Distant Cheeses, Local Farmers: Cheddar Across Continents | culture: the word on cheese
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Distant Cheeses, Local Farmers: Cheddar Across Continents

Willi Lehner's Blue Mont Dairy Clothbound Cheddar

In this blog series our intrepid intern Molly will find and interview American cheesemakers attempting to re-create traditional European cheeses. Learn about the difficulties as well as the benefits of this type of cheese making, as well as how terroir and the idea of a cheese tied to a location so distant changes when that cheese is made in a new location. Also, each week you’ll have a chance to win an issue of culture: the word on cheese. Last week’s winner was Jill Budzynski!

Unlike ‘Chabichou‘ or ‘Idiazabal‘, I can pronounce the word ‘cheddar’ without embarrassing myself. It stands out from all of the other cheeses I’ve written about so far, if only because it’s familiar; it’s not a stinky foreign cheese that I never heard of until I traveled or began eating more adventurously. It’s something that nearly all Americans know well, in at least one of its many manifestations. This cheese feels American to me, and having been a Vermonter, it tastes like home.

But as we’ve learned, most cheeses have a history that begins somewhere in the Old World, and cheddar is no exception. In the village of Cheddar in Somerset, Southwest England, a gorge on the edge of town harbors caves that provide the ideal temperature and humidity for maturing cheese. Cheddar cheese was made here as early as the 12th century. It’s unique because of a process known as ‘cheddaring’, in which curds are let to sit together for a few hours after they coagulate. The lactose in the curds converts to lactic acid, which intensifies while they sit, leading to the characteristic sharpness of the cheese. It’s usually aged for many months, sometimes years, and develops a creamy yellow color, a firm texture, and a nutty, full-rounded flavor.

Cows grazing in Somerset on left; traditional clothbound cheddars aging on right

Cows grazing in Somerset; traditional clothbound cheddars aging at Manor Farm in Somerset.
Photocredit: huggleperson, Kate Arding

It sounds like the beginnings of a story about a traditional French cheese; centuries-old practices, small village, local terroir and local aging caves. But unlike in France, where cheeses were so well-protected along with small peasant agriculture, England experienced an industrialization of the dairy industry similar to that in America in the 20th century, during which many local cheesemaking traditions were consumed by large-scale industrial ones. Today, only one producer of cheddar cheese is based in Cheddar itself. ‘Cheddar’ has spread throughout the world, in many ways losing its connection to its original home.

The name ‘cheddar’ thus does not have a protected status; it’s considered a generic term, which means that American cheesemakers are free to name their cheese cheddar if they like. However, only cheddar produced from local milk within four counties of South West England may use the name “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar,” which is PDO-protected. And there’s growing pressure within the U.K. to expand the legal protection of cheddar; the British Slow Food movement has created a cheddar presidium, claiming that only three cheeses should be called cheddar, and requiring that members made cheddar cheese only in Somerset using traditional methods, including raw milk, traditional animal rennet, and a cloth wrapping.

Some of you may be wondering: what would happen to ‘Vermont Cheddar’ or ‘Wisconsin Cheddar’ if the name became legally restricted? It’s a threat that concerns Dr. Paul Kindstedt of the University of Vermont’s Institute for Artisan Cheesemaking. While highlighting his respect for the great cheesemaking traditions of Europe, he expresses fear in his book Cheese and Culture that Europe could “control the exclusive rights to the names of almost all of the economically important cheeses of the world”, and that ‘Vermont Cheddar’ would have to be renamed something like ‘Vermont Delight,’ despite VT Cheddar’s “long, complex and proud history”.

How did cheddar, a cheese from a small English village, grow to be to be the second-most-popular cheese in the United States? It started with the Puritans, who came to the U.S. largely from East Anglia, where cheesemaking favored large-sized, low-moisture varieties. In the New World, English-style cheeses like Gloucester and Cheddar predominated, and new Americans faced the earliest challenges in adapting European cheeses to a new landscape. They adapted to New England’s hot, humid summers by dressing aging cheeses—smearing the surface with whey butter, then wrapping it in cotton bandages to create a more durable coating. Bandage-wrapping was common in England, but the practice of combining bandaging with butter smearing was an American innovation that eventually led to “semi-rindless” and “fully-rindless” cheeses and later, a paraffin wax rind.

When the Industrial Revolution mechanized farm and dairy labor, almost all American cheese factories were producing cheddar due to a combination of high demand from England and advances in cheddar-making technology. New technologies enabled cheesemakers to replace milk fat in butter with cheaper sources of fat like lard, and the trend toward pasteurization led to blander flavoring. The quality and reputation of American cheesemaking plummeted.

