By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop Of Centerbrook
One of the most common and well-known cheeses in the world originated in England, in the village of Cheddar in Somerset. Cheddar still represents about half of the cheese consumption in England, second only to mozzarella in the United States. Cheddar is known for the cheddar-type cut curd from which it is made.
Contrary to popular opinion, Cheddar is naturally pale white unless color is added. The push for natural food production has caused a decrease in not only colored cheddars, but most cheeses. Some might remember old-fashioned store cheese, sometimes referred to as “Rat Cheese”, which was usually a deep yellow-orange color.
England is known for both farmhouse, referred to as artisan today, and factory types of cheddar. Although factory cheese is more common and less expensive, farm-produced cheeses are of much better quality and well worth the additional cost, in the same way Grand Cru selections are superior to table wines.
You will find that cheddars come in all different sizes and shapes, and like all cheeses, the size will make a difference in the taste. Since all cheese ripens from the outside in, a large 40-pound wheel will ripen differently than a small five-to-ten pound wheel. Some will have a natural rind with a combination of cheese cloth and wax, while others might have a plastic rind. Then there’s the small, any-size waxed or plastic-coated cheddar, which are usually stamped or cut out of larger wheels. What’s left of the original cheese in this process turns in to cold pack or processed cheese. It’s very important to taste these offerings because they will vary immensely.
After its origination in England, cheddar soon became popular in other countries. Today, two of its largest producers are Canada and the United States. As a general statement, Canadian cheddar is most often similar to farm-style cheddar while United States cheddar will vary between both styles. Cheese production in both countries far outweighs English production.
In our history, New York was originally the largest producer of cheddar, but that soon spread to Vermont and Wisconsin. The latter is the largest producer in our country today.
Bitter Taste that Bites the Tongue
Most likely, a less-than-desired taste found in cheddar can be traced back to poor milk quality, forced curing (aging) or pasteurized milk.
Years ago, we would always order forty-pound flats (round natural-rind cheese) made in May or June. This was back when grass was producing the richest, best milk (you know, the time of year when you need to mow the lawn twice a week). Then we would age them for at least three years. Milk quality was important. Grass-fed cows produced better milk then cows fed on dry hay or silage. Bitter milk will produce bitter cheese.
Forced curing was often the second problem. One can quicken the ripening process by aging cheese under warmer temperatures, but often the end result is a bitter cheese that bites the tongue and often has a bitter, sour taste.
Third, as a general rule, raw-milk cheddars tend to have a better, more flavorful taste then those made from pasteurized milk. It is my opinion that raw milk cheeses last longer and truly benefit better from long-time aging.
Although sharpness is important in choosing cheddar, I feel the finish is even more important. I would rather have a milder, smooth-tasting cheese with a pleasant finish that a very aged, sharp cheese that bites you back at the end. Cheddars are not consistent. Don’t assume that because a particular brand of cheddar, or a cheese made in the same region or state, was great one time, it will be equally so the next time. Try it.
There is also another type of cheddar referred to as cold pack cheese. You may know it as port wine cheese, garlic, horseradish, blue, and so on. These can be eaten plain or made into cheese balls or logs. You can find them with added items such as fruit, nuts, herbs, spices, etc. Cold pack cheeses are still very popular cheeses and sold in big volumes.
The difference with cold pack cheese is that they start as natural cheddars that are grated and heated to stop most, but not all, of the bacteria growth. As a result, they will keep for long periods of time but still require refrigeration, unlike processed cheese. Cold packs are generally quite consistent and the better quality brands can be very good. Most of the cheese spreads you buy are made from these cold pack cheddars; some will use a cream cheese base.
Do You Know of Cheshire Cheese?
A relative to cheddar that is also made in England, Cheshire is a nice alternative to cheddar when looking for something similarly sharp, but a little different then cheddar. Cheshire is a predecessor to cheddar by 500 years. It is native to England because of the Cheshire County soil, grazing lands and rich deposits of salt. Cheshires tend to be crumbly in texture and tangy, almost tart. They are worth a try.
My Recommended Cheddar
Quebec 7-year is one of my favorite cheddars. It has all of the requirements I like in a cheddar: very sharp, great crystallization, natural coloring, great consistency and a perfectly smooth finish (no bite or sourness). You will pay more for its seven years under refrigeration, but it is well worth it.