Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cheese of the Week: Cheddar

This week, many things happened that made me think about the politics of Cheddar. Amongst them, I hosted a Sunday dinner at our place in Brooklyn for our friends in the building.

The menu included Aztec Lasagna, an invention from our time in Jersey City. The dish is a combination of sweet potatoes, tofu, plantains, poblano peppers, tomato sauce, tortillas, Mexican cream and cheddar. While, I normally get most of these ingredients in our neighborhood, either at the Mexican store or from the Korean-run 24-mini-mart. It is nearly impossible to get good cheese in K-town. I normally go to Murray’s Cheese once a week to get cheese for the week or for a specific recipe. However, this week I forgot to get the good-enough-to-melt Irish cheddar that they carry and only bought Morbier to put over potatoes and Fourme d’Ambert to stuff dates.

For tonight’s dinner, I had to go to the local Food Town to buy cheddar. I ended up getting Cabot (Extra Sharp) Cheddar, which is neither sharp nor complex as the clothbound version that the Cabot Co-op produces for the upscale market. Still, this cheddar is a fine cheese to melt over a dish that has many different flavors going on. But the politics around its availability in the super market are definitely more complex than the flavor.

Other two things that made me think this week about the politics of cheddar, were a conversation with Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farms and a talk by Slow Money author – Woody Tasch that I attended on Friday night.

The Cellars at Jasper Hill Farms are currently being used as maturing rooms for the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, and this partnership has been a major source of pride for both the Cellars and the Cabot Co-op. For this reason, Mateo and his family decided to open their caves to other cheeses. They were also concerned about becoming “cheddar bitches” as they realized the aging of cheddar could take over their business. Mateo used the expression to mean that unless they diversified, and quickly, their business would be overtaken by the amount of demand for Cabot’s upscale cheddar. This obviously has made me think a lot about investment, prestige and supply-demand dynamics.

Finally, on Friday after an engaging talk over the principles of Slow Money, I have been thinking a lot about the options for the likes of me, who do not have money to invest but still believe that we should support local productions. This year, for the first time, we were members of the local CSA. This opportunity lets us try a lot of new things, but also kept us fed in weeks when we had no time to go out to the store.

Unfortunately, cheese is not part of the bi-weekly bounty. The cheddar sold at the farmer’s market in Union Sq. is ok, but cannot really be melted and should not be called cheddar. So options are limited. This takes me back to my trip to Food Town and their cheese options.

The first thing I notice is that every single piece of pre-cut cheese is tiny, and therefore marketed as “grab and go” options. The small portions are meant to be cheap and easy to get in our hectic urban lives. But this means that packing is intensive and that those pieces of cheese are full of additives to stabilize the taste, prolong shelf life and mimic flavor that is normally developed by maturation and care.

The second thing was the consistency of styles. There were about 15 cheddars – orange, sharp, jalapeno, lite – from four different producers. Also they had 6 munsters, 5 smoked, 4 chevres, 3 red-wine washed, 4 “swiss,” and 7 “parmesan.” All from five to seven different producers, with ingredients list that went 18 items beyond milk, rennet, and salt normally found in artisanal cheeses.

Finally, all of the options felt like rubber to the touch and none had a discernible smell that resemble cheeses made in a dairy and not in a factory. Cheddar is probably the extreme case of this. Cheddaring means the process followed by cheesemakers, who stack slabs of curd on top of each other to spell whey and created the specific flavor of this cheese. The best versions are cloth bounded, covered in lard, and aged for about 8 to 16 months, depending on desired sharpness.

The cheddar found on supermarkets has none of the care that this style requires. The versions available are always the same, always with a metallic taste and an interesting but few times pleasurable chewiness. It is a great sandwich cheese and gets along with most foods, mostly because it is bland and unintrusive.

To wrap up, I think an artisanal version could gain from our support. The demand is there, we just need better options. And it will help dairies and cheesemakers.

If you are looking for good options try:

1) Cabot Clothbound from Vermont, 2) Montgomery from England, 3) Mt. Callan from Ireland, 4) Cows from Canada (even if this is more commercial that use a small herd and their technique is very close to the original cheesemaking process of this style.)

No comments:

Post a Comment