Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Orange Cheddar

If you hail from Vermont, you probably like your Cheddar milky white in color. If you’re from the South, you’ve preferred orange-colored Cheddar since the 1700s. And if you live in New York State or Wisconsin, you’ve got your pick, white or orange. Same choice goes for the rest of the U.S. and even the rest of the world.

Why the choice? Why does Cheddar cheese come in these two colors?

No one really knows. But there are theories.

It’s pretty easy to explain white Cheddar. Since milk is white, uncolored Cheddar gives the impression that it’s the most natural.

But this isn’t totally true. If cows feed on grass, they ingest and metabolize beta-Carotene which gives their milk a slight golden hue. Instead of invoking cows in a field, white Cheddar can signify that cows are eating silage and not grass, their preferred food source. Most dairy cows these days don't eat grass, but in the past, cows used to eat silage only during the winter months and grass the rest of the year. Cheddar cheese, or any cheese, made from winter milk doesn't have the pleasing light yellow color that summer milk does. To make it seem as though their cheeses were made with summer milk, cheesemakers used the natural food color annatto, the seed of the achiote plant from South America, to impart an orange color. This is one of the theories about why Cheddar was dyed orange, and it’s the one you most frequently come across.

Another theory about orange Cheddar is one that I heard during a group training session for new cheesemongers working the busy Christmas season at Neal's Yard Dairy. By coloring their cheeses orange, small cheesemakers of yore hoped to make their products stand out among all the other traditional hard English cheeses in a local shop or market. Orange is certainly eye catching.

While I tend to subscribe to the former theory, this other hypothesis could be onto something. Orange is used in England like in no other country, as far as I can tell. While orange in the States is associated with outdated kitchens of the 1970s, fast food restaurants until recently, and Home Depot today, you come across it quite frequently in England, especially in uniforms, train tickets, promotional posters, and logos (think easyJet). There's even a mobile phone company called Orange. For the English, maybe orange is both distinctive and familiar. Orange-colored cheese may be good marketing.

Traditional Cheddar makers today don't color their cheeses, so if you see an orange block of Cheddar, it was most likely manufactured on an industrial scale. A white Cheddar, however, is no indication that it wasn’t. It was probably made the same way the orange block next to it in the supermarket was, but just not dyed. A light yellow Cheddar with a rind is the one to go for if you are looking for a cheese with complex flavor.

Don’t be wary of all orange cheeses. Some British territorial cheeses, e.g. Cheshire, Double Gloucester, and Red Leicester (see photo above), still come in varying shades of orange even when they are made laboriously by hand using unpasteurized milk and cloth bandaging. And why’s that? It’s just the color that these cheeses have become associated with. They probably wouldn’t taste the same if they didn’t appear orange even though the coloring agent, annatto, doesn’t impart any flavor. Why's this? Visual clues inform taste sensations. For instance, if I gave you a lollipop that was apple flavored but colored purple, chances are you wouldn’t be able to identify the fruit. You’d be thinking grape or raspberry, but not apple. I remember when I was in 8th grade, a friend dyed my milk green on St. Patrick's Day. I couldn’t drink it. Even though it couldn't have tasted any different from white milk, it tasted wrong. I kept expecting a different taste that didn't come.

Yellowish handmade Cheddars are the ones for me, but if I had to chose a white or yellow slice of American cheese for a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, I’m going with orange. It’s what tastes right to me, no matter how wrong that may be.

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