Today is National Cheese Lover’s Day in the United States. There are numerous food “holidays” of this sort in the US and I don’t pay much attention to them. But cheese is worth celebrating. I’ve already given numerous recipes and ideas for cheese in past posts, so today I’ll just ramble on a bit about the outer edges of cheese lore, plus some of my own likes and dislikes.
As a boy I was more or less indifferent to cheese. In both England and Australia cheeses were fairly undistinguished in the 1950s and ‘60s. Generic “cheddar” was the main choice. Originally, cheddar was a distinctive cheese originating from the village of Cheddar in Somerset. Cheddar Gorge on the edge of the village contains a number of caves, which provided the ideal humidity and steady temperature for maturing the cheese. Cheddar has been produced since at least the 12th century. A pipe roll of King Henry II from 1170 records the purchase of 10,240 lb (4,640 kg) at a farthing per pound (totaling £10.13s.4d). Charles I (1600–1649) also bought cheese from the village.
Central to the modernization and standardization of Cheddar cheese was the 19th-century Somerset dairyman Joseph Harding who introduced technical innovations, promoted dairy hygiene, and voluntarily disseminated his modernized cheese-making techniques. Harding introduced new equipment to the process of cheese-making, including his “revolving breaker” for curd cutting, saving a great deal of manual effort. Harding and his wife were responsible for the widespread distribution of cheddar including into Scotland and North America and his sons, Henry and William Harding, introduced Cheddar cheese production to Australia and New Zealand, respectively.
During the Second World War, and for nearly a decade after, most milk in Britain was used for the making of one single kind of cheese nicknamed “government Cheddar” as part of war economies and rationing. This resulted in almost wiping out all other cheese production in the country. Before the First World War there were more than 3,500 cheese producers in Britain; fewer than 100 remained after the Second World War. This was the situation when I was born and remained for several decades. I thought Cheddar was just an undistinguished semi-hard yellow cheese (akin to what is called “American cheese” in the US). Not at all. Classic Cheddar made in the traditional way tends to have a sharp, pungent flavor, often slightly earthy. Its texture is firm but slightly crumbly. Delicious – but hard to find. It is now, once again, made in the region of Cheddar in the traditional manner. The name “cheddar” is not protected by the European Union because the process has been so widespread for so long, but the name “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar” has an EU protected designation of origin, and may only be produced in Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall, using milk sourced from those counties. It’s worth finding it.
In my youth, at best, you might find 4 or 5 English cheeses – Cheddar and Stilton were most common, but you might come across Double Gloucester, Red Leicester, Wensleydale or White Lancashire if you were lucky, so that by my 20s (1970s) things were looking up. My father told me of legendary cheeses he knew of before the war, such as Dorset Blue Vinny, but these had long disappeared. Nil desperandum. By the 1980s savvy entrepreneurs and small farmers were starting to revive old cheeses and to create new ones. Now there are over 700 registered cheese names in England (and Blue Vinny is in there !!). When I visit Oxford I always head for the cheese shop in the covered market to see what is on sale. They always have something tempting.
Nowadays in the U.S., Wisconsin is the heartland of cheese manufacture, and after decades of emulating Britain in producing undistinguished cheeses it too is in the business of coming up with new ideas, although it mostly replicates European cheeses. Fried curds is a local specialty though, which I like, and sampled when I first visited when my son auditioned for a music conservatory in Appleton. Wisconsin also has an annual cheese carving contest, which I won’t say is the best use of cheese, but does produce some interesting works.
Soon after my brush with Wisconsin cheese I moved to Argentina where cheese production has a long, but mostly unknown, history of cheese manufacture. I’d known about Argentine green Sardo for many years before I moved to Buenos Aires. It’s a hard grating cheese that originated in Italy but evolved in the dairy lands of Argentina, as did the most popular cheese, Cremosa. Generally Argentine cheese, like U.S. cheese, replicates the cheeses of Europe, some of quite high quality. Argentine Roquefort was a favorite of mine for several years.
Moving to China meant moving to a cheese wasteland. The Chinese are mostly lactose intolerant, so dairy products in general are not widespread. Yoghurt is common enough, but cheese is not very popular. Generally my Han Chinese students were disgusted by the very idea of cheese — “Why would you want to eat rotten milk?” This from people who will happily gobble down stinky fermented foodstuffs that have been buried for years. Fortunately I lived in Yunnan where the Bai people have been cheese makers for centuries. I can’t say that their Rubing or Rashan cheeses are all that interesting but they kept me going for a couple of years.
Then I moved to northern Italy and drowned in cheese for several weeks. I live near Parma and Gorgonzola and have made obligatory pilgrimages. I’m not a giant fan of Italian cheeses, but I always have some mozzarella di bufala and Parmegiano Reggiano on hand, and usually keep odds and ends such as Provolone and Gorgonzola knocking around for lunch sandwiches.
My recommendation for Cheese Lover’s Day is to wander outside your normal tastes. See what you can find that is new and interesting to you. I doubt that you will stumble on yak cheese (chhurpi), but you never know. The Nepalese are starting to export it.
Happy cheese hunting.