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It’s 7,150 BC. You’re a 23 year old, male hunter, living in the Neolithic period, (late Stone Age), in what will eventually be called Cheddar Gorge in Great Britain. One day you’re in your cave with your mates and you get into a squabble over food, women, or whose stone ax belongs to whom. The argument soon becomes heated and escalates to violence; (you ARE a primitive male after all). The other bloke gets the upper hand and cracks you in the face with the very ax being quarreled over. You die in your cavernous flat, the atmosphere of which is conducive to the preservation of biological material.
Fast forward 9,053 years to 1903 AD. Some hardworking chaps are digging a drain and serendipitously unearth your remains. All of them. In fact, you now have the unique distinction of being the oldest complete skeleton ever found in the British Isles. Analysis of the bones reveals when and how you died, as well as your age when you met your untimely demise. You are dubbed “Cheddar Man” and now reside in the National History Museum of London. Good show ole boy!
Cheddar is a village in the county of Somerset in south-western England. The current population is about 6,000. A hotbed of primitive civilization, it is the site of Cheddar Gorge, the largest gorge in Great Britain and home to the aforementioned Cheddar Man, England’s most famous troglodyte. In addition to its archeology, Cheddar is also famous for its limestone production, strawberries, tourism, and of course, the crux of this discourse: Cheddar cheese.
Cheddar Cheese has been produced in and around the Cheddar region of England (part of the “West Country”), since at least the 12th century. Historical records reveal that King Henry II bought over 10,000 lbs. of it in 1170. Cheddar is a semi-hard, non-crumbly, cow’s milk cheese that ranges in taste from mild to sharp, and in color from white to orange. White to pale yellow is the natural color. The orange varieties derive their hue from the addition of coloring agents such as annatto. Sharpness is a function of time. The longer the cheese is aged, the sharper the flavor. This is due to the action of enzyme-creating bacteria.
Cheddar was actually considered a luxury product until the 19th century when Joseph Harding, a Somerset dairyman, invented a cheese mill capable of mass production. It incorporated modern technology and reduced the manual labor involved. He also engaged in multi-national efforts to educate others in the art of cheese making. Subsequently, he has been ennobled as the “Father of Cheddar Cheese.”
There are numerous steps to producing traditional Cheddar cheese, the most definitive being the “Cheddaring” process. This primarily refers to cutting the curd into small cubes to drain the whey. The cheese must also be aged at a certain temperature in special facilities upwards of 15 months.
Like many other foods and wines, there’s real Cheddar, and then there’s the knock-offs, some of which are decent, but still not the genuine product. The European Union recognizes "West Country Farmhouse Cheddar" as a “Protected Designation of Origin," or PDO. Such classification systems, like France's AOC system seek to maintain the integrity of certain products. This is done by ensuring the product’s place of origin and production techniques. West Country Farmhouse Cheddar must be made in the traditional manner, with local ingredients from the British counties of Somerset, Devon, Dorset, or Cornwall. This cheese is light years beyond the bulk-production, processed, American “Cheddar,” that like so many foods in this country, has been bastardized into an embarrassingly pedestrian replica.
Consider the following. In the course of preparing this article I called two well known, “award winning” cheddar cheese producers; one in Vermont and one in Wisconsin. I asked the Vermont cheese maker if they followed the above mentioned cheddaring process as performed in Cheddar England. He seemed befuddled and stated: “We just put it in the machine.” OK, let’s try Wisconsin. I posed the exact same question to the Wisconsin representative. Her response was even worse. She stated she never heard of Cheddar England. A famous cheddar cheese producer no less! I was thunderstruck! It is an egregious shame how our nation has become so benighted to history, tradition, and the time honored tenets of our culinary legacies. Ahhhhh……..let’s move on.
While Cheddar can obviously be eaten straight, it is highly amenable to cooking. Cheddar is a smooth, melting cheese and thus can easily be utilized in a variety of dishes. It’s excels for grilled cheese sandwiches, the classic mac & cheese, or topping soups or casseroles. It can also be blended into mashed potatoes, soufflés, polenta, or incorporated into a dough as in my recipe for Cheddar biscuits below:
RECIPE CHEDDAR CHEESE BISCUITS
• 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra as needed • 4 teaspoons baking powder • ¼ teaspoon baking soda • ½ teaspoon garlic salt • 5 oz. salted cold butter, cubed • 5 oz. shredded Cheddar cheese • 8 oz. buttermilk
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a food processor. Whiz briefly to incorporate the ingredients and aerate the flour. Add the butter and process until a coarse meal is produced.
Transfer the flour/butter combo to a large stainless steel bowl. Add the cheese and buttermilk. With a rubber spatula mix the dough until it comes together, scraping the sides to incorporate. Then with the spatula or your hands, knead the batter gently for just a minute or two while still inside the bowl.
Spread the dough out on a lightly floured board to a height of one inch. Use the least amount of bench flour necessary. This a somewhat sticky dough which is the target consistency.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spray the inside of a standard biscuit cutter with vegetable spray. Cut out the biscuits, spraying the cutter after each one. Spread them out evenly on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Reform the dough and cut again as you get toward the end. You should get about 8 biscuits. Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes.