Cheddar is ubiquitous now. Who would dream of starting a cheese shop in America and not sell cheddar? But once upon a time it was a local cheese, made and eaten largely in one place: the area in and around the village of Cheddar in Somerset, southwest England. Today’s cheddar is a bit different than what we know of the original, but not drastically. Here are some buyer’s guide tips to spotting traditional cheddar.
Traditional cheddar made in drums.
Instead of blocks, the original cheddar is made in the shape of a round drum. A block saves waste – especially when packed for shipment – but it ages very differently. The drums are usually about a foot across and maybe a bit taller.
Traditional cheddar is bandaged.
The British wrap many of their cheeses in cheesecloth and cheddar is no exception. When they do this they call the cheese “bandaged,” which I always find a very touching term. The cloth bandage breathes and lets the cheese dry faster. But it loses weight and its modern competitor – wax – doesn’t. It’s weight, after all, that cheese is sold on, so bandaged cheddar is very rare.
Traditional cheddar is a creamy yellow color.
The color of real cheddar is a mesmerizing, shifting palette of cream, soft yellow and gold. The colors derive naturally from what the cows eat, which, in western England, where it’s very very wet, is field grass. It’s not the plain bright white factory milk cheddar you see in supermarkets. Nor the orange variety, dyed with annatto (achiote seeds) or commercial food coloring.
Traditional cheddar is flaky.
Real cheddar is not bendy. Hold a piece up between your hands, bend, and it’ll flake and break immediately. Modern block cheddar, because of how it’s made and aged in wax, will bend and behave a bit more rubbery.
Traditional cheddar is made on the farm.
Traditionally cheesemaking was done on the farm where the cows live. It’s rare today, but there still some made this way, including the ones we buy from.
Most traditional cheddars are from Britain.
But the U.S. has some excellent cheddar makers. We sell a couple American cheddars, including Cabot Clothbound. Buy a wedge from both sides of the pond and taste for yourself. You don’t need to be an expert. You really can taste the difference.
Bring cheddar to room temperature before serving.
Original cheddar was made for a pre-industrial unrefrigerated British environment: cool temperatures, moist air. The cold, dry climate of your refrigerator saps its flavor and tightens its texture. This is one cheese that must return to room temperature to be its best.