Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Taking Care of Cheddar

If the season for Cheddar is now upon us, then it's also time to take proper care of that hunk of semi-hard cheese you've just bought and brought home with you. (If you haven't done that yet, then go do it now, and buy some Honeycrisp apples, while you're at it!)

And how does one take care of Cheddar, you may wonder.

You're not alone in asking this question. I get it frequently--about cheese in general, not just Cheddar--when working behind the cheese counter.

My typical advice to customers, especially the ones at Neal's Yard Dairy, is to store their precious parcels of cheese in a cool, damp spot (not hard to come by in England!), e.g., in a garage, by a window, or in a wine cellar. These areas are preferable to the refrigerator because cheese prefers temperatures that range from 45 to 60 degrees F and a relative humidity of 80 percent or more. The fridge can't offer that. It's too cold and dry.

Keeping cheese in your basement or garage isn't always feasible or practical. In that case, the fridge will have to do. To my customers who shake their heads when asked if they've got a consistently cool or damp place at home, I tell them to keep their cheeses in the veggie drawer of their fridge, nicely wrapped in the special cheese paper I've given them. This is the most humid spot in the ice box.

I dispensed this advice numerous times throughout the working day at Neal's Yard Dairy, but I didn't know what happened to my customers' purchases once they got home at put them in the garage or fridge. Was one environment all that much better than the other?

I set up an experiment to find out. While at work late last November, I sliced three 250-gram (about half a pound) wedges of my favorite Cheddar, Montgomery's. I wrapped each one up in Neal's Yard Dairy's special cheese paper, a lightly waxed French paper, specifically designed for cheese, and then took them home with me. I put one wedge on the top shelf of the fridge, one in the veggie drawer, and one in a shoebox, which I placed atop a suitcase in the garage of the flat where I was staying, south of the Thames.

Once a week for four weeks, I examined the cheeses to see how they were faring in their respective spots. I did a visual inspection and then tasted them. I then dutifully took pictures of them together to document their progress (all of which were lost when my camera was stolen last December). After the first week, there wasn't much of a noticeable difference among them, but by the second week, the hunk in the veggie drawer had picked up off flavors. The veggie drawer next to it was storing some very ripe bananas, and the cheese absorbed the tropical odor. By the third week, the cheese in the garage had developed pin-dot circles of blue mold around the rind. By the third week, the cheeses had a new home in a flat north of the river, where the garage was replaced by a dank closet under the stairs, where my friends kept their wine and brooms.

By the fourth week, it was time to bring the cheeses to the shop and to have the experts taste the results of my experiment. The hands-down winner was the wedge kept in the garage and then the "cellar." A gifted American cheesemaker, who was helping during the busy Christmas season, remarked that it tasted as though it had just been cut from a wheel in the shop (once the superficial mold had been scraped off). The losers were the ones from the fridge. They had become unpleasantly waxy and dry. Surprisingly, the one from the veggie drawer was more dried out than the one from the top shelf. Both had stale, nasty flavors.

I learned from my experiment that the a cool, damp spot is infinitely preferable to the harsh environment of the fridge, provided that you can keep the cheese away from pets and pests. If you have to store your Cheddar in the fridge, keep it away from other food items that have strong smells and eat it quickly. In short, buy just the right amount of cheese so that you don't have to keep your cheese in the fridge for four weeks!

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