Say Cheese! The Quest For Real Cheddar

“My grandfather didn’t have fridges. He had stone baths with thick walls. You could always tell it was summer when butter started coming down through the ceiling.” – Jamie Montgomery, third generation producer of Montgomery Cheddar, Somerset.

Let’s face it. The world would be a sad place without Cheddar.

Picture a grilled cheese sandwich, Cheddar oozing sinfully out from between crispy crusts, or a bowl of spicy beef chilli, grated Cheddar melting helplessly in alongside dollops of sour cream. From quiches to baked potatoes, burgers to burritos, cauliflower soup to a simple sandwich, there are countless foods that are better with Cheddar. There’s a reason that it’s the most-purchased cheese in the world.

Things, however, aren’t as clean-cut as they seem. Go down to your local supermarket, and look in the fridge. A lot, if not all, of the Cheddar on display is a disconcertingly neon orange colour. Some of it’s pre-sliced. Some of it is inexplicably in strings (why anyone would want a cheese to come in string form is beyond me) and much of it looks suspiciously shiny. Is this how Cheddar was intended when it was made by the Great Cheese Elders of yesteryear? I think not.

Cheddar gets its name from the town where it was created in Somerset, England, some time during the 12th century. (There’s actually a reference to a purchase of 10,240 pounds of Cheddar in the court accounts of Henry II, in the year 1170. A man of good taste, I say.) Somerset is carpeted with thick, lush green pastures, making it a longtime hub of English dairy. There’s no way to be certain how this particular cheesemaking method was invented, but there is a standing theory that the invading Romans brought the recipe with them from France.

Obviously, back in those days, all cheese was produced by hand. Cheddar was originally made with raw (unpasteurised) milk collected from the well-fed cows of Somerset. Once the curds had formed, they were cut into large slabs, firmly pressed, and stacked on top of each other. These slabs would then be turned at regular intervals, and this process of stacking, pressing and turning is known as cheddaring. Following this, the slabs of young cheese were wrapped in lard-covered cloths; this prevented contamination, while still allowing the cheese to “breathe.” The bandaged cheese was matured in the Cheddar caves, which are cool enough to provide the perfect environment for curing.

In 1856, a local dude named Joseph Harding had a lightbulb moment and introduced new, groundbreaking methods of mechanising and standardising the production of Cheddar. His contribution was hugely important, particularly regarding dairy hygiene and temperature control; he also invented the “revolving cutter,” still widely used to cut curds today. However, despite his positive input, Harding made it very easy for Cheddar to be adulterated on a global scale; he and his son were also happy to share his expertise abroad, meaning that later Cheddar producers from the Somerset area were stuck with intense competition from as far afield as the US and Australia.

Today, practically all Cheddar is made from pasteurised milk. The exceptions to this lie in the counties of Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall, where 14 cheesemakers are protected by a PDO known as West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, and are still using fresh, raw milk and traditional techniques, including cheddaring by hand. These oldschool cheeses are matured in the locality and aged for a minimum of 9 months.

I like good food, but I’m no snob, and I’m the first to admit that supermarket Cheddar can be great (or grate, heh heh heh) for lots of things, and certainly has a place in the world. It melts well, and it’s mild enough for practically any palate. Many industrial cheeses, however, are called “Cheddar” without bearing any resemblance to the original cheese; these are most often flavoured, highly processed products, including the weird string cheese I mentioned above. I hear, in America, you can even buy “Cheddar” in a spray can. (Whyyyyyy?!)

Real artisan Cheddar is a whole other ball game. It’s older, harder and more crumbly than its conventional, mass-produced counterparts. It’s also stronger and much more complex in flavour, and – when it gets old enough – packed with salt crystals that crunch tantalisingly between your teeth. Where industrialised Cheddar is a bright orange (coloured with things like annatto or paprika), the handmade stuff is a pale, noble yellow.

The advent of mass-produced Cheddar has led to tough times for artisan cheesemakers. There are two million tonnes of cheese branded as Cheddar produced annually worldwide, while only about 300 tonnes come from Somerset. Jamie Montgomery’s family has been making artisan Cheddar for over 100 years; as he said, in a lecture I was lucky to attend at Slow Food Cheese this September, these small-scale cheesemakers are stuck in a constant struggle, “trying to maintain a standard, to maintain the truth of what Cheddar has always been.”

Realistically, if you want real cheddar, get thee to England. English Cheddar is the original, the big cheese. It’s the mac(-and-cheese) daddy of Cheddar (oh dear.) Montgomery Cheddar is my favourite; let its sweet, nutty flavour melt into your tastebuds, and you’ll never look at a supermarket Cheddar the same way again. These days, Ireland is also producing some fantastic Cheddar-style artisan cheeses, with little gems such as Mount Callan and Sliabh na mBán (pronounced “shleev nah mawn,” for all you non-Irish-speakers) vying for attention. For all you folks on the other side of the pond, I hear Wisconsin and Vermont are good places to start, although I’ve yet to sample any American artisan Cheddars myself.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, writing this post has made my stomach rumble. If you need me, I’ll be the one with my head in the fridge; I’ll leave you with some more inspiring words from Jamie Montgomery.

“My friends ask why I still call my cheese “Cheddar.” The answer is, I can’t sell out the name. I have to be there, to be a thorn in the side of the people who think they’re making good Cheddar. No, you’re not… Everyone thinks that’s what Cheddar is, and we have to be here going, Hello, we’re here! Come and see what we’re doing!… Otherwise, we’ve failed.”

Any thoughts on Cheddar, Somerset dairies, artisan cheesemaking or how weird string cheese is? Drop me a comment below.