Cheese expert and Murray’s Cheese alum Liz Thorpe is the queen of the stuff. In The Book of Cheese, she maps out all the a brand new way of understanding cheese: Gateways. Instead of categorizing by region or milk type, Thorpe groups like-minded cheeses. Are you a fan of taleggio? Try the Red Hawk. Read this book, go beyond bries and goats and get to know Cheddar like never before.
I say “Cheddar” and you think mild. Medium. Sharp. How can you not? Cheddar is the first cheese that most of us understand to exist along a flavor spectrum. For cheese geeks, Cheddar draws immediate associations with the specific cheese-making process of Cheddaring, during which curd is allowed to form thick layers that are cut and stacked atop one another to press out moisture (and enable acidity to develop).
Whether you prefer your Cheddar white or yellow gives away your hometown faster than a nasally drawl or pronouncing car like “cah.” Even the British classify their Cheddar comparatively, although their equivalent to sharp is known, far more politely, as mature Cheddar (which to this day makes me think of a cheese that will refrain from calling me names). Cheddar is still the most common reference point for firm cheese. People tell me, “Well, I mean, obviously, I like Cheddar.” Or, “I want something really strong. Not like Cheddar strong but, you know, strong.” Cheddar is the closest thing that Americans have to a national cheese, and with good reason. We’ve been making it, or some variant of it, since settling the colonies in the seventeenth century.
But when I say Cheddar, I’m thinking beyond the block. Mild, medium, and sharp are benchmarks of flavor intensity, to be sure; but as I learned when I met English-style or clothbound Cheddar early in my mongering gig, the old familiar cheese could be anything but. It could be enormous and cylindrical, its texture dry and feathery rather than the moist crumble I grew up on. The biggest shock was Cheddar’s potential flavor range. Suddenly I met cheeses that were dank and earthy, or high and bright like lemon, or with horseradish’s spicy prickle. Some Cheddars bordered on candied with butterscotch or caramel innuendo. And then there were all these English cheeses that weren’t Cheddar but were Cheddar-like: each bite broke apart into distinct chunks under tooth—and the tastes were lactic, tangy, and savory. I learned those were called the Territorials, named for distinct regions of England such as Cheshire, Gloucester, Lancashire, and Leicester, each one a precursor to the only cheese that has become known to, I would wager, everyone. The most profound revelation to be found by stepping through the Cheddar Gateway is that mild, approachable cheeses of this type need not be rubbery, bland, or so-called mild any more than intense and strong Cheddar types need be overly acidic, mouthwatering, or so-called extra sharp.
The possibility of these nuances was so foreign to me that I assumed that all good Cheddar was British (and, by association, that all American Cheddar was, if not bad, then predictably uniform and uninspiring). The week before I transitioned from full-time cubicle-goer to full-time cheesemonger, my office threw me a going-away party. I agreed to bring the cheese and included a dense, buttery, lemony white Cheddar. There was nothing smooth or gummy about it. Each tiny crumble veritably exploded on the tongue. It dissolved creamily, in infinite layers of milk, then brine, then citrus. I guess you could call it sharp, but it was so much more than a burning feeling. Needless to say, everyone loved it. When the one Brit in the office asked what the cheese was and where it was from, I realized I wasn’t sure. So, I committed the number-one Cardinal Sin of Mongering and lied. I knew the name was Grafton Cheddar; as for the provenance I had no clue. There was nothing Cracker Barrel–ish about it and so I guessed. “England,” I claimed (hoping I sounded authoritative). “Really?” he asked. “Are you sure?” Of course that made me defensive (I mean, after all, I had been working on a cheese counter at night after work. Surely I knew the difference between American and English Cheddar) and I assured everyone that yes, we were eating an English Cheddar. Couldn’t everyone tell? I mean, it was so much better than the Cheddar we all grew up with. The Americans nodded solemnly.
Indeed. Of course, I was completely wrong. Grafton 2 Year was a Vermont Cheddar, and simply better than the ones I ate as a kid. It was the first block Cheddar I encountered that was mind-blowing, just as Montgomery’s Cheddar (see page 251) was the first clothbound version that revealed to me the world of Cheddar beyond the block.
Cheddar, more than any other cheese type, can be divided into two camps: the thinking person’s Cheddar and the eating person’s Cheddar. I don’t mean that you’re not a thinker if you want to eat, any more than someone who wants to ponder isn’t going to end up taking that piece of cheese down, eventually. But there is a lot (billions of pounds) of Cheddar that’s wholly unremarkable. It’s not bad, it’s just not interesting. It offers the comfort of fat, protein, and salt, perhaps with a little zip at the end if you’re into that sort of thing. And that’s just fine.
I’m concerned here with the evolving flavors of Cheddar types. Some of the most extraordinary and easy-to-adore cheeses I’ve met in the past few years have been block Cheddars that are made with an adjunct culture that delivers a wild and addictive new flavor to the world of cheese. You keep going back for a small bite, a little crumble, a piece of your friend’s piece, thinking, “What is that?” Or not thinking at all, just sensing that you want more.
There is a resurrection of British farmhouse cheese happening, and many of the original Cheddar types that were nearly destroyed by industrialization in postwar Britain are returning. Their complexity and grace, their hand-craftedness, are especially humbling to anyone who has tasted the stuff that rolls off factory lines. And there are the outliers, which as history shows are really the originators of the Cheddar type. These are cheeses (French!) that taste of ancient volcanic soil, of a dying art and lifestyle.
With this enormous range, a particular pet peeve of mine is the common inclusion of Cheddar in recipes calling for melted cheese. The truth is, most Cheddars aren’t great melting cheeses. Unless they’re very young (mild), they don’t melt smoothly but separate greasily, immediately congealing moments away from heat. But Cheddar is a consummate eating cheese. The Brits have an entire meal based on this premise: a ploughman’s lunch is simply a hunk of cheese, a piece of bread, and a pickle for much-needed acidity (and juice!). My most common lazy-weeknight family dinner is a sizable hunk of Cheddar (usually clothbound), a second cheese that’s usually spreadable, bread, and a salad (maybe pickles too). Cheddar is so familiar that we tend to ignore its possibilities. In my house, it’s the meat substitute, the weekend lunch you eat standing at the kitchen counter, the post-gym snack. If you think you know Cheddar, I’m here to tell you the fun is only just beginning.