Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not Cheddar

(Sorry again about the sideways picture. My camera is now being repaired at the Canon Service Center, so I hope to avoid these wonky pictures in the future.)

You would have thought that by now, after thinking of nothing much else but Cheddar for ten months, I would have figured it out: what's Cheddar and what's not. But I haven't.

Or maybe I have. After seeing the hard work and passion that cheesemakers all over the world put into making this popular cheese, in small dairies and in huge creameries (factories), I am tempted to cast my net wide and accept all Cheddars as Cheddars. Who am I to decide which cheeses get to go by the name Cheddar and which ones shouldn't? After all, I'm just a woman of leisure who gobbles cheese all around the world.

But I can definitely tell you what's not Cheddar. It's Stichelton. And I can say something else it's not, Stilton. Sure, the name is similar, as are its appearance and recipe, but the name is different. It has to be. Since Stichelton is made with unpasteurized milk, it can't be called Stilton. Less than twenty years ago, the Stilton Cheesemakers' Association mandated that to be called Stilton, Britain's historic blue cheese must be made with pasteurized milk. Before that, traditional--and tasty--Stilton was made with raw milk.

Stichelton, a cheese I wrote about in a typo-ridden entry last Christmas, was the only non-Cheddar dairy that I visited during my travels where I spent more than an hour or two. And it was the last dairy where I actually helped out a wee bit before ending my cheese-focused trip. Spending two full days at the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire was an excellent way to end my Great Cheddar Adventure even though I wasn't making Cheddar. It reminded me, after months of focusing on one type of cheese, that there is more than one way to turn milk into something you can slice and put on top of bread. Whereas Cheddar's "make" (the time from when rennet is added to milk to the time salt is mixed into the curd) is about five hours, Stichelton's is about twenty-two hours. Cheddar is a humming bird compared with the starfish pace of Stilton.

My visit to Stichelton also confirmed what I had already learned during my time at dairies: cheesemakers are wonderfully generous, patient, and giving people. Even though I was just "helping" for a day or two at the farm, I was welcomed warmly by the four other workers, and they patiently explained procedures to me and put up with my inexperience. One even laughed when I exhibited my usual lack of control with a hose and blasted her, instead of a cheese-encrusted spruce plank, with water. The head cheesemaker, Joe Schneider, invited me to stay at his house for two nights, and his wife Audre cooked veggie dinners for me, baked scones for breakfast, and made gin and tonics with fancy Fever Tree tonic water. At the end of my stay, everyone thanked me for my "help," but it should have been me thanking them for their generosity.

Making an unpasteurized blue cheese that is Stilton in everything but name also forced me to revisit the politics and difficulties in protecting the identity of a regional food. The use of the name Stilton, unlike Cheddar, is strictly enforced by the European Union. This is good and bad, and I am not sure how I weigh in. The good: a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) ensures that the integrity of a special, regional food can't be compromised by one that's been inferiorly made outside a designated geographical area. There will never be a Stilton produced in Wisconsin or Denmark; when you buy Stilton, you know you are buying a traditional cheese that was made in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire, with locally sourced milk. The PDO not only protects the food product's name but also its history. The bad: something can be lost with rigid definitions. In this case, it's the very traditional way that this blue cheese was made, viz. with unpasteurized milk. As a result, Stichelton can't be called Stilton even though this is the way this cheese was historically made. The flip side of this is that Cheddar cheeses that are made with unpasteurized milk with pint starters and aged in muslin aren't distinguished from cheeses made in dairies that produce more in a day than what small farms make in a year. And the other side of this is that the widespread use of the name Cheddar has ensured its worldwide success. Everyone knows about Cheddar cheese.

What to do? Let everyone into the party or just a selected few?

1 comment:

Cheddar Cheese said...

Well that was nice narration and well stated. Looks you had a great time!