before you want to serve to allow the chill to come chill off and give the cheese time to breathe and develop optimum flavour and texture.
Because of its slightly acidic, piquant taste stilton works brilliantly when matched with sweet flavours, think juicy figs and crisp, dewy pears, plump dried apricots, walnuts and a drizzle of honey. Serve handsomely accompanied by earthy oatcakes, crisp water crackers or thin slivers of nutty fruit bread and you’ll have yourself a cheeseboard fit for the most special of Christmas tables.
It’s not often that you encounter a food as deeply imbued with history and cultural significance as the fruit of the ancient date palm tree. Despite being one of nature’s longest cultivated ingredients (they are believed to have been eaten as early as 4000BC), today dates are as popular and relevant to our eating as ever. Much like quinoa and avocados, pomegranates and coconut water in recent years’ dates have gained recognition as a superfood, securing their status as trendy ingredient du jour and popping up on menus in the hippest of restaurants and cafes in salad, smoothie, dessert and drink form.
Pleasingly this ubiquity is warranted. Not only are dates a real treat to eat, they bring with them a whole host of nutritional benefits: they’re packed with vitamins and minerals, provide more potassium than bananas, have significant antioxidant properties and are an excellent source of fibre.
When pesky mid-afternoon cravings for something sweet strike look to dates instead of your usual slice of cake or cheeky bar of chocolate and you’ll reap the benefits later. Because the energy in dates is released slowly, it doesn’t cause the same peak in blood sugar levels which means you’ll feel fuller and more satisfied for longer and won’t experience a post-snack energy slump. If a date on its own doesn’t feel quite indulgent enough and you fancy something really delicious, fill stoned dates with a trickle of nut butter, labneh, or cream cheese.
There are hundreds of different varieties of date, from plump, deep-black Kimia to honeyed Deglet Nour, as well as drier options such as chewy, nutty-tasting Thoory. Given this abundance selecting a favourite can be rather befuddling. While there’s certainly no harm in conducting taste tests a-plenty, it’s worth noting that the Medjool date is known as the ‘king of dates’ – and with good reason. Soft and sticky with golden-amber skin, creamy flesh and a gorgeous-spiced caramel flavour, Medjool might be slightly pricier than other types of date, but in this instance the added expense is well worth it.
Medjool dates, in particular, are fantastic for cooking with and act as a natural sweetener, imparting a lovely richness and a treacle-like depth of flavour. Their inherent stickiness also means they help bind ingredients together and add an extra layer of moisture that can take a dish from so-so to sublime. The date and coconut bites in the recipe that follows are ideal as a healthy on-the-go snack, but they’d also make a lovely edible gift and will end a festive meal in style. The date shake meanwhile is just the thing for boosting energy levels and providing a dose of something wholesome if you happen to be feeling a little tried and rundown this December.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND PROP STYLING: SUKAINA RAJABALI
WORDS, RECIPES AND FOOD STYLING: SARAH PRICE