Yet despite this overall trend towards industrialization, American cheddar comes in an infinite variety of styles, and today it’s possible to find American cheddars that rival those of the British masters. As Kirstin Jackson if It’s Not You It’s Brie writes, “if you have written off this cheese family because of what’s in your grocery aisle, give it another chance.”

Easy cheese on left, cheese plate on right

Where does American cheddar belong—in a can, or on a cheeseplate?
Photocredit: xiaming, stu_spivack

The story of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar is one that displays key shifts in American artisan cheesemaking over the past decade. Ten years ago, things in the cheese world were really starting to change; more and more Americans were beginning to appreciate small-scale production and new styles of cheese, showing an increasing interest in where their food came from. Cabot had longtime been a cornerstone of the New England dairy industry, making a range of products including yogurt, cottage cheese, butter and cheddar cheeses that were shipped to grocery stores around the country. Still, they hadn’t really been part of the specialty food market; their cheeses weren’t sold in specialty cheese shops or white-tablecloth restaurants.

While marketing officials at Cabot knew that a venture into the specialty food industry wouldn’t make them richer than selling to huge grocery chains, they brilliantly foresaw that it would help to get their brand into new sectors of the marketplace. So they partnered with a local dairy farm—Kempton Family Farm—in nearby Peacham, Vermont, and began making an artisan, Old-World-style bandage-wrapped cheddar.

Cabot clothbound cheddar aging on left, a herd of cows at Jasper Hill's VT partner farm on right

Cabot Clothbound aging; A herd at one of Jasper Hill’s partner VT farms
Photocredit: Lark Smotherton, Jared Leeds

But the transition from the usual industrially-made cheddars to a small-scale, artisan cheddar proved to be a little bumpy. First of all, the aging process is completely different; the standard American block cheddar, which is made in 40-pound or larger blocks, is normally just cyrovacked and put in a fridge for as long as it needs to age. “It’s not like the cheese is getting handled every day,” explains Vince Razionale from the Cellars at Jasper Hill. “It’s basically a thing in a refrigerated warehouse. The clothbound aging process is different—you have to apply some sort of fat to the outside to seal it off and prevent it from losing too much moisture. You need to develop a rind on it.” The second problem Cabot encountered was being able to sell the cheese. Because Cabot wasn’t yet looped into the specialty market, they’d get the cold shoulder from the specialty cheese shops they approached—no matter how delicious and high-quality this cheese was.

Cabot solved both of these problems by connecting with brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farms, who at that time were just getting started making and aging cheeses in the Northeast Kingdom. Not only did they have the expertise and the space to age the cheese—they’d also already grown a good reputation among specialty food distributors, so it was easy for them to sell it.

Entering into an agreement with Cabot—in which they aged Clothbound in their own cellars, and later helped with shipping, selling, and distributing it—changed the working landscape of Vermont dairy farming. After Clothbound won Best in Show at ACS in 2006, Andy and Mateo blasted out a hillside on their farm and began the construction of extensive aging caves, and they’ve been expanding ever since. Originally an iconic small dairy, Jasper Hill now ages cheeses made at small farms all over Vermont in their 22,000 square foot aging facility. They provide an infrastructure that allows small dairies to produce a value-added product and to survive.

Anyone who’s tasted this Old-World-style cheddar knows that it’s worlds apart from the block cheddar of the grocery aisle. So, is this what real English cheddar is supposed to taste like? According to Vince, not really. “It’s ‘English-style’ in that it’s wrapped in cloth, and the clothbound quality makes it sort of very Old-World, but it’s actually a very American flavor profile.” While Jasper Hill is interested in eventually exporting Clothbound, right now their market is American, and the tastes of the local public influence the taste of the cheese. “When it comes to cheese, as in a lot of things, Americans have an interest in products that have more of a sweet flavor profile,” Vince says, “while the classic English-style cheddar flavor profile is a little more mustardy and kind of alliaceous, and the acidity of what you’d expect out of a cheddar sort of plays out differently with those flavors than it does with sweet flavors.”

In many cases, American cheesemakers who ‘recreate’ European classics are driven less by the desire to make an exact copy, and more by the inspiration that Old-World traditions provide: small scale agriculture, single source, handmade cheeses, careful aging. Perhaps what makes Cabot Clothbound ‘Old-World’ style, what sets it apart from its many, many American contemporaries, is that it’s made with this vision in mind. In a state—and a country—where ‘cheddar’ can mean almost anything, Cabot Clothbound has truly raised the bar and proven what an artisanal American cheddar can be.

Next week’s post sees Gouda brought to Wisconsin.

Molly McDonough

Former Senior Editor Molly McDonough worked for cheesemakers in Switzerland and the US before earning a Master's degree in Agriculture and Food Science at the Ecole Supérieure d'Agriculture in Angers, France. After spending a year in Romania working on rural development projects with Heifer International, she returned home to Boston and joined the culture team in 2015.

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