Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's Wrong with Cheddar?

(Photo taken from npr.org)

I agree with Steve Inskeep. "What's wrong with Cheddar?"

This plaintive and totally apt question (in my mind) was how Inskeep, cohost of National Public Radio's Morning Edition, concluded a story by Ketzel Levine, back in August 2007. (It's taken me a wee while to write about this radio piece. In the intervening two years--well, just now--I've learned that there's more to like about Inskeep than just his views on Cheddar and his good humor in the morning. What a dapper radio personality!)

Ketzel's story, part of the ongoing series (at the time) "Climate Connections," with National Geographic, explored how global warming might affect the taste of Europe's traditional cheeses and America's new, farmstead ones. Well-crafted cheeses should taste of the grasses and flowers that the lactating animals were grazing upon at the time of milking. If the variety of flora changes, so will the final flavor. This happens naturally with seasons; a cheese made in May will taste different from one made in August because of what's growing at that time of year.

With global warming, this change in flora is happening geographically as well. An alpine cheesemaker interviewed for the story, Alex Pelletier, has noticed that plants native to the south of France are migrating into the mountains as the country's average temperature increases. One of the factors which make alpine cheeses (e.g., Beaufort, Gruyere, Emmental) distinct are the flavors that come from the plants that grow at high altitude. Dilute this mix with newcomers from the south and you might end up with a different cheese.

Of more immediate concern is the increase in water consumption by thirsty cows, unused to the higher temperatures. This dilutes the proteins and fats in the cows' milk, which means that the cheesemakers must use more milk to create the same amount of cheese, an unwanted extra cost.

So, how does this all relate to Cheddar?

Most of Ketzel's piece focused not on the traditional mountain cheeses of France and Switzerland, but on one from Vermont, Thistle Hill Farm's award-winning Tarentaise. Why an alpine-style cheese in a state that Ketzel calls "Cheddar country"? It has to do with climate, not history or culture. Recognizing that their local climate was more similar to the Alps than to damp England, John and Janine Putnam, owners of Thistle Hill, turned to Beaufort and Abondance, not Cheddar, for inspiration.

But I think it wasn't just the climate that steered the Putnams away from Cheddar. I detected a whiff of snobbery, as well as continued misunderstanding about this English cheese, which many folks, even cheesemakers, believe comes only from big factories. For the Putnams, it's only good enough to store in the freezer and serve as a snack for their kids. In addition, what they fear most about climatic change is that in the near future they might have to change their style of cheese and "succumb to Cheddar." But they hope that day of making Cheddar "never" comes. For them, it would mean the end of a nuanced cheese that tastes of grass and the seasons.

Global warming is a real concern, and until I listened to this evocative piece on the radio two years ago I never really thought how it might affect the future of traditional and artisanal cheeses. (Inskeep introduces Ketzel's story by reminding listeners that climate change can affect almost anything in our lives.) But is the worst thing about accelerated climatic change that some cheesemakers might have to switch to making Cheddar with the milk from their organic Jersey cows? There's plenty of room with this style of cheese to express your farm's sense of place and your cows' healthy and changing grass diet. Just taste a handmade Cheddar from Britain, like Hafod, Keen's, Montgomery's, or Isle of Mull. Or even from Modesto, California! These cheeses give any French or Swiss cheese a run for its money and should not be confused with factory-made Cheddar that works as hard as it can not to show seasonal variations.

So, if were not talking about a mass-produced Cheddar, what's wrong with it? And even if we were, I still ask, as does Inskeep, What's wrong with Cheddar? It's a bloody good cheese! Remember, the Putnams aren't keeping Gouda or Harvati in the freezer for their kids!