Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Grading Cheddar

So, how did Cheddar fare during its brief stint in night school? I am relieved to report that it passed. I wish I could say that it earned an A+, but it fell slightly off the mark, mainly because of me.

For the most part, I succeeded in achieving what I had planned for my hour-plus-long class at the Princeton Club of New York. I introduced the guests, about 25 of them, to the varied tastes of Cheddar from around the world, and I survived conducting my first cheese tasting. I also competently outlined Cheddar's long history, and I wasn't flustered by several self-important guests.

This is where I fell off the mark:
1. I am not sure I successfully explained why the guests should care about Cheddar and its history.

2. I didn't do a good job of showing the delicious differences between a mass-produced Cheddar and a farmstead/artisanal one. This fault may have rested more with the cheeses than with me. None of the five cheeses particularly impressed the guests. If one stood out favorably, it might have been the Fiscalini.

3. I forgot to ask the guests which of the Cheddars was their favorite. What a wasted opportunity!

4. I realized that I am not yet adept at identifying different Cheddars without some visual clues or labels. When I first arrived in my "classroom," none of the cubed cheeses, which were placed in separate piles on one plate, were labeled. I panicked that I couldn't tell them apart and that I was going to mislead my guests during the tasting. I could safely distinguish the musty Keen's and the caramel-ly Le Chevre Noir, but I wasn't at all sure about the other three, Isle of Mull, Fiscalini, and Cabot (Classic Vermont, Sharp). Thank goodness some labels finally appeared and rescued me!

This evening served as an excellent opportunity for me to see what the public wants to know about Cheddar, if anything. Here's a summary of their instructive questions: how much does each cheese cost, how should the cheeses be stored and for how long, how do the properties of milk differ among breeds of cows, why do you push the cheese to the roof of your mouth when tasting it, how can you tell a supermarket Cheddar from a supermarket Jarlsberg, what role does snobism play in assessing specialty foods, how is the pH level controlled during cheesemaking and how does its level affect the final product, how will cheddaring or stirring the curd create different tasting cheeses, and when will my book about Cheddar come out.

Despite not being able to answer the above questions fully, I felt confident with the material and in control of it and for that, I am much relieved. But I've got so much more to learn and master!

I want to thank both the Princeton Club of New York for inviting me to speak and for putting on such a well-run program and the food historian Francine Segan for recommending me to the club's program director, Wanda Mann.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Ivy League Cheddar

Here's a description of my upcoming talk at the Princeton Club of New York, which members are paying $18 to attend. I hope it's worth their while! So far 30 or so people have signed up.

Cheddar Strikes Back:
The Rise, Fall, and Return of Traditional Cheddar
Cheddar cheese originated modestly and long ago as a local agricultural product in Somerset, England. Over the course of 800 years, Cheddar has become the most popular cheese type in the world, and its historical connection to England forgotten or overlooked. Food historian Diana Pittet will uncover Cheddar’s English origins and trace its globe-trotting travels to North America and to Australia and New Zealand. The Cheddar found in supermarkets is a far cry from the original farmstead product. This is in large part due to the industrialization of cheesemaking which began in Rome, N.Y., in 1851, and to the lack of regulations for using the name Cheddar. Unlike other world-class cheeses, its name was never protected, so almost any semi-hard, cow’s milk cheese can call itself Cheddar. Luckily, small cheesemakers throughout the world are preserving or reviving the traditional way to make Cheddar. During the course of Ms. Pittet’s talk, traditionally made Cheddars from around the world will be sampled.

Ms. Pittet has a master’s in food studies from New York University and is co-chair of the program committee of the Culinary Historians of New York. Described as “cheese possessed” by the New York Times, Ms. Pittet gave up her job teaching Latin in New York City to sell English farmstead cheeses at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. She wrote about the Americanization of English Cheddar for her master’s paper and has contributed to Oxford’s forthcoming
International Encyclopedia of Cheese.

I will be speaking about Cheddar again, but briefly and less formally, at the awesome alehouse hideaway,
Jimmy's 43, on Monday, November 26, at 7:30 p.m. My former food studies classmate, Amy, is organizing a tasting of Cheddars, apples, ciders, and ales, and she asked me, along with an apple expert, to say a little something.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Cheddar Abuse

A confession: when I am not cheating on Cheddar, I am inclined to abuse it. I can be hard on the Cheddar.

My crime is storing Cheddar improperly. I am not 100 percent sure of the ideal way to store Cheddar at home--professional cheesemongers have slightly varying guidelines--but I am sure that whatever I am doing, it is wrong.

My first misstep is keeping Cheddar in the fridge, which is a hostile environment for cheese. Refrigerators are designed to suck the moisture out of everything, and this isn't good for cheese. Neal's Yard Dairy in London, where I worked for the Christmas season of 2000, recommends that semihard cheeses, like Cheddar, be stored in a cool, moist spot (not hard to come by in the UK!) like a garage or in a shoebox placed by a windowsill. I tried this once while staying with friends in London one November. They didn't have a garage, like most urban dwellers, so I put my precious stash of Somerset Cheddars outside on their windowsill, in a bag, not a shoebox. The next morning, my bag of cheeses was gone. Katie had to break the news that she and the children had spied a fox that morning, slinking atop their clerestory. She suspected that the fox had nicked my cheese. Outfoxed by a fox, I realized that I had gone too far by putting my cheeses outside on a chilly November night. From then on, I decided that the fridge, as deleterious as it may be, was the place for my cheese.

I further abuse Cheddar by storing it in plastic cling wrap. This isn't entirely bad; in fact, most cheese shops, even the good ones, use plastic wrap to wrap cuts of cheese. The plastic wrap prevents the cut surface of the cheese from drying out. But what the good cheese shops don't do is send you home with cheese wrapped in plastic. Cheesemongers wrap customers' slices of cheese in special waxed paper, like butcher paper, and then wrap the cheese they are left with in a fresh sheet of plastic. Plastic wrap isn't suitable for longterm storage. Impermeable, it doesn't allow the cheese to breathe, and it may maintain too much moisture, which can make a cheese die. Who wants dead cheese? Plastic wrap can also impart its unwanted flavor. And who wants plastic-flavored cheese? Waxed paper does the trick of allowing the cheese to breathe while maintaining a suitable amount of moisture. My problem with butcher paper is that I am disorderly, and I can't keep the paper neatly folded around my cheese. As a result, I end up exposing my cheese to the adverse environs of the fridge and the cheese hardens around the rind. Even when I did my stint as a cheesemonger, I couldn't expertly make origami-like folds with the butcher paper and therefore failed to present my customers with pretty packages of cheese.

My chief crime is that I keep the plastic cling wrap on for too long. If I didn't live alone or if I ate Cheddar at every meal, the cheese would be consumed quickly and would not succumb to the evils of longterm storage in plastic. But I do live alone and I try to eat cheese in moderation, mostly out of cheapness. Also out of cheapness, as well as mindfulness for the environment, I can't bring myself to unwrap my cheeses, throw away the plastic, and then rewrap the cheeses with plastic that I will soon throw out again. It just seems so wasteful. But what ends up being wasteful is ruining a fine piece of cheese.

I finally had to accept this contradiction (viz., by not wasting plastic, I was wasting cheese) when I returned to the States after a trip to Australia in January 2007. While in Oz, I made Cheddar at two dairies in Tasmania and bought a lot of Australian Cheddar. For two weeks, I kept my purchases in the bottom drawer of my friend's fridge in Melbourne, without changing the plastic. Cheese was on my mental back burner while I focused on the Australian Open. I would sometimes check in with my cheese, but I would just look at them admiringly; I wouldn't do anything to ascertain how they were faring. I naively hoped that they would hang in there until I got back to the States. I was wrong. When I did a cheese tasting with friends upon my return, I could tell that the flavor and textures of the cheeses had been compromised. One cheese even mysteriously picked up an unpleasant onion-y taste.

With ruined cheeses on my hands, ones that I had carried for over 10,000 miles to Queens, I vowed to follow proper cheese storage and stop the abuse. Here's my vow:

1. If I don't have access to a garage, I will keep my cheese in the produce drawer of my fridge. This is the least dry section.

2. I will keep my cheese securely wrapped in waxed cheese paper and will hone my paper-folding skills.

3. Once my waxed paper is too crinkled to fold anymore, I will loosely wrap my cheese in a light-weight plastic cling wrap. If my Cheddar has a traditional rind, I will leave it exposed to allow the cheese to breathe.

4. I will change the plastic wrap frequently, or buy only a small amount of cheese so I eat it quickly and won't have to keep it for too long in plastic.

Of course, the above procedure doesn't do you any good if your landlord accidentally opens your fridge and the door stays wide open while you are away in D.C. for a long weekend. I came back to sweaty, unhappy cheese, and I am sure I will have a frightfully high electricity bill. Talk about waste! But I suppose this is my punishment for years of Cheddar abuse.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Cheating on Cheddar

Until the autumn properly arrives and the sun's merciless heat is reduced to a lovely warm glow, I don't eat much Cheddar or even have much in my fridge. I tend to eat feta, which I buy from one of the many Greek delis in my neighborhood in Queens.

When I am sweaty and listless (like I am now, even though it's October), Cheddar seems too fatty and heavy, and its nutty sweetness too cloying. Feta, on the other hand, is refreshingly zippy and tangy. I crave it in green salads, which is often all I can face eating on humid, sticky nights. Joey Ramone may have eaten refried beans in Queens, but I want feta. It magically manages to add richness to a light salad without make it undesirably heavy. Maybe it's the salt, or the slightly lower fat content (6 grams versus 8.5 grams per oz of cheese). It's certainly feta's briny sharpness that I want as a counterpoint to the sweetness of fleshy watermelon chunks in a cooling salad of black olives, mint, tomatoes, and red onion. Too bad watermelon is now out of season even though it is still hot and uncomfortable.

Another cheese I dig during summer is fresh ricotta, the type from a deli, not a plastic container in the dairy section of a supermarket. Mark Bittman of the New York Times calls this "good" ricotta. This is the cheese I use when I want to eat something more substantial than a salad, like pasta, after a tough speed workout with my running team. Ricotta is not tangy or salty like feta, but it's light, and sometimes this is all you ask of your cheese. A favorite pasta dish with ricotta comes from one of Bittman's recipes, with fresh basil and sauteed zucchini.

Feta and ricotta are the cheeses of the Mediterranean, so it's not at all surprising that I crave them during the summer and that I avoid the cheeses of cooler northern Europe, like my beloved Cheddar. But I need to ask why Australia, a super hot country, has embraced feta but the U.S.'s own sticky South has not. Cheddar still rules down there. Think cornbread with jalapeƱos and Cheddar. Or grits with Cheddar. Or pimento cheese.

When is autumn finally going to come so I can happily eat Cheddar again? And stop sweating?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Celebrity Cheddar

Cheddar has been in the news.

Perhaps the coverage hasn't been on the same crazed level as stories about Paris Hilton or Beckham & Posh, but a certain wheel of Cheddar has reached celebrity status and found its way into big-time, popular news outlets (e.g., AOL , Yahoo, CNN, New York Times). What helped Cheddar tick along the AP wire is a still-active Web site, courtesy of the West Country Farmhouse Cheesmakers (UK), that shows a clothbound English Cheddar maturing in real time. Despite being likened to watching paint dry, CheddarVision has captured people's attention.

I believe--and hope--that the chief reason why a moldy wheel of cheese has generated so much media coverage, and has even received fan mail, is that in this fast-food age, when we are divorced from the true source of the foods we eat, people are fascinated by seeing the slow-- excruciatingly slow--process involved in making food that isn't produced on a massive scale in a factory. It's a novelty to see slow food.

I am pleased as a mouse with cheese that a story about Cheddar has made the news. The stories certainly helped me look less like a Cheddar-crazed person! But I am shocked, too, by the comments posted on YouTube in reaction to the video. A few people are utterly convinced that the video is fake and it's a stunt. The chief reason that they think so is their misconception that all cheese has to be refrigerated or it will spoil. This is wrong. Cheddar is aged at 50 degrees F, +/- 2 degrees, or at least this is the temperature at which the master cheesemakers at Fiscalini in Modesto, Calif., age their delicious clothbound Cheddars. A fridge's temperature is much lower that that.

Other folks posting on YouTube were disgusted by the mold. I didn't realize that fears and misconceptions about mold were still so strong. I guess I shouldn't be when most people buy their Cheddar (as well as factory-farmed chicken) neatly wrapped in plastic, with no signs of its production. And I shouldn't be surprised that no one, not even the ones who tried to call people on their mold phobia, didn't realize that the mold is chiefly exterior. The mold is on the cloth that wraps the large (almost 50 lbs) wheel of cheese. When the cheese is ready to be sold, the cloth will be ripped off, along with the mold, and all that will be left (unless some mold has found its way into a fissure in the cheese and caused some bluing--the same blue as Roquefort) is the complex taste of a cheese that the mold helped create.