Rare English Cheddar Choices

What's So Special About Authentic English Farmhouse Cheddar?

Ever since we first introduced it to Ann Arbor almost sixteen years ago, English farmhouse cheddar has been one of the most popular cheeses on the Deli's counter. Thousands of loyal fans have fallen in cheese-love with the flaky texture, and the rich, earthy, noticeably nutty flavor of this, the original, and still champion, cheddar.

To taste a truly amazing English farmhouse cheddar is an exceptional experience. Just how rare? Well, look at this way. Each year, many, many millions of pounds of cheddar are made in Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, nearly all of it mass-produced in large factories. Only the teeniest, tiniest fraction of a percentage of it (invisible on all but the most meticulous of cheese production charts) is made on English farms. This infinitesimal amount of cheddar comes from about ten English farms, counted down from nearly five hundred a century ago.

Of those few farms, there are only TWO farms left in the UK that still make completely authentic, traditional English farmhouse cheddar: the Keen's and the Montgomery's. Both are in Somerset, English cheddar's home county.

And that's just the half of it. Of the 365 days worth of cheese made on each of these two special farms the Deli gets only the cheese of a few deliciously perfect days of production. Taste-tested, hand-selected and then carefully aged for us by our friends at Neal's Yard in London. When a wheel of English cheddar appears on the counter at the Deli it is very literally one in a million.

What makes a cheddar so special that it would survive a more extensive application and qualifying process than your kid might go through to get into Oxford? Here's a quick look at what makes this rare cheese so special.

1) The Milk From Just One Farm

"What difference might that make?" you understandably inquire.

Well, actually, a lot. The quality of any finished cheese is wholly limited by the quality of the milk from which it was made. While unskilled hands can certainly convert outstanding milk into mediocre cheese, only a magician would be able to make less-than-the-best milk into incredible cheese.

When a cheesemaker is using only the milk from his or her own herd, they manage every aspect of animal activity to insure that the milk they're bringing into the dairy is the best it can be. The highest quality milk is found where the herd sanitation is impeccable; when the animals are eating interesting grasses and herbs (in what is known in the trade as "multi-species pastures"); when the milk is being brought directly from the milking parlor to the dairy in its fresh raw state. The farmhouse cheese maker can manage these and a dozen other factors the way a superb conductor brings out the best in an orchestra.

Farmhouse cheesemakers have another advantage. The reality of late 20th century agro-industrial life is that most modern dairy farmers never eat the cheese that was made from their milk. Rather, the milk gets blended in with that of other farms, then is shipped off to some big cheese plant where cheese emerges with undetermined parentage. The farmhouse cheesemaker, on the other hand, eats their own cheese every day. For better or for worse the cheesemaker has to face up to the flavors in the cheese. When your name is on the label, you make darned sure you're that you're putting the best tasting cheese possible on the table.

2) Raw Milk Cheeses: More Flavor For Your Dollar

While you can certainly make good cheese from pasteurized milk, more often than not, the most flavorful cheeses in the world are still made with raw milk. Exceptional quality control allows a good farmhouse cheesemaker to work with traditional raw, unpasteurized, straight-from-the-cow milk.

"What's the alternative to raw milk?" you might wonder. "Cooked milk?" someone like me might say sarcastically.

Well, actually, that is sort of the case. The alternative to raw milk cheese is that made from pasteurized milk, which is, essentially, cooked. Most commercial pasteurization heats milk to over 160°F to kill all the bacteria in the milk. Now, don't get me wrong-there's nothing inherently bad about the process of pasteurization. It's done great things for improving the safety of liquid milk. Even in cheesemaking, it's been an effective invention for industrial dairies where it can be used to kill off all the "bugs" in mediocre, mass-produced milk, thus insuring high levels of consistency, health and safety. But the problem with pasteurization in cheesemaking is that it usually creates the milk equivalent of Muzak-always there, never exciting, never enlightening-contributing to the blandness of most mass-market cheese.

Although we think of farms as "dirty" and factories as "shiny and clean," the reality of cheesemaking life is that in many cases farmhouse cheesemakers are working with far cleaner milk than the technicians in big, shiny, new factories. The codes of milk management at farmhouse cheesemaking operations are far stricter than the standard commercial regulations. They have to be. You'd never be able to make raw milk cheese with the bacteria counts as high as those allowed by government regulation in milk that's destined for pasteurization.

3) Cloth Wrapping

While it's a rare sight these days, all cheddars used to be cloth wrapped.

"What's the big deal about being a cheese of the cloth?" you think to yourself.

Well, start by considering the alternative. Cheddar that's not aged in cloth-which accounts for about 99-plus-percent of the world's supply-is aged in plastic. And it doesn't take a scientist to determine that a cheese is going to breathe better when it's wrapped in cloth than when it's been sealed "safely" in plastic.

"Does a cheese need to breathe?" you ponder.

Absolutely! At least good cheese does. Interchange with the air allows the cheese to mature properly, to ripen naturally, to develop the desired texture and fullness of its flavor.

"So why would anyone want to age cheese in plastic?" you inquire.

Because it's a heck of a lot easier-like the difference between making soup from scratch and opening a can. If you cut out the cloth, you just stick the cheddar in the plastic, seal it up, pile it in the cooler and come back a few months later to see how things are going. Cloth-wrapped cheddar on the other hand, takes hours of careful handling and checking-it's literally been hand-turned hundreds of times, no mean feat when what you're turning is a foot and a half across, 2 feet tall and weighs in at over 60 pounds.

The other reason modern makers have abandoned the cloth is because aging in plastic prevents moisture loss. Now moisture loss (to a point, obviously) is actually a plus when it comes to developing the character of an aged cheese-it concentrates the flavor like long-simmering does for soup stock. From a monetary angle though, moisture loss is most undesirable-the more the moisture evaporates, the more money the cheese costs.

"Can cloth really alter the flavor of a cheese?" you may wonder.

Well, take a nibble and let the cheese speak for itself. One taste will tell you that the flavor of a farmhouse cheddar matures much more effectively in its cloth cardigan than it would in a pair of plastic-sealed pajamas.