All about cheddar cheese
Cheddar cheese is the most popular cheese in England, by far. It is consumed annually in quantities greater than all other cheeses combined – and this is in a country that likes its cheese, with total UK cheese expenditure being something like £2 billion per annum.
Does this mean that the Brits are a bit unadventurous when it comes to cheese? Well, yes and no. Go to any supermarket deli counter in the UK and you’ll see a far wider and more interesting array of cheeses than you would in many other developed countries, such as the US or Australia. Hard cheeses, soft cheeses, cheeses wrapped in nettles, cheese that are oak-smoked, cheeses mixed with chives, cranberries, chillies or caraway seeds. So Britons clearly do have fairly sophisticated palates when it comes to cheese. Yet they keep returning to cheddar. But before you condemn them or accuse them of a lack of adventure or imagination, you should bear in mind one thing: cheddar cheese is absolutely delicious. It is arguably the king of cheeses.
I say “arguably”, because many people would argue the point – and indeed, many people have argued it, quite vehemently and at times even physically. It has been estimated that in 1976, just under two per cent of all pub brawls in England were at least partly concerned with disputes over what was truly the “king of cheeses”. Two per cent may not sound a lot, but when you consider quite how many fights happen in English pubs – particularly in the 1970s, an era both of hooliganism and when many people considered it perfectly acceptable to drive to and from the pub, and to nip out for a pint or two at lunchtime even in professions such as policing and teaching – then that is a hell of a lot of fists being thrown over disputes about cheese.
It’s maybe not that surprising that so many dairy-based argument arose in pubs, given that one of the most popular pub meals was and remains the ploughman’s lunch. It’s an odd one, the ploughman’s, for it could be viewed as a “lazy man’s cheese and pickle sandwich” (or a “deconstructed cheese and pickle sandwich”, to give it a more pseudish, gastropub air), and yet it usually costs twice as much as a cheese sandwich. Indeed, if ever you fancy a ploughman’s lunch but are a bit short of readies, simply order a cheese and pickle sandwich and then break it up into its constituent parts on your plate. Ok, it’s not quite the same thing – and you may need to bring a jar of pickled onions with you to the pub – but it’ll do at a push.
Many people will tell you that the ploughman’s lunch is not actually as “traditional” as it is purported to be, and that the name was only given to the dish in the 1950s, as part of a campaign by the Cheese Bureau to try and boost consumption of cheese following the end of cheese rationing. However, while these people are technically correct, that the name was indeed used as part of a marketing campaign (subsequently continued by the Milk Marketing Board in the 1970s, to increase cheese sales, and heartily backed by the drinks industry as a way of encouraging people to visit the pub for their lunch), there is little doubt that the combination of ale, bread and cheese, along with onions or pickles, has been popularly consumed in England for many centuries, so actually it is very traditional indeed, whatever the name. So when people try to tell you that, you can tell that they are missing the point and maybe they should stop showing off and trying to sound clever.
Anyway, given the popularity of the ploughman’s lunch and given that cheese is its centrepiece, and given that it is so often consumed in public houses, and given that its most natural drinks pairing is with beer, it is hardly surprising that it was the catalyst for so many arguments and even drunken brawls over what is the best cheese in the world.
There are some who would argue that the title of “king of cheeses” should really apply to stilton, and indeed this is sometimes given as its semi-official title. There is no doubt whatsoever that, as George Orwell noted, it is the king of blue cheeses – knocking its stinky, sharp and acidic cousins gorgonzola and roquefort, which simply cannot compete for creaminess, into a cocked hat – but the king of all cheeses? That is a tougher call.
Then there are those who would apply the sobriquet “king of cheeses” to parmesan. And again, they have good grounds for this. Parmesan is a remarkable cheese, aged for years and with a simply incredible umami kick. It can transform any dish with just a couple of gratings or slices. When Samuel Peyps was informed, in 1666, that the great fire of London was spreading towards his house, he rushed out to his garden to bury in both his wine and his parmesan cheese – the two things he treasured most – to keep them safe from the ravages of the flames. It is a cheese to be valued, cherished and savoured.
However, most of these 1970s pub “cheese fights” were by those favouring the cause of cheddar over all other pretenders, and given the popularity of cheddar those arguing in favour of stilton, parmesan and so on were usually heavily outnumbered.
The number of fights happening over cheddar in recent times is not known, as figures on this are no longer collected. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that such disputes do still occur, and that despite the broadening of the palates of Britons in general, and the ever increasing number of cheeses available, cheddar is still more than holding its own.
