Scattered across the rolling green countryside of Somerset, in England’s southwest, are farming communities with names like Lower Weare, Compton Bishop, Lulsgate Bottom and Rodney Stokes. It is in this land of ancient fences, flowing brooks and old pastures, that the village of Cheddar lies. It was in this region, probably 600 years ago, that a tradition was born. The “genesis” of all cheddar cultures came from nearby caves where early farmhouse cheeses were taken to cure. The term cheddar denominates not only the place of its birth, but the type of cheese itself, and the method by which it continues to be made today in other countries and places. Of all the world’s hard and semi-hard cheeses, cheddar is by far the most widely recognized. Its unchallenged popularity arises in large part from its versatility, and the wide range of possibilities it brings to even the most humble table. In future columns, we will visit other great cheese families, but it makes the greatest sense to begin such a journey with the cheese that came to our own shores with the earliest English settlers. Originally, all cheddar was made on the farm, and was a true hand-crafted dairy product. Today, most cheddar is produced in a factory environment, with cow’s milk accumulated from multiple sources before being blended, pasteurized, and subjected to the three basic steps which make use of heating, culturing and curd management to produce cheese ready for pressing and finishing. It takes about ten pounds of milk to make one pound of cheddar in a process which preserves 96% of the protein and a high concentration of the milk’s vitamins and minerals, in a compact form with a long shelf life and multiple layers of flavor. The supermarket cheese buyer can be forgiven for believing that cheddar cheese comes in rectangular orange chunks that are marked mild, medium and sharp, and are otherwise all pretty much alike. In fact, real cheddar is a creamy-white in color, starts out- in most cases – in various size round wheels, and can be as distinctly different in sharpness and flavor as a random array of varietal wines. What causes the color confusion is the practice of American factory producers of artificially coloring their product to conform to a market expectation of what cheese should look like. A cheddar aficionado would probably not give the time of day to a product in which a manufacturer-added color can cover up a multitude of negative signals, especially when so many great U.S. cheddars are readily available, among them a number which consistently take “best of show” and “grand master” awards in national and world competition every year. As one who grew up on a small dairy farm, and who made his first home-crafted cheddar at the age of 14, my own preferences reflect the subjectivity of a life-long devotee. While I enjoy a wide range of cheeses from around the world, with cheddar at the top of the stack, I have some clear-cut views on what constitutes a real winner. Here is a breakdown of what I would look for: A true farmstead cheddar, made preferably from raw whole milk from an evening and a morning milking, in small batches, from a single herd of cows pastured and fed on a consistent regimen, in a farm-family setting; aged and managed for at least 18 months- but hopefully longer – in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment, and cut to my specifications from the original wheel as I watch. Among my favorites are: Grafton Village (3 yrs old) - Shelburne Farmhouse – Crowley-
Cabot Private Stock – Cloth-bound Cabot and – Tillamook Vintage White (2 Yrs old)
The first five choices are all from Vermont (reflecting a prejudice born of many personal visits, and hands-on familiarity), while choice number six represents a considered exception to most of my rules. (Despite the fact that Tillamook is a huge “factory-like” operation, their Vintage White is both very good, and quite available throughout our region.) The question of pasteurization is worth some explanation, since only Shelburne Farmhouse is true to the raw milk standard mentioned. Most pasteurization in the American dairy industry involves heating the milk to 160 degrees F. for 30 seconds – it’s quick and cheap, but changes the flavor for cheese-making. The alternate method is to raise the temperature only to 140 degrees, but for 30 minutes. The second method involves time and cost, but protects flavor. Mention is made of a new arrival on the scene – Clothbound Cabot - mostly because of the significance of the story behind it; at nearly $20.00 per pound, not too many of our readers are apt to place it high on their shopping list. It involves an institution common in Europe, but new to America: the role of the affineur. Making cheese is relatively simple and straight-forward once you have the bacterial culture, equipment, a source of milk and some experience. But 60% of the flavor of the finished product is all tied up with what happens after the cheese is pressed into the final form; the process known as “aging” or “curing”. It also represents the major part of a cheese-maker’s investment, because it means he has to protect, finish and inventory his product for many months – or even years – before it becomes income. (That’s why you pay more for a fine aged cheese !) Enter the affineur; practitioner of the fine art of affinage. The person who literally becomes the foster parent of the selected wheels of well-made cheese, positions them at exactly the right shelf-location in the aging cave, regularly rotates and turns them, cleans and brushes them, and guides them one-by-one through the long and demanding mentoring period. Clothbound Cabot describes a cheddar which is the product of a partnership of Cabot Creamery and Jasper Hill Farm. Cabot makes the cheese, and Jasper Hill Farm guides each 38 lb. wheel through the months of attentive handling and aging in their three million square foot cheese cave built into a hillside in Greensboro, Vermont. In an upcoming column, we will share some suggestions for enjoying all kinds of cheese, and introduce some new culinary masterpieces coming from a small Utah creamery.