Synopsis: This holiday season, there probably won’t be a celebration in the country that doesn’t contain cheese in some form or another. It’s one of America’s favorite snack foods, and cheddar is our favorite variety of the dairy product. But what is cheese? How is it made and how did cheddar get to be America’s iconic cheese? And how do “processed cheese food products” fit into the mix? Our guest is a cheese expert and will answer those questions and more!
Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Gordon Edgar, cheese buyer at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco and author of the book Cheddar: A journey to the heart of America’s most iconic cheese.
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Cheddar: The story of America’s iconic cheese
Marty Peterson: Who doesn’t like cheese? The ooey-gooey pleasure of a grilled cheese sandwich is so powerful that there are restaurants devoted to that one dish. Cheese is what some parents use on top of vegetables to persuade their kids to eat them. And there’s not a holiday celebration that goes by without cheese in some form playing a part. America’s favorite cheese is cheddar, according to Gordon Edgar. He’s the cheese buyer at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco and author of the book Cheddar: A journey to the heart of America’s most iconic cheese. But before we get into the heart of cheddar and its history, what is cheese?
Gordon Edgar: The process of all cheese making, you know you start with milk and then you add cultures and you add rennet. And the rennet is what makes the milk coagulate so you’d end up with curds and whey and curds are what you make your cheese out of. Basically, there’s specific cultures for cheddar that have historically been used, and that’s one of the things that gives it its distinctive taste. And every cheese grew up with its own homemade cultures. I mean back in ye olde days it was a farm product, it wasn’t an industrial product, and it was something that the farmer would make on the farm – usually the farm wife – and they would make their own cultures just out of soured milk. They’d keep it like a mother culture, they’d keep it going. And so every cheese developed its kind of own taste based on the cultures of the region that they were made in. The think is now, very few people make their own cultures anymore. Montgomery’s Cheddar in England still makes their own cultures, but they’re one of the few. Most people buy them from culture houses – people who sell cheese cultures, cheese equipment, that kind of stuff.
Peterson: Edgar says that even if you have a “cheddar culture” for you cheese and use traditional methods to make it, that’s not what makes it cheddar, legally that is….
Edgar: The process of cheddaring is when you’ve got your curds, you form them into little slabs, or big slabs, and then you pile them on top of each other, and that forces more moisture out so that you get a cheese that can last longer, can develop more flavor and can age longer with less spoilage. And that’s kind of the concept of cheddar. The thing is that the legal definition of cheddar is a very specific thing which is just that the milk fat is 50% by weight of solids, and the maximum moisture level is 39%. And anything that meets those requirements can be cheddar, which really throws people off, because you don’t have to use any traditional process as long as you reach that endpoint.
Peterson: Edgar says that the precursor to cheddar is a French cheese called Cantal that is thought to have been created when the Gauls ruled the region. Cheddar itself came from the English village of Cheddar in the southwestern part of the country in the 12th century. It was in the 19th century when the processes were set up to make the cheese more efficiently, and consistently…
Edgar: Definitely toward the 1800s there was a lot of cross-pollination between American, Canadian and English cheese makers who really kind of refined the process to make cheddar more of what we think of it today. There some technological advances there in terms of hygiene for one – you know keeping animals further away from the make room tended to make cheese that wouldn’t go bad or make you sick – they experimented with different ways of making the cheese. Cheddar has a very distinct heating process to give out more moisture. Again, the goal for cheddar a lot of times is just to exude more moisture so the cheese can last longer without rotting; and also that the cheddaring process also was developed at that time where you stack the curds, also to exude more moisture. And so it developed that way. It definitely is an English cheese, and the classic cheddars are still English, but around the 1850s the Americans started to take it off the farm and put it in a separate facility and made the first cheddar factories which then changed cheddar yet again.
Peterson: That factory was set up in Rome, New York in 1851 by a farmer named Jesse Williams and his wife, Amanda. The fact that cheddar making began in New England explains why Vermont is a big cheese-making state…
Edgar: As the history of the country goes, the cheese was being made in the Northeast before it was being made in the Midwest. Cheddar in Vermont has a long history. Cheddar in Vermont is pretty distinct. Certainly if you get a raw milk version that’s trying to be true to its native roots of Vermont, it tends to be a little more bite-y. The Vermont cheddar tends to be the sharpest cheddar in the country and also the most bitter. That’s the way they like it. I’m not using “bitter” as an insulting term, I’m using it as a more technical term. People in the Northeast tend to really look for those really bite-y, slightly bitter, very sharp cheddars.
