Thursday, May 14, 2009
The Cheddar Blues
When it comes to buying a block of Cheddar cheese from the supermarket, you’ve got a choice of two colors, white or orange. Pale buttercup yellow is also an option if you’re patronizing a speciality cheese shop and are splurging on a wedge of artisanal Cheddar.
But what about blue?
Chances are you’ve never seen a cut portion of Cheddar with streaks of blue, like spider veins, unless you’ve done something dreadful and bought a cheese flavored with blueberries. I wouldn’t be surprised if such a variety exists. At the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, the only folks, according to them, that still make a traditional Cheddar in the actual village of Cheddar in Somerset, they offer horrendous flavors like Marmite. Blueberry has to be part of someone's line of flavored Cheddars.
The “blueing” that you might find in a traditional, clothbound Cheddar is no gimmick. It’s the mark of a true Cheddar.
When traditionally made, each handmade wheel of Cheddar is wrapped in muslin cloth one or two days after it's been made. Before it's applied, the cloth is dipped in softened or melted lard; the sticky fat helps the cloth adhere to the rubbery exterior of the unripened cheese. This protective covering is permeable, allowing moisture to escape from the wheel of cheese while at the same time retaining enough moisture so that it doesn't completely dry out. People say that the cloth allows the cheese to breath; this is in stark contrast to how most Cheddar is aged--in plastic, which suffocates the cheese. If a cheese can breathe, good things happen. Provided it's been made and stored properly, Cheddar becomes less acidic and more complex-tasting.
Muslin, however, is not a perfect seal. As a 25-kilo wheel matures for twelve months or so, small fissures can develop inside the cheese, behind the cloth. This can happen because too much moisture has escaped and the natural rind cracks as it dries out. Another way that the cracks can happen is less savory. Nasty cheese mites, microscopic bugs that look like fine dust on the exterior of a cheese and on the shelves supporting the heavy cheeses, feast on the molds that naturally develop on the muslin. The tiny bugs don't stop their feasting with the superficial molds. They can carrying on eating the lard and then the cloth itself. Soon they find their way into the body of the cheese. Their munching attack can create unwanted paths into the body of the cheese. To keep the mites away, some traditional Cheddar makers have used diatomaceous earth, which only compounded the problem. Somehow this pesticide causes the muslin coverings to sag and pull away from the cheeses, thereby making them as vulnerable to cracks as the blasted mites did.
What does all this have to do with making a Cheddar cheese blue? If the surface of a cheese is exposed and it has thin fissures, oxygen can find its way into the cheese. This is what leads to the blueing in a clothbound Cheddar. Naturally present in the air are molds like Penicillium roqueforti. When they get into milk during cheesemaking, either intentionally, as happens with the make for Roquefort or Stilton, or unintentionally, these molds turn blueish-green when they come in contact with oxygen. This is why blue cheeses are pierced with needles as they age. This allows the oxygen to get in and create the desired blue color and taste.
Even though blueing isn't wanted in Cheddar cheeses, there is no way to avoid it, save "aging" the cheese in plastic, which is anything but traditional. Nevertheless, cheesemakers try all they can to limit the extent of blueing.
Why is blueing a problem if it can't be helped? The simple reason is that supermarkets don’t want blue Cheddar cheese, in the same way that they don’t want misshapen apples or less than orange oranges. Everything must be uniform and predictable.
Blueing is currently the the bane of cheddarmakers' existence, except for Jamie Montgomery’s because he doesn’t sell much of his prized cheeses to supermarkets. Extensive blueing can mean extensive financial loss since the supermarkets will reject cuts with traces of blue. The cheesemakers understandably go to great lengths to avoid it. At Keen’s, for example, they went through a period of wrapping their cheeses with several layers of cloth and lots of lard, effectively sealing the cheese, almost as if it were in plastic. This led to other problems. If the moisture can’t escape, the cheese can be too moist and acidic, and this is not the flavor Keen's is after in their cheeses. They are now trying new tactics.
It’s such a shame. It doesn’t have to be this way, all this worry about blueing. For example, Neal’s Yard Dairy, where I worked for a while, has the luxury of dealing directly with their customers. Unlike what happens at a supermarket, we cheesemongers can explain that blueing is a mark of a real farmstead Cheddar; it proves that the cheese wasn't aged in plastic. After the explanation, we urge our customers to taste the cheese to make sure it's to their liking. Usually it is. If it isn't, we find another section of the wheel without any blueing or we suggest another Cheddar. We sometimes carry up to five different Cheddars: Montgomery's, Keen's, Lincolnshire Poacher, Hafod, Westcombe, and Isle of Mull.
It would be great if supermarkets embarked on a similar consumer education plan. If they did, traditional cheesemakers could worry less about blueing and focus more on making their cheeses taste as exceptional as possible. It could help them get rid of their Cheddar blues.