Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Cheddar Season

All of a sudden it happens. On an undetermined day in late September, rosy Jersey tomatoes, bouquets of basil, and plump balls of fresh mozzarella part ways. For the summer months they keep each other company on central display tables in specialty food markets. Their pert freshness speaks cool words to shoppers, "What could be more simple and satisfying on this hot and humid night than we three in an insalata caprese or in a bowl of spaghetti tossed with cubes of uncooked tomatoes and mozzarella and torn leaves of basil?" Not much, and off the trio fly from the display table, quickly replaced by workers in the produce and cheese departments.

As much as we want to prolong the carefree days of summer in the northeast, we must admit at some point that it's over. The crickets may still be chirping, the days warm and humid, and the garden still abundant with herbs and vegetables, but something has changed. The sun is no longer mercilessly hot. Instead it casts a warm glow, making everything look as attractive as a couple in love, sitting by an open fire. Its golden light catches very busy squirrels, scuttling about the leaves which are slowly changing color, collecting nuts. They can't deny it and nor can we. Summer's over and winter's coming.

Market managers break the news to us by changing the products on the display tables. "Autumn is here," they say, and they say it with apples and Cheddar cheese.

I've written before that I associate Cheddar with autumn, and I'm not alone. In the company of apples, the fruit inexplicably linked with the start of fall in the northeast, Cheddar signifies the end of light, summer cooking. Dishes take on toastier notes and a deep sweetness--think apple pie, roasted squash, beet salads, and stews with root vegetables. This hard cheese, which was traditionally made with the surplus of milk from spring and summer and was ready to eat in lean cold, months, fits perfectly with this flavor profile.

When will the apples and Cheddar disappear? Perhaps when we, at Sickles Market, run out of precious and delicious Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from the Cellars at Jasper Hill. Or perhaps after Thanksgiving, when we'll have to admit that winter has arrived.

Which cheese will help us make that chilly transition?

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