Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cheddar Cheese

I love, love, love cheese.  And if I had to pick a favorite...well...gosh...I just couldn’t.  There are so many wonderful varieties out there, from pungent, creamy blues like Roquefort and Stilton to decadent triple crème brie to tangy goat varieties like Bucheron or Humboldt Fog to nutty and mild Port Salut to Belgian Trappist  cheeses made with beer to...well, I could go on and on.  But it’s hard to beat a great cheddar cheese.
The problem with cheddar is that it has become so ubiquitous that it could be considered the ‘Merlot’ of cheeses.  It’s the default cheese, the common denominator, the rule instead of the exception, and thus cheddar becomes, in many cases, marginalized, bland, and about as exciting as a slice of plain white bread.   The good thing about cheddar is you can find is practically anywhere.  The bad thing is the bulk of what is out there in our supermarkets and even specialty stores is often homogenized and practically tasteless.  But don’t let this sully your opinion of cheddar.  When created carefully and aged appropriately, cheddar can be one of the world’s great cheeses. 

Cheddar cheese of course originated around the village named Cheddar in England, and it is still made there.  Since the appellation ‘Cheddar’ is not controlled like the names of some other cheeses, it can be difficult to find cheddar from Cheddar, but there are many fine English cheeses that are similar that can be found in specialty cheese shops or places like Whole Foods or Central Market.  Some of these cheeses are Red Leister, Single or Double Gloucester, Derbyshire, or Cheshire.  Before cheese purists run me up on charges, let me stress that I’m not asserting that these cheeses are cheddar, but merely that they are similar enough in character as to satisfy someone looking for ‘authentic’ cheddar from the eponymous village.  

Good cheddar is also made in the United States.  Vermont is famous for its white cheddars, and many are quite good, but with popularity comes surplus, and then surfeit, meaning that there are so many ‘Vermont cheddars’ on the market today that many are bland and unexciting.  Look for VC’s that are well aged at least a year and half, and try to find a cheese monger who will let you taste their wares first.  (Good advice no matter what sort of cheese you are buying).

Wisconsin is of course the center of cheese production in the States, and thus produces the bulk of the cheddar that is made here, and unfortunately, this is where much of the unexciting stuff comes from.  But I have to say that hands down the best cheddar I ever tasted also comes from Wisconsin.  This is a cheddar created by the Wisconsin Cheese Mart that is aged an astounding NINE YEARS before it is sold.  

I discovered it by accident.  I was on a business trip to Milwaukee and had some time to kill, so I wandered into their store.  I ended up coming out with several pounds of cheese to take back home, including a brick of this amazing nine-year-old stuff. 

Never have I tasted a cheddar cheese like this before.  The flavor is rich and almost overpowering, the sharpest, tangiest cheese you’ve ever tasted.  I would compare tasting a bite of this cheese to the depth of flavor one finds in a bite of a steak from the finest steakhouse in the land.   And it’s not just the flavor that is a part of the experience, but the texture as well.  All this aging causes it to be crumbly, but somehow there is still a fair amount of moisture content in this cheese, giving a creaminess to the texture.  As you bite into it, you discover a delightful, subtle crunch as well, as there are tiny granular crystals (calcium lactate) that have formed in the cheese.

So if you want to try cheddar cheese at its true best, check out the Wisconsin Cheese Mart.  I’ve ordered several of their cheeses by mail order over the years, and they always arrive in great shape.  I checked the website, and they are currently out of the nine-year-old cheddar, but they have a seven-year-old version that I’ve tried and it is comparable to the nine year version. 

Until next time, 

Stay Cheesy,