A few months back, I received a sample of The Stag from one of my vendors. I have been somewhat disappointed with cheddars as of late, so I was not particularly excited to taste it. I am so glad I did.
At this initial taste, I found myself thinking of the Disney movie “Ratatouille.” Do you remember the scene where the food critic tastes the peasant dish ratatouille and flashes back? At that moment, he recalls how he had so enjoyed that dish as a young boy. That was me, when I tasted The Stag. I flashed back to great cheddars without the bitterness, sour finishes and vague sulfur odor I have become accustomed to encountering. This cheddar did not bite back.
Why am I disappointed with cheddars these days? It appears that some of the old tried-and-true methods of producing cheese have given way to modern methods, enabling faster production and increased poundage. The most important element given up seems to be flavor.
In recent years, cheddars made in 40-pound flats and aged for three years, in some cases, have been replaced by 1,000-pound cheeses that are aged in stainless steel for only one year. My question is simple. All cheese ripens from the outside in, so how does a 1,000-pound cheese age properly in one year when it typically takes three years for a 40-pound flat to age? The answer is, it does not.
Warmer temperatures will ripen cheese faster, but the result is usually a little bitter in taste, with a disappointing finish. I received many of these cheeses in the past. When I opened them, the sulfur odor was so strong I needed to air the cheese for several hours, and sometimes overnight. I stopped carrying those cheddars. It appears that in some markets, colorful packaging and sophisticated marketing may be all that is needed to sell a cheese.
Regardless of the degree of sharpness, I like a cheddar with no bitterness and no biting back at the finish. As much as I enjoy a sharp flavor, I will settle for a little less so, as long as a good quality taste is present. This brings me to The Stag.
I was sold on this cheese even before I learned it was a Gold Medal award winner. In addition to earning Gold and Bronze International Cheese awards in 2014 and 2015, it also won first place with the American Cheese Society in 2013 and 2014.
Deer Creek cheese is distributed by The Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and made with pasteurized milk. This cheese will also develop a slight crystalline crunch, which is very popular with many of our customers.
According to Deer Creek, The Stag’s bold flavor pairs well with hard ciders, stouts and amber beers. Recommended wines include pinot noirs and red zinfandels. Food pairings include cashews, dried cranberries, pistachios and pumpernickels.
Deer Creek makes many other cheeses that I have yet to try. Among them are Imperial Buck, Vat 17 World Cheddar, The Fawn, Private Reserve 5-year, The Blue Jay, Rattlesnake and The Robin and The Doe. I look forward to tasting all of them.
A Little Cheddar History
The original cheddar was born in England. The name originates from the region it was first made in – Cheddar, England – but also from how the curd is cut. The process of “cheddaring” is the repeated cutting and piling of the curd to remove its whey and cut it into fine pieces.
Made with either raw or pasteurized milk, cheddars fall into two basic types: farmhouse and factory. Farmhouse cheddars are made in much smaller production then factory types. Cheddars are almost always made in round shapes and wrapped in cheese cloth. They will vary in age, and the older, the sharper. Taste these cheeses before you buy them; they can vary tremendously. You will not usually find good farm cheddar pre-packaged. Look for cheese cloth on the rind as the determinant.
Factory cheddars are most common throughout the world. Unfortunately, quality will vary greatly. Usually the less superior cheeses are processed into slices and cold-pack cheeses, such as port wine cheddar.
The evolution of cheddar places it in both Canada and the United States. Canadian cheddars are most similar to farm varietals. We make both types in the United States. New York was first the largest producer of cheddar, but Wisconsin took over that role as the population moved west.
For many years, it was common to find yellow cheddars. In fact, when I first started in the specialty food business, about 45 years ago, most of the cheddars we sold were yellow in color. But cheese is naturally a white hue. Colored cheeses are fading in today’s market since natural products are in now in high demand with mainstream consumers.
There are many reasons for poor, bitter-tasting cheddars. For one, the milk may have been a little bitter to begin with. More commonly, forced curing calls for ripening at warmer temperatures. Lastly, there is a marked difference in taste between raw and pasteurized milk cheeses. Today you will find vast quantities of cheddar made with either.
In my opinion, raw milk makes for superior-tasting cheddars, but there are exceptions. The Stag is one of them. This a great pasteurized milk cheese with a smooth finish and consistency in both taste and cheese production methods.
I find myself eating more cheddar than I used to.