The ultimate guide to British Cheddar

08 November 2023, 09:00 AM
  • It’s Britain’s most quintessential cheese, but how much do you know about Cheddar? Speciality Food delves into its history as experts answer customers’ top questions
The ultimate guide to British Cheddar

Whether used in a cheese and pickle sarnie, providing the bubbly topping on a pasta bake, or adding rich, umami flavour to a soup, Cheddar is the backbone to many Brits’ recipes. When it’s time to reach for a quick, cheesy snack or to fashion a cheeseboard centrepiece, it’s the go-to for many – in fact, Cheddar represents 50% of all cheese sales in the UK, according to Kite’s recent report on the UK cheese market.

“Cheddar is the quintessential British territorial cheese,” says Jen Grimstone-Jones of Cheese Etc, The Pangbourne Cheese Shop. “It is often the first cheese that we experience as children, and it has that comforting taste of home appeal.” 

But this humble cheese is popular the world over. What makes it so universally beloved? “Cheddar is sold at many different ages, so it caters for a wide range of tastes, and therefore it appeals to many different people,” Jen says. “It is an amazingly versatile cheese. It’s easy to slice or grate, so is used in many culinary dishes as well as on a cheeseboard. It is also the cheese that we produce the most of here in the UK, so it is readily available to most people.”

With most consumers familiar with supermarket varieties of Cheddar, cheesemongers have the opportunity to reveal what the real deal is really like. By delving into the history and background of Cheddar and answering customers’ burning questions, you can ensure you’re prepared to showcase why they should ditch their mass-produced block cheese for a fantastic raw milk Cheddar cheese or farmhouse variety.

The history of British Cheddar

Where is Cheddar from?

“Cheese production in Somerset goes back to the 12th century,” says James Grant of No2 Pound Street and the Great British & Irish Cheddar Challenge. “In 1170, King Henry bought over 4,500 kilos.” 

While it is known that the cheese gained popularity from the village of Cheddar in Somerset, much of its origin story remains a mystery. 

“The Cheddar Gorge contains caves which were used by local farmers to keep their milk cool. Legend has it that a milk maid left a bucket of milk in the caves for too long and it coagulated to form an early version of cheese,” Jen says. 

Is Cheddar a protected cheese?

Customers might be surprised by the sheer volume of cheeses around the world that call themselves ‘Cheddar’, despite having different flavours – and even colours. “Traditionally, Cheddar had to be produced within 30 miles of Wells Cathedral, but now it is made in almost every country around the world,” Jen says.

However, there is a protected variety: West Country Farmhouse Cheddar PDO. “This protection only applies to Cheddars made in Dorset, Somerset, Devon or Cornwall,” Jen explains. The Cheddars must be at least nine months old and made from cow’s milk, which can be pasteurised or not, and the cheeses themselves can be produced either in a cylinder shape or in a block.”

Artisan Cheddar’s newfound popularity

Cheddar “is the easily the most popular cheese in the UK,” James says. But times have not always been easy for this staple of British life.

“During the Industrial Revolution of 1760, and by the end of World War 2, out of 3,500 cheese producers only 100 survived,” James says. “The Milk Marketing Board was created to enable dairy farmers to sell their milk without consequence. The farmers were guaranteed a market price. Since the demise of the MMB and supermarket buying power, milk lost 40% of its market value. This caused a lot of pain but has also encouraged dairy farmers to make cheese again.”

Selling British Cheddar

With this history in mind, it’s more important than ever to celebrate the UK’s growing ranks of farmhouse Cheddar producers. “I love all farmhouse Cheddars,” James says. “Quicke’s, Westcombe Cheddar, Hafod, Pitchfork, Keens, Isle of Mull, Mount Leinster, Montgomery. Each cheese offers delicious flavour and length on the palate.”

When selling Cheddar, retailers can highlight West Country links by suggesting that customers complement their selection with a swill of cider. “Dowding’s Cider from Somerset is awesome, as well as another Somerset Cider named Wilding,” James says.

The Pangbourne Cheese Shop sells 11 different Cheddars. “I can happily munch on any of them, but my all-time favourite is Montgomery’s,” Jen says. “When Ali and I got married, we had a 7kg wheel of Montgomery’s West Country Farmhouse Cheddar PDO (to give it its full name) as the base of our wedding cake. It is a traditional, clothbound Cheddar with fabulous rich, almost brothy flavours, and the most wonderful aroma!”

As for pairings, while Jen typically chooses to forgo accompaniments to really experience the flavours of the cheese itself, she admits that an apple-based chutney, sourdough bread and a glass of West Country cider makes for the perfect ploughman’s lunch.

Consumers’ frequently asked questions

As a cheesemonger, you can be a font of knowledge for your customers, and with education comes appreciation and understanding. You might be surprised how many questions they have about this classic cheese.

What difference does the age of Cheddar make? What’s the difference between mature Cheddar, extra mature Cheddar, vintage Cheddar, etc?

“Generally, with any cheese, the older they are the stronger they taste. This is the same for Cheddar,” Jