Sunday, March 9, 2008

Top Curd

Full disclosure: I lifted this picture, like most of the photos on my blog, from Google Images, without asking permission from the site that hosts it. Now that I finally have a digital camera, this improper use of photos should come to an end. I just hope that Forfar Dairy, who took this on-site picture, doesn't mind, especially when they learn that I have bestowed upon them the honor of Top Curd.

Forfar is a small but highly regarded cheese-making operation in Ontario, about halfway between Ottawa and Kingston. They make a variety of cheeses with a variety of milks, but specialize in Cheddar, like most commercial dairies in Canada. Their mature and flavored Cheddars attract a following, but it's their fresh cheese curds which make people pull off Route 15 to visit their small rural store (see photo below). The curds are so popular that Forfar makes Cheddar at night, instead of during the day, as is typical. By making cheese at night, they can be sure that they have little plastic bags of fresh cheese curds available throughout the day. Freshness is key when buying and eating cheese curds. Ideally, they should be eaten the day they are made. Eaten a day or two later, they lose their characteristic squeak, when bitten into, and their flavor dulls or becomes unpleasantly bitter and acidic.

All cheese, except for a very few made from whey, start as curds, the coagulated solids of milk formed by the action of acids. When making cheese, dairies separate the curds from the whey and then market the cheese fresh or put the curds into molds and age them from a few days to a few years, depending on the type of cheese. When someone speaks of cheese curds, as opposed to just plain curds, this person is probably Canadian or from Wisconsin and he or she is referring specifically to the curds made during the production of Cheddar cheese, before the curds are shoveled into hoops, pressed, and aged. Cheese curds are widely available in Ontario, and connoisseurs stress that one should buy directly from the dairy to ensure freshness. In Wisconsin freshness may not be as key when they coat cheese curds in a beer batter and deep fry them.

It was back in May 2007 that my Canadian friends, Bill and Elise, and I pulled off Route 15 to buy fresh cheese curds at Forfar for a blind tasting of local curds. After an afternoon spent kayaking on the lake at their delightful cottage near Smith Falls, Ontario, we settled in for the tasting. I didn't necessarily want to know whose cheese curds were the best; I just wanted to get to know curds better. I knew that cheese curds were a regional delight and that was reason enough for me to try them. My interest in cheese curds began when my former real estate agent told me that she always makes a pit stop at St. Albert on her drive up to Ottawa from New York City to stock up on cheese curds. To get better acquainted with Canadian curds, my friends and I picked up three different brands from cheese shops in the market area of Ottawa, in addition to the ones purchased directly at Forfar: St. Albert, St. Albans, and Kingsley Falls. Some of the knobbly curds were orange and some were white, just like aged Cheddars. It's probably no surprise that Forfar came out on top because their curds were the freshest. I definitely enjoyed tasting the four different brands and getting a sense of a regional treat, but I don't think they could ever be a regular snack for me. Popping curds into my mouth as a snack seems just a little decadent. But give me some of those fried cheese curds.... Anyone know where I can get some in New York City?

Final disclosure: This wasn't my first taste of cheese curds. My favorite type to date are the ones that I have stealthily taken directly from the cheese vats at dairies where I've helped make Cheddar for a day. When the curds are this fresh and when they have just been salted, it's like eating popcorn at the movies--buttery, salty, warm, and satisfying. Unfortunately, I don't think you could ever mass produce these cheese curds and put them in little plastic bags.

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