I’ve been a cheesemonger for a long time and a cheese enthusiast for even longer. Through all that, I have to say that one of the most distinctive memories I have from my cheese life is the first time I tried Montgomery’s Farmhouse Cheddar.
Most people don’t think of cheddar as a fancy cheese, mainly because we have all heard of it and eaten it since we were little kids. Besides Kraft singles it’s probably the main cheese most of us grew up on. When I started getting into fancy cheese as a late teenager, I kind of expected that process to be a sort of branching out from cheddar, just eating lots of moldy, runny, stinky things; that is, until I tried Montgomery’s cloth-bound for the first time.
The cheddar we all grew up on is mass-produced in factories, sourcing milk from god knows how many hundreds of farms. The milk is pasteurized (usually at high temperatures) and in many cases harsher starter cultures are added to increase the acidity levels in the milk and in the final cheese product—this gives the cheeses their desired “sharpness”.
Once made, these industrial cheeses are wrapped in plastic or wax and left to age without breathing for however long, one year, two years, ten years, all the while getting sharper and more acidic. Because the cheeses aren’t allowed to breathe, they lose no moisture as they age. This method makes sense on an economical level (start with a 10lb block in 2000, still have a 10lb block in 2010) but it does not result in a fine, well-balanced cheese. But whatever, who cares, it’s the sharpest thing you are ever going to eat. Americans love the word “sharp”. They think that sharpness and goodness are one and the same with cheddar. “Extra sharp” = “extra good”. I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve actually come to the point where I seldom use the word “sharp” in a positive way when talking about cheese, especially cheddar.
Cheddar cheese, both fancy and industrial, gets its name from an important step in the cheddar making process called “cheddaring” where the cut curds are formed into blocks, then stacked and rotated on top of one another in order to expel excess whey. As I mentioned above, in the case of industrial cheddar, after the cheeses are molded into their bricks or rounds, they are wrapped in plastic or coated with wax and left to age for as long as the maker is willing to hold the inventory. Good cheddars, fancy cheddars, the cheddars cheese lovers should care about, are not wrapped in plastic or coated in wax but instead are cloth-bound. Clothbinding is a traditional English method by which the molded cheddars are wrapped with layers of muslin cloth and rubbed with some kind of fat, usually lard to seal them before aging. This process protects the cheese, but it also allows the cheese to breathe just enough to develop and mature properly, losing moisture and not suffocating.
The resulting cheese, aged and attended to for at least one year (but seldom as much as, or more than two) is well-balanced and complex. Every wheel is unique and shows new properties depending on the milk used and even variations in the natural starter cultures. The sharpness isn’t offensive or palate numbing, as can often be the case with industrial cheddar, it is rather a gentle acidic component that plays along side a wealth of other exciting flavors: meatiness, fruitiness, umami, roastiness, nuttiness, vegetal notes – I could go on just thinking of all the awesome flavors you can experience from wheel to wheel of a good cloth-bound cheddar. My eyes were opened to that the first time I tried Montgomery’s Cheddar, and I will always remember that realization: that world-class cheddar cheese could be as sophisticated and fancy as any stinky, runny thing you could imagine.
Ilhan Zeybekoglu is a cheesemonger and the British Isles cheese buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.