A Primer in Exciting Cheddars

The other night, at dinner, I was talking to some friends about artisanal Wisconsin cheeses. One of them interjected, “Artisanal cheese? From Wisconsin?? What, do you mean cheddar?” They were expressing an attitude that I see frequently in Americans; this idea that there is no good cheese from the United States. Americans love our imported cheeses, and impressing friends with ‘exotic’ cheeses. I’ve said it before, though, and will keep saying it—there is SO much more incredible artisanal cheese on the platter (so to say) in the United States than most people realize.

Although it makes me sad to hear people speak this way about American cheese, I totally understand where this idea comes from. Americans too often have little cubes of bland, plastic-tasting store-brand ‘mild cheddar’, or, even worse, a nice slice of Kraft Singles: American Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product (we won’t even get in to why they have to call it a ‘cheese product’). I understand the desire to look down upon American cheeses, and there are plenty of American cheeses I will say ‘No, thank you’ to. However, the idea that cheddars in particular have to be bland is almost shocking to me, after growing up on Hook’s sharp cheddar (2, 5, 10, 12, and 15 year aged, as well as a 20 year limited edition that’s coming out soon!). So, I want to start making the case for cheddar.

The first thing to understand about cheddars is that there are two main categories of cheddar: block cheddar and bandaged cheddar. Block cheddar is what we normally consume today, the stuff that can sometimes be bland and boring and plastic-y, but has the possibility to be one of the most punch-packing cheeses you’ve ever tasted. The reason this cheese is so varying is that it is packaged in large cryovac packs, so that the cheese ages very slowly. A cryovac cheddar that’s only a year or two old won’t taste like a lot, usually. However, cryovac is how star cheese makers like Tony Hook make star cheeses like Hooks 15 year cheddar. This cheese melts on your tongue while small crystals crunch between your teeth, and a tiny piece packs a huge amount creamy, strong flavor that lingers on your palate.

Cryovac cheddar was only made possible in the past 50 years, since cryovac technology has been introduced to the food industry. Before then, all cheddar was bandaged, which means it was made in large rounds literally wrapped in bandages, and then aged (usually in a cave). A cave aged bandaged cheddar can only age a few years before its flavor begins to decline, so a flavorful bandaged cheddar is usually around a year and a half to two years in age. However, bandaged cheddars have the advantage of absorbing some of the flavor of their surroundings—you can really taste the caves that they are aged in.

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How is Cheese Made?

When I tell people that I’ve worked making cheese, they always ask me, ‘so, how do you make cheese?’ I never quite know how to answer this question, because for every new cheese, there exists a new method of making cheese (and, always more coming along!). It is totally possible, and even pretty fun, to make basic cheeses at home; fresh cheeses like paneer or feta, for example, can be made in your own kitchen. If you want the really good stuff, though, cheese isn’t really a DIY food. Even though you can technically make some fresh cheeses yourself, the flavor of a cheese is affected extremely by the care that the cheese make puts in to the process—I say, leave it to the professionals.

However, it is good to have a basic idea of what goes in to making a cheese, before the creativity of the cheese maker takes over to create their own unique flavor. I’m going to give you a general idea of what goes in to a cheese, colored by my own experience (primarily with fresh goat milk cheese).

The basic ingredients in a cheese are as follows: first, you need any type of milk—cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, or anything else you can get your hands on. Second, you need to add culture, which begins the process of ‘ripening’ the milk, as some call it—changing the lactose in to lactic acid and beginning the process of solidification. Third, you need rennet, which helps to solidify the curd and separate it from the whey.

Once the cheese maker has the semi-solid curds and whey, they generally either cut it or ladle it in to forms, beginning the process of draining the liquid whey out and creating a more solid cheese. The curd must be salted during this process, to bring out the flavor of the cheese, although the level of salting and type of salt varies based upon the desired product.

After the cheese has been formed in to individual cheeses and drained, there are many different ways to go. The cheese maker can sell the cheese fresh, after a few days, like a lot of the fromage de chèvre that you see in the United States. They can also continue to age the cheese, developing a bloomy rind or introducing some sort of mold, creating a stronger and more complex flavor. They can hold the cheese in a cave for some time, allowing it to obtain some of the earthy flavors of a cave-aged cheese, add other ingredients such as vegetable ash or garlic, or wrap it in leaves to lend it another interesting flavor…the possibilities are endless!

La Fermerie: A New Experience in Affinage

‘Un petit piece de comte—comme ca.,” the customers at La Fermerie would say, gesturing how much cheese they wanted me to cut with their hands. I’d cut just about the right amount, quickly wrap it up in some paper, and they’d be on their ways. In a small cheese store like La Fermerie, in Paris, cheese is sold very differently than in the United States. French customers have different expectations than Americans, and the cultures around cheese in the two countries are extremely different.

In France, you don’t really taste cheese before buying it. The customer is generally expected to know what they are buying—they can ask about the affinage of the cheese, and they would expect some variation between cheese stores in taste, but the Fromagere is expected to take care of the taste of the cheese; once you find someone who treated their cheeses well, you return over and over to buy from them. Charles, my boss, was an extremely well respected businessman, and taught me a lot about how to take good care of the cheese.

The biggest difference between American cheese stores and French cheese stores, though, is the way that the cheese arrives at the store. Most of the time, in the U.S., the aging of a cheese is done by the cheese maker. Every cheese comes to the store ready to sell, and can be put in front of the customer and tasted right away. In France, though, cheese stores more often buy the cheeses young and then bring them to their caves to age and care for them in-house. The age at which the cheese is sold and consumed is at the discretion of the cheesemonger.

One of my favorite parts about working at La Fermerie was the opportunity to work directly with the cheeses in the cave. We had to work with them daily to ensure that they were doing well, turning them, washing them with vinegar or salt water if they were developing unwanted molds, tasting to see if they were ready to sell.

Where should this power be held? Should the cheesemonger be the one to age the cheese and choose when it can be sold, or should the cheese maker put the cheese in his own caves? Clearly, no matter where the cheese is aged, this shows that the relationship between cheese maker and cheesemonger is extremely important in creating and selling a great cheese.