I’ve been writing a fair amount about cheddars on here over the past few weeks. It’s a category of cheese that deserves a lot of attention, if only to match its huge presence in the Anglophone foodscapes.
After originating in the tiny corner of Somerset and flourishing among the great English cheeses, Cheddar spread not just to the US and Canada, but to Australia and New Zealand as well. Today there are cheddars made just about everywhere cheese is made, whether they are called “cheddar” or not.
So what is this ubiquitous cheese that has inspired some of the great dishes of American cuisine—including mac and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, and cheeseburgers, to get you salivating—and many other global cuisines?
Well, like so many English and European cheeses, it all starts with a place. That’s right: Cheddar is the name of a village in Somerset.
Home to a famous limestone gorge and situated at the edge of the Mendip Hills, Cheddar is located in a lush spot in Southwestern England. Of course it would be a place like this, where the cows have plenty of grass to munch on, from which one of the great cheeses would spring forth.
This cheese is different from the other European hard cheeses for two main reasons, which are linked: the first is early acidification, and the second is the process of cheddaring, which aids acidification.
Essentially, the milk from the evening’s milking is slowly cooled down over night; as this process takes place, the bacteria living in the milk party it up, acidifying the milk as they play. Acidification is a lowering in the pH level of the milk, which allows for fermentation. Basically, cheddar’s early acidification means that the milk begins to ferment earlier than the milk of other cheeses.
New milk is added to the cool vat in the morning, and the temperature change rejuvenates the bacteria after their night of partying, keeping the acidification going.
The curds that form from this fermentation process are eventually scalded to reduce the amount of moisture in them. Once the whey is drained off of the hot curds, the cheddaring process begins.
This is where the dry curds are allowed to fully drain by being cut, stacked, and flipped. The curds in the vat are cut into two long strips, and then the strips are cut into blocks. The blocks are stacked on top of each other, pressing the whey out of each other and simultaneously keeping one another warm.
Depending on the pH levels during this process, the blocks are flipped more or less frequently. Cheddaring goes on until the curd reaches the right pH and moisture levels, and then the curds are milled and salted, molded, and pressed into wheels or blocks.
Now there was a great variety in how this process was done in the early days, so much so that the category could develop broadly. According to US regulation codes, a cheddar can be “any cheese with a moisture content of up to 39 percent and at least 50 percent fat in dry matter” (The Oxford Companion to Cheese, 131). That is an extremely broad definition, about the equivalent of defining cheddar as “a hard cheese.”
As we can guess, there wasn’t just one cheddar recipe back in the day. Cheddar also wasn’t made only in Cheddar, originally. Variations on the same cheese arose around Somerset and in the neighboring counties of Gloucester and Wiltshire.
Eventually, as we know, the cheese traveled across the seas to all of the English colonies. The world’s first cheese factory was founded in New York in the early 1850s—making cheddar, of course—and cheddar production exploded.
But if the early American cheese factories took cheddar-making to a whole new level, they also made the cheese cheaper, increased its availability, and in true American form, exported it everywhere. This essentially threatened to wipe out the English cheddars in their own market, so English Cheddar makers eventually applied for protected status for their cheeses.
Today, ‘real’ English cheddar is called “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar Cheese,” and is given the PDO (protected designation of origin) stamp only if it hails from Dorset, Somerset, Devon, or Cornwall. There is also an “Artisan Somerset Cheddar” protection for cheddars made with undyed, raw milk, in Somerset, exclusively from the milk of the farm on which the cheese is made, clothbound, and aged for at least eleven months.
So cheddar is a place, a process, and a style of cheese—defined both loosely and by strict guidelines. You can be sure that the history and science of cheddar are more complicated than what I’ve outlined here, and we all know that there are so many types of cheddar, it’s ridiculous.
The Oxford Companion to Cheese names off a list of the world’s essential cheddars, all of them the products of Anglophone countries.
In England, it names Montgomery’s, Keen’s, Westcombe, and Quicke’s. In the US and Canada, it points out Bleu Mont, Fiscalini, Cabot Clothbound, Beecher’s Flagship, Prairie Breeze, and Avonlea.
The book cites Pyengana Cheddar as another bastion of the style—a cheddar from Tasmania, of all places. And just when we thought artisanal cheddars would be considered the be-all and end-all of cheddars in the cheese encyclopedia, the Oxford names Tillamook and Cabot as notable producers of “high-quality Cheddar […] on a larger scale” (134).
Whether it comes in bright orange shingles, in big clothbound wheels, or somewhere in between, Cheddar is definitely one of the world’s most popular and important cheeses.