Peterson: Wisconsin is proud of its cheddar-producing heritage, and for good reason: 60 of the 129 cheese plants in the state make cheddar, and they produce 561 million pounds of the cheese each year. Almost one-third of all cheese made in the state is cheddar — no more than you’d expect from America’s Dairyland. But cheddar has moved west to California, Edgar’s home state, where they boast a robust dairy industry and a lot of cheese making…
Edgar: California, in terms of dairy, a lot of what they pioneered was mega-dairies, and real concentration of the dairy industry. If you look at the average cow per dairy farmer across the country, Wisconsin is still about 100 cows. The average for the whole country is about 172. And for California, it’s 850 cows per dairy farm, so for better or worse, what California has pioneered is very dairy. I mean the Hilmar Cheese Company in California makes a million pounds of cheese a day, and that’s the largest cheese plant in the world.
Peterson: Edgar says that the state cheese making effort doesn’t confine itself to size. It’s a pioneer in artisanal cheeses made by much smaller manufacturers…
Edgar: They’ve really pioneered goat cheeses, goat cheddars. Central Coast Creamery Goat Cheddar is one of the best in the country I would say. And also Fiscalini Clothbound Cheddar. I love lots of clothbound cheddars made throughout the United States, from Wisconsin, Vermont and other places, but the Fiscalini 18 Month Bandage Wrap is probably the closest to the traditional, English clothbound cheddar than anyone makes. And the cheese maker there, Mariano Gonzalez, was actually the one who kind of brought clothbound cheese back to the United States when he was working at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. He moved to California because it was a little warmer out here but it’s still a great California cheese.
Peterson: Artisanal cheeses are great, and they’re making big inroads into the public’s consciousness since they’re now available in most grocery stores and have come down in price. However, America’s favorite cheddar-ish product isn’t found in the refrigerated cheese section or at the deli counter in stores. It’s sitting on the shelf, at room temperature…
Edgar: I think that we have to talk about Velveeta when we talk about cheddar. I mean I grew up on Velveeta, I don’t want to pretend like I grew up with only fancy cheese or something like that. Velveeta makes sense when you look at cheese and the way that it’s progressed scientifically and economically. When you’re making cheddar, your goal is always to reduce waste. So if you can make a processed cheese that you never have any waste on, it never goes bad, I mean it’s the ultimate in American food. It’s a perfectly, scientifically-made food that will give you the same flavor every time, never go bad and maximizes your yield. So you can’t blame Velveeta for being Velveeta. You can choose not to eat it, but it is what it is.
Peterson: …And what it is, is versatile, convenient, consistent, inexpensive and it melts so well on everything. Whether it’s Velveeta in a brick on the shelf, or refrigerated sandwich singles wrapped individually in plastic, federal law requires that it have the words “processed cheese” on the label. Many people wouldn’t even call these products cheese, let alone be caught eating them – or admit to eating or liking them. Edgar says that there are cheese snobs around, but he adds that you have to look at the issue from both sides…
Edgar: I work at a cooperative, it’s a natural food store, and we had a person in here a few years ago who yelled at my coworker for being un-American because we didn’t carry Kraft Singles. You know, we don’t carry them because they have preservatives and those kinds of things. I think in terms of snobbery, I think that there’s a delicate line to walk between saying the reasons why you would maybe want to pay more for a product. Why you’d maybe want to pay more for a family farm-produced product that’s handmade, that might vary more than your large production cheese, but also not only helps family farmers survive, not only helps, you know, the rural economy in a different way than those big factories do, but also you know gives you a different flavor and something more interesting. And there’s a delicate balance between promoting that and saying that people who can’t afford that just don’t know what they’re talking about.
Peterson: You can find out more about the history, science and economic ramifications of all types of cheddar cheese in Gordon Edgar’s book, Cheddar, available in stores and online. He also invites listeners to his cleverly-named website at Gordonzola.net. You can find out more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpointsonline.net You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.