What cheese holds the title of most popular in the world? Cheddar – a firm cow’s milk cheese that ranges from mild nutty and creamy to sharp, robust and crumbly. Pleasing a wide range of palates, the key to Cheddar’s variety is its ageing period. The longer the cheese matures, the more pointedly rich and dry it becomes.
Cheddar also varies in colour from natural white to yellow to pumpkin orange, as some varieties are dyed with carrot juice, marigold or annatto.
First made in the English county of Somerset, Cheddar is the UK’s best-selling cheese. It accounts for more than 55% of the country’s annual cheese market.
Over the years, many stories have been told about the origins of Cheddar cheese. According to Somerset legend, it was the accidental discovery of a village milkmaid who left a pail of milk in the Cheddar Gorge caves for safekeeping. When she returned to fetch the milk, she found that it had transformed into tasty curds, and thus Cheddar cheese was born.
While something of a tall tale, there is no doubt that Cheddar was first produced in its namesake village in Somerset. However, it was more likely the invention of 16th century cheese makers who discovered that when they pressed the excess moisture out of fresh curd, the resulting cheese lasted much longer. They refined the process by cutting the curd into large strips, stacking and turning them by hand so the very last remnants of whey could be drained away. Today this style of cheese production is known as “cheddaring.”
The original Cheddar cheese was matured in the caves of Cheddar Gorge, and it had to be crafted within 30 miles of the Wells Cathedral to be considered authentic. Today, however, the cheese is too widely produced to have PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status. Generally mass-produced in large factories (zillions of pounds are produced in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. each year), some might say Cheddar has become a rather bland-tasting victim of its own success.
Fortunately, artisan Cheddar producers do still exist, though only one, the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, still makes the legendary cheese in the actual village of Cheddar. Compared to the 20,000 to 40,000 tonnes made at a commercial producer, this company makes only 60 tonnes of Cheddar per year. The truly authentic cheese is made only from the unpasteurised milk of cows grazing the rich pasturelands of Cheddar. It is “cheddared” by hand and then traditionally aged in cloth (commercial producers use plastic) for 12 months. The cloth allows the cheese to breathe, creating a natural rind and a full, mature flavour.
There are more than 250 varieties of Cheddar produced worldwide, including low-fat, smoked, wine-soaked and those flavoured with horseradish, herbs or peppers. In the U.S., you’ll also find labels of mild (aged two to three months), medium, and extra sharp (aged one year or longer).
While mass-produced Cheddars are widely available, they’re best for everyday uses like making lunch sandwiches, soups, baked goods and casseroles (macaroni and cheese). For a rare treat, look for more authentic Cheddars such as West Country Farmhouse Cheddar (which can only claim this name if it’s made in the west country counties of Dorset, Cornwall, Devon or Somerset), or those by Keen’s, Montgomery’s or Cheddar Gorge. Compared to commercial varieties, an authentic Cheddar will be noticeably flaky, rich, earthy and nutty – absolutely awe-inspiring as a table cheese.
Once you have opened the original packaging, wrap your Cheddar tightly in plastic or foil and place in an airtight bag. Store in your refrigerator’s cheese compartment or the lowest drawer (the warmest location) and use within two to four weeks, or the noted expiration date.
For longer storage, there are a few things you can do. One trick is to rub the surface of the cheese with vegetable oil before wrapping and refrigerating. This will help keep the cheese from drying out.
Another trick is to wrap the cheese in a paper towel dampened with cider vinegar. Seal the wrapped cheese in an airtight plastic bag, refrigerate and check the towel every few days, re-dampening if necessary. The vinegar will help inhibit the growth of mould.
If a little mould does start to appear on the surface of your Cheddar, simply use a sharp knife to cut away the bad spots (plus a little extra for good measure). This is safe to do with any hard or semi-firm cheese, but not soft.
As with most other cheeses, Cheddar is best served at room temperature. To enjoy its flavour and texture to the fullest, remove the cheese from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before eating. Cheddar is a classic accompaniment for crackers and breads, and it’s also wonderful alongside fruits such as apples and pears. As for wine, mild cheddars match well with Sauternes and Merlot, while sharper varieties need something bolder, like Pinot Noir or Cabernet. Cheddar is also right at home with a pint of ale or lager.