Once cheddar was 'Cheddar', a large, hard-pressed barrel of cheese made by a particular process in the village of Cheddar in Somerset, which is close to deep caves that are perfect for maturing the cheeses.
The slightest variation in milk origin, temperatures used, type of rennet and how much, drainage techniques, salting, size and ageing will all produce different flavours in what seem to be the same cheese. True cheddar’s special difference is based on cheddaring, a process of cutting the curds, stacking these and then turning them by hand as they drained and firmed under their own weight. That plus the flavour of milk made from the grasses of Cheddar Gorge made a unique, easily liked eating and cooking cheese. But no one thought to protect the name or the process, hence cheddar-type cheese are today made all round the world, some good, some awful and very few in the least bit traditional.
Everywhere, all the time, but what’s available close to you might not be the best.
Choose the best
The only guarantee of tasting cheddar the way it once was and should be is to buy cheese labelled West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, which guarantees it is made with milk only from four counties of South West England. Some of these are still made with unpasteurised milk, which better reflects the grasses and wildflowers of the farms on which the cows were feeding and that gives a notably fuller flavour and sharper finish.
These genuine cheddars will be wrapped in cloth and matured nine months before being sold and often are aged very much longer, as vintage cheddars. If you can, discover when a cheese was made, those made in early spring when grasses are juiciest and tastiest will be especially good.
Even cheeses made in the cheddar-style and with unpasteurised milk are often made with a rennet starter that includes enzymes designed to affect the ultimate flavour, meaning they are sweeter (usually) or more acidic (seeming older) than if they had used traditional rennets. Block cheddars, made by an industrialised process and from pasteurised milk, are cheaper but very often can be very enjoyable cheeses indeed, especially those from New Zealand.
Like all cheese, cheddar and cheddar-style cheeses should be tightly wrapped so their cut surfaces are protected from the air. Modern cling film is quite the best and the cheese should also be kept cool; if refrigerated it should be brought to room temperature before eating. The worst thing you can do to any cheese is to store it at room temperature or unwrapped; avoid a cheese bell.
Cheddar is one of the diner’s and the cook’s best friends. As well as providing a very satisfying snack or sandwich, by itself or with almost anything savoury including pickles and chutney, cheddar accompanies fruit, especially apples and pears, fruity jams in sandwiches, fruit pies, fine wines and beer. It can be cubed into salads, grated onto baked potatoes or into savoury pastry and where would the food writer be without the classic phrase: 'sprinkle with grated cheddar and pop under the grill until bubbling and golden brown.' But never believe that mild cheddar is suitable for cooking, as its flavour simply disappears; if you're cooking with cheddar-style cheese, choose something with real heft to its flavour – you’ll use less and get better results.
Cheddar can provide some of cheese’s greatest taste thrills. So don’t just pick up a pack and hope. Try different styles and ages. There’s bound to be one that’s better than the others for you. But you must taste a real West Country Farmhouse Cheddar and in it sniff farmyards and summery fields, taste acidity and creaminess and finally know what the fuss has been about – for centuries.