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Derek Coleman: Cheddar cheese has come a long way since its English origin

Feb. 08, 2013 @ 12:03 PM

I drive into Charleston each morning during the week and to pass the time on the journey I listen to the radio. This morning there were three ads in close succession and all of them mentioned one of my favorite foods, cheese. Not just any cheese but more specifically Cheddar cheese.

This is the cheese I grew up eating, the cheese that forms a little over half of all the cheeses consumed in Britain and the cheese that is America’s second favorite cheese after mozzarella. It’s a cheese with a long history and, from what I have discovered, some of the American versions are very close to the British one.

Originally Cheddar cheese came from the vicinity of the village of Cheddar near the city of Bristol in southwest England.  The village is situated close to the mouth of a gorge in the Mendip Hills that also bears the name Cheddar. Tradition has it that to be genuine Cheddar, the cheese had to be made within 30 miles of Wells Cathedral in the county of Somerset.

Man has lived in this area for a long time. The oldest complete skeleton discovered in Britain is from a man who lived in a cave in the gorge some 9,000 years ago. Odd bones show that his ancestors were there long before that and recent DNA tests on two of his teeth exactly matched the DNA of people currently living in the village.

The cave in which old time Cheddar Man lived is only one of many in the gorge and centuries ago it was discovered that the caves on the edge of the village have an ideal microclimate with just the right humidity and a constant temperature for maturing the cheese.

No one knows for sure how the making of cheese started in the area. There is a theory that the Romans may have brought the recipe with them from what was then Gaul some 2,000 years ago, but we do know for certain that it has been made since at least the beginning of the 12th century. A written account belonging to King Henry II from the year 1170 lists him buying 10,240 pounds of Cheddar. He paid a farthing, which was a quarter of an English penny, per pound and had a total bill of around $16! It is not quite so cheap 950 years later.

You would think that a cheese with such a long history, which comes from a specific region would have its name protected by law but that is not so with Cheddar. Anyone can use it, anywhere, and some of the products that are sold under that name are far from the original concept. The European Union has, howeve,r granted “protected designation of origin” status to the name “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar,” which can only be made in and around the original village these days. That means no one else in the world can use that name.

According to the experts, real Cheddar should be pale yellow to off-white in color, firm to the touch with a slightly crumbly texture. A dairy farmer, Joseph Harding, who lived near Cheddar village described the cheese in 1864 as “close and firm in texture, yet mellow in character or quality; it is rich with a tendency to melt in the mouth, the flavor full and fine, approaching to that of a hazelnut.”

Harding knew a lot about Cheddar making. He introduced better hygiene into the process as well as mechanizing some of it and he and his wife were chiefly responsible for introducing Cheddar cheese into Scotland and to North America, too. His son, Henry, later continued the tradition by taking the recipe to Australia.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I have found some very acceptable Cheddars here in the United States. I have also found some products that I hesitate to call cheese and would never dream of calling Cheddar, despite the name being on the label. When all of these products are lumped together they account for some three and a quarter billion pounds of Cheddar produced in America each year.

This massive amount does not always come in small packs. President Andrew Jackson served a 1,400-pound block of Cheddar at the White House, but even this is tiny compared to the Wisconsin cheese weighing 34,951 pounds that was produced for the 1964 New York World’s Fair and this in turn was over shadowed by the Federation of American Cheese-makers, who, in Oregon in 1989, made a colossal cheese weighing 56,850 pounds.

I don’t buy it in those quantities of course, but I will confess my ideal of a quiet supper at home is fresh French bread with creamy butter, a few crackers, a plate with a good Cheddar, maybe a few grapes or an apple, a good book and a glass of Merlot or Premier Cotes du Rhone. Absolute bliss!

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.