Incidentally, while as we’ve learned cheddar is the most commonly consumed cheese in Britain, even in America it is the second most popular cheese – after mozzarella, the sales of which are boosted by Americans’ great love of pizza.
The Americans of course famous for their consumption of what is known as “American cheese”, which is not really a cheese at all, but a processed cheese product. You will find some people get quite sniffy about this (often the same dullards who trot out their “fact” about ploughman’s lunches, as discussed above). However, while this processed cheese is admittedly a not exactly the most cultured of products (and does rather back up the cliche of the unsubtle, unsophisticated American), there is no doubt that it has its place, and arguably it is the best cheese of the lot for certain tasks, in particular the topping of hamburgers. And actually, it’s something of a guilty pleasure for even quite sophisticated foodie types (as well as unsophisticated Homer Simpson types) to consume on its own, straight from its little plastic wrapper.
But anyway, as attested to by countless pub fights as well as by sales figures on both sides of the Atlantic, cheddar has strong claims to the title of king of cheeses. Maybe we should look a little at the history and the production of this perennially popular product.
It is not just coincidence that such a staple cheese should have first been made in Cheddar, a village in Somerset, south-west England. For Cheddar has near it a geographical feature known as Cheddar Gorge, which contains within it a network of caves. And caves are great for cheesemaking.
A worthwhile detour here would be to look at the history of roquefort. Local legend has it that the cheese was invented more than two thousand years ago (it was written about by the Ancient Romans, so it is at least that old) when a local shepherd, sitting in the entrance to a cave and midway through his lunch of bread and sheep’s milk cheese, saw an attractive girl walking in the distance. He ran to meet the girl, leaving his lunch behind in the cave. Some months later, he happened to return to the cave and saw that his abandoned cheese was now run through with veins of green mould. Being a curious fellow, he tasted it, and found it to be tangy and delicious. Whether true or not – and it has a ring of plausibility to it – the bacteria which produces roquefort is indeed found in local caves, which are also the optimum temperature and humidity in which to store and age the cheese. To this day, the caves around Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in France are still used for this purpose, and indeed under EU law only cheese aged in these caves may be sold under the name roquefort.
What does this roquefort story have to do with cheddar, you ask. Well, cheddar is also produced in caves, and indeed many cheeses of the world are associated with local caves. They tend to produce the perfect, cool and steady environment for maturing cheese, whatever the weather and conditions may be outside.
To produce cheddar, animal rennet is added to milk. Rennet is an enzyme complex found in the stomach lining of some animals, to help them in the digestion of their mother’s milk. It has been known for thousands of years that when added to milk, it has the effect of separating it into curds, which are solid, and whey, which is liquid. The very first cheese may well have been discovered when people put milk into a sheep’s stomach for storage or transportation, opening it later to find it had transformed rather wonderfully.
In the case of cheddar, the curds are then kneaded in with salt and then left to mature – traditionally in the caves around Cheddar, such as those found in Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole.
Mild cheddar, which is really quite boring and usually eaten only by the most unadventurous and unimaginative of people, can be ready in a matter of weeks. Given that it has all the high salt and fat content of mature cheddar, but none of the character and flavour, it does seem entirely pointless to even bother with. Mature cheddar will have been matured in the caves for at least six months, and extra-mature or vintage cheddar is matured for more than a year. During this time it develops complex, rich and wonderful flavours. Crystals of calcium lactate also sometimes form, giving the finished cheese a slight crunch to counterpoint the marvelous creamy texture.
Various spices are sometimes introduced early in the process, such as annatto, a seed extract that imparts a slightly sweet, nutty flavour to the cheddar, as well as giving it a distinctive reddy-orange hue.
Traditionally cheddar was stored in a cloth that had been rubbed with lard. This kept the cheese well protected from pollutants and spoilage, while allowing it to ‘breathe’ as it continued to mature. Wax was also sometimes used to protect the cheese surface from the elements. Nowadays, plastic is more likely used, or in the case of so-called artisanal cheeses some kind of waxed paper is often found.
Do note, by the way, that Cheddar Gorge is not to be confused with Cheddar George. The latter was a cartoon mouse featured in The Beano, a long-running British children’s comic. Cheddar George, along with his other mouse pals (known as The Nibblers) spent most of his time stealing and scoffing food. As his name suggests, George was particularly fond of cheese. However, while the gorge and the George are different things, it is worth noting that as Cheddar Gorge is used in the maturation of cheddar cheese (as explained above), and as Cheddar George was often found to be stuffing his mousey face with cheese, both Cheddar Gorge and Cheddar George can be said with some truth to be “full of cheddar cheese” – so maybe they are not so different after all.
So now you know… all about cheddar cheese.