We all know what cheddar is; we’ve seen it, we’ve eaten it, we (most of us) like it.
But while the name “cheddar” already conjures a place (England), a process (cheddaring), and a style of cheese (duh), the types of cheddars are diverse—adding layers of meaning to a common term. Today I’m interested in just one type of cheddar: the clothbound kind.
Think of it kind of like a cheese mummy.
The cheesemaker prepares his cheddar: the curds are drained, milled, salted, hooped, and then pressed. The young wheels are about to go into the aging room—but first they are enrobed with cloth, wrapped snugly and sealed on all sides.
The cloth is usually either a sheet of cheesecloth or muslin, however there was a time during Britain’s colonial history when some clothbound English cheeses were even tied with calico lace from Indian cotton.
After its application to the outside of the young cheese, the cloth is then painted with some kind of fatty paste: butter, lard, water and flour, or olive oil or vegetable oil. The cheese is then sometimes pressed again, to ensure that the cloth stays put, and then goes into the aging room for maybe three or four years.
As the cheese ages, the cloth (also called a bandage) protects the outside of the cheese, letting in very little air. While the cheese matures and ripens, the bandage is regularly cleaned off to prevent it from turning super moldy and dusty and gross, or from getting infested by cheese mites.
The cloth doesn’t allow the cheese to lose much of its moisture, so the finished product turns out to be a firmer, more flavorful cheese: earthy, sharp, complex. It is also more likely to retain its shape, rather than sagging or bulging over the course of those long three or four years of affinage.
The first time I had to remove the cloth from any cheese was for a wheel of aged Red Leicester (pronounced ‘red Lester’); as I peeled away the cloth, it smelled like I had opened the door to a mummy’s tomb and was breathing in all of the funk and decay that had been hanging out in the air for centuries. Dank, earthy, mildewy, and yet almost grassy.
But the tasty morsel within was so worth it. After all, a cheese that’s been protected by cloth on the outside is bound to taste pretty damn fine on the inside.
There are a lot of famous clothbound cheddars. The English giants, Montgomery’s Cheddar and Quicke’s Cheddar, are both enveloped in musty cloth as they mature to peak deliciousness. Beecher’s Flagship Reserve from up here in the Pacific Northwest is clothbound, as is the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar aged in the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont.
And then there are tons of cheddar’s relatives, like Double Gloucester, Lancashire, Wensleydale and Cheshire, the aforementioned Red Leicester, and so forth and so on, all tied up in their white wrappings like Halloween mummies or toilet-paper bridal shower dresses—only a lot stickier and more canvassy.
Bandaging these cheeses is a traditionally English habit, as you might guess from this list of cheeses. The tradition originated in Somerset, which is also the birthplace of cheddar.
So now you know.
Also, it is kind of a pain in the butt for your neighborhood cheesemonger to get into a wheel of clothbound cheddar if it is particularly well-aged and not particularly warm.
One of the rights of passage for a baby cheesemonger to become a fully grown cheesemonger is the event of opening a wheel of clothbound cheddar. This involves scoring the cloth bandage, getting the wire to bite into what is usually a 90-pound cylinder of hard cheese, and then successfully getting the wire to cut all the way through without dropping the cheese onto the floor.
Back when my former co-monger Janna was still a baby cheesemonger, her first clothbound cheddar-cutting was quite the experience. That wheel of Montgomery’s Cheddar might as well have been frozen solid; we didn’t have time to let it warm up: right out of the cooler and onto the cutting block.
We broke seven wires trying to open the cheese, almost dropped the entire wheel and cutting board on the floor a handful of times, and I had to use my entire body weight to hold the wheel down while she had one foot up on the counter to brace herself as she dragged the wire through the wheel. Needless to say, our boss was rolling with laughter the entire time; what a torture master!
It was quite the show, and we have the pictures to prove it.
So next time you bite into a wedge of beautiful, earthy, clothbound cheddar, thank your lucky stars that your cheesemonger prepared this wonderful cheese for you.