Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Age of Cheddar

My lugubrious black pin says it all. I'm forty and over the hill. With nowhere to go but down, I might as well be six feet under.

Nah, I don't really believe that. Even though my life may be more than half over and (to quote Pink Floyd) every day is one day closer to death, I am nevertheless looking forward to--not dreading--the years ahead. There's still a lot of life left to live, and any number of adventures await me on the other side of that proverbial hill.

I'm not sure everyone has a similarly positive view of age. The prevailing social sentiment, at least in the States, is that the older you get, the less you're worth. Youth, which I no longer possess, is where it's at.

The exceptions to this age-ist attitude are wine, Scotch, and cheese. The older they are, the better, and the higher the price that people are willing to pay for them.

Here's an example. The typical price for a block of Cheddar, the kind you buy in the supermarket, is usually somewhere between $5 and $10 a pound. Its age ranges from a few months to a whole year. But keep that cheese around for another fourteen years and the price escalates to $50 a pound.

This is what happened to Hook's Cheese of Wisconsin. A month ago, in early December 2009, Tony and Julie Hook released a fifteen-year-old Cheddar, the oldest available on the market. A cheese as old--and as expensive--as this captured people's attention and the headlines. It also opened people's purses. An apologetic notice on Hook's Cheese's Web site reports that the first batch of their super-aged Cheddar (about 1,200 pounds) has sold out and that the next batch won't be released until March 2010. No doubt it will get quickly gobbled up, too.

If I could buy just a quarter or a half pound of this cheese (a posting on says that there's a four-pound minimum!), I would, even on my part-time cheesemonger salary. But it would be curiosity driving me, not the belief that a fifteen-year-old cheese is ten-times better than a one-year-old one.

In my amateur opinion, I doubt it is that much better. In a case like this, age serves more as a marketing tool than as a catalyst for bringing out the best in a fermented dairy product. For fifteen years, over a ton of this particular batch of cheese has been stored at a very cool temperature in plastic bags, leaching whey and minerals. This maturing method doesn't really do all that much to enhance the flavors of a cheese. Certainly, they become more concentrated after all that time, but they don't achieve much depth. All it really succeeds in doing is impressing consumers with the cheese's age and proving that a perishable product can be successfully matured for that long, provided that the cheesemaker has a high level of skill and a sufficient cash flow to hold onto inventory for that long.

Before you get too blown away by a fifteen-year-old, fifty-dollar-a-pound Wisconsin block Cheddar and clamber to get on a waiting list for its re-release in March, remember that only twelve to eighteen months are required for a bandaged Cheddar, stored almost at room temperature, to reach its peak. I'll wager $50 that a morsel of a traditional Cheddar will be much more nuanced and flavorful than a block of Cheddar that has been recently released from a plastic bag full of murky whey after fifteen years of captivity.

Does anyone want to buy $200 worth of Hook's Cheddar and do a taste comparison with an American or British clothbound one?

In this post, I seem to be positing two conflicting arguments about age, that it isn't necessarily better (when it comes to cheese) and that it isn't necessarily bad (when it comes to turning forty). What I'm ultimately trying to say is, age isn't everything. What matters in the end is how good the cheese tastes and how fully you live your life, even after the age of fifteen or forty.

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