Sunday, November 11, 2007

Cheddar's California Dreaming

Cheddar has traveled the world (as I noted in my first post), but there are some places where it lingered longer and put down solid roots. These places aren't a secret--like Vice President Dick Cheney's residence on Google Maps. They include, England, of course, the rest of the British Isles, the Antipodes, and North America. Within the US., Cheddar seems most at home in Vermont, New York, and Wisconsin, the states we equate with good Cheddar.

There are reasons why Cheddar settled in these areas of the U.S. To uncover them, we must go back to feudal England. According to Paul Kindstedt, a dairy scientist at the University of Vermont and co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisanl Cheese, the major site of cheese production in England in the 16th & 17th centuries, after the collapse of feudalism and the rise of capitalist markets, was East Anglia. The local cheesemakers, many of them Puritans, were quite enterprising and made large, durable cheeses that could be transported safely to urban markets, like London. When these Puritans chose America as their promised land, they brought their cheesemaking know-how and keen marketing sense with them. Set up in the New World, they made cheeses like the ones they had produced back home across the pond. These cheeses were consumed locally and were also exported to the southern colonies and the West Indies, which grew cash crops and were short on food for themselves. It should be noted that before the arrival of Europeans in North America, there was no indigenous cheese production; there is no good evidence that Native American ate dairy products. As the Puritans moved about the New World, so did their Cheddar-like cheeses. They accompanied the Puritans when they sought deeper religious freedom (e.g., Rhode Island) and when they wanted more land after the Revolutionary War (e.g., New York). And they migrated further west through Ohio into Wisconsin, as the Puritans, or their descendants, went in search of even more land. It was there in Wisconsin that Cheddar seemingly met the western edge of its migration.

But Cheddar has become restless and has resumed its westward migration. California beckons. Perhaps the Golden State is a natural destination for Cheddar. They share the same sunny hue, after all. And Cheddar is a star. It plays the main role on CheddarVision. What video star doesn't want to try its luck and make it big in California? Maybe it was California's tourism ads, with charming Clint Eastwood and Mr. & Mrs. Schwarzenegger, that got the better of Cheddar. The more likely explanation is that California is a major dairying state. This may come as a surprise, since we think of Californian wine before we think of its milk. It makes sense that a dairying state makes cheese and that one of its chief cheeses is Cheddar, the cheese which competes with mozzarella for the title of most popular cheese in the U.S. California produces one-third of all Cheddar in the U.S., and one Cheddar producer, Hilmar, near Modesto, makes 1.3 million pounds of cheddar and American cheese (e. g. , Monterey Jack, Pepper Jack, Colby, Colby Jack, and flavored Jacks) a day!

Very near Hilmar is a totally different operation, Fiscalini. This three-generation dairy farm only recently got into cheesemaking, as a way for the dairy to stay financially viable. With a name like Fiscalini (Swiss-Italian) and with a farm in the hot Central Valley, it wouldn't seem likely that Cheddar, an Anglo cheese with strong connections to the East Coast, would be the cheese of choice. But this is the cheese with which Fiscalini has made a name for itself. Their 30-month bandaged-wrapped cheese is so exceptional that it has even beaten traditional Somerset Cheddars in a blind tasting. And it was certainly a favorite at the Cheddar tasting I held at Princeton three weeks ago. It has a sweet profile that Americans like.

What is even more surprising than a farmstead Cheddar being made outside of New England is that the master cheesemaker at Fiscalini, Mariano Gonzalez, is from Paraguay, a country that is certainly not known for English cheeses, if it even registers in one's geographical consciousness. But it all makes sense when one learns that Mariano's first job was at Shelburne Farm in Vermont, known for its farmstead Cheddar. Here he honed his cheesemaking skills and became the master cheesemaker there, before returning to Paraguay to start his own Cheddar operation (which sadly failed because of a coup). When he came back to the States, the California Milk Marketing Board wooed Mariano to the Fiscalini. With his arrival at Fiscalini, under the shadow of Hilmar, traditional Cheddar went into production in California.

Through Mariano, the Puritans and their cheeses have finally made it to sunny California.


s.j.simon said...

:) did you know how cheese was invented? It wasnt necessity, it was an accident, read this

COLIN said...