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.

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