I didn't start off being a cheese expert. In fact, a year ago I knew virtually nothing about cheese other than it came in three types: orange, marbled and shredded. My daughter returned from a French exchange last October, and wouldn't stop talking about cheese. Her mind had been opened to a new world. I had heard of cheese shops, of course, but I was happily ignorant. When my daughter demanded I take her cheese shopping - you know how teenagers are - I took my first steps into a real cheese shop. I was stunned. There were hundreds - hundreds! - of cheeses, and none of them were orange, marbled or shredded. You could, I mused to my daughter, eat a new cheese every day for 100 days and still not eat all of these cheeses.
And so my journey into cheese began. For 100 consecutive days I ate and blogged about a different cheese. In this column, I'll share with you some of my cheese journey.
I can't think of a better way to kick off this column than with cheddar - as Monty Python correctly asserted, it's "the single most popular cheese in the world!" Cheddar is generally a cow's milk cheese produced in many countries. As the word "cheddar" is not protected, anyone can call anything cheddar. You have to dig a little deeper to find the real cheddar cheese, but it's worth it.
Cheddar has been made in England for approximately 1,000 years. It's a true heritage cheese and comes from the towns of Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Grove, which each have a number of cheddar caves in continuous use for a millennium.
Real Cheddar is a cheese that has a special final stage done to it - it's called_ cheddaring! After making and heating the cheese curds, they are kneaded with salt, then cut into cubes and stacked to drain. This results in that creamy yet firm texture, which is also dry and somewhat moist. Cheddar can be eaten after three months or aged up to eight years.
Traditional cheddar is wrapped in buttered cloth bandages, which keep the cheese clean while allowing it to breathe during aging. After six months or so, it will contain the calcium lactate crystals, which provide the crunchy sensation that tells you that you are eating real cheddar.
Unlike that orange excuse for cheddar you buy at the supermarket, real cheddar is never soapy in texture. It should be a little brittle and crumbly. Cheddar is also intrinsically off-white in colour, but it is one of the most popular dyed cheeses. Yes, that orange hue is a dye.
Today's reviewed cheddar is the real thing: a raw milk cloth-bound cheddar from Avonlea, PEI, home of Anne of Green Gables. This cheddar is aged for 12 months and wrapped in linen, old school style. Scott Linkletter, owner of COWS ice cream company, fell in love with real cheddar and decided to bring it to Canada. He joined forces with cheesemaker Armand Bernard. They tweaked an old Scottish recipe from the Orkney Islands to create the unique taste of Avonlea. Thus, it's a relatively new cheese, but made in the classic fashion. This cheese was awarded first place at the 2009 American Cheese Society awards. Yes, that's right: cheese has its own awards, just like the Oscars.
My little slice of Avonlea clothbound cheddar has crumbled a bit, nicely demonstrating the texture of traditional cheddar. This is cheddar, folks. Behold! It's a nice buttery colour and, true to its name, wrapped in a linen bandage smeared with butter.
Tasting now: tangy, salty, a tiny bit sweet, no hint of rot, no ammonia at all. It's quite benign. Avonlea has a smooth paste texture with the smallest amount of crystal crunch. But wait_ there's just the faintest hint of mould, mushroom and barn that you have to really focus to taste, the closer you get to the rind. It's hiding under this facade of being a "proper little cheese." The more I eat it, the more I taste the complexity and mystery. Nice work, Avonlea!
Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar is available at fine cheese shops including Benton Brother's Cheese and Les Amis du Fromage for $4.75 to $5.50 per 100 grams.
In "The Big Cheese" we explore one cheese at a time, one month at a time.
Willow Yamauchi is the author of Bad Mommy and Adult Child of Hippies (Insomniac Press) and is always on the lookout for the next great cheese. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @willow72. Follow her cheesy exploits at myblogofcheese.wordpress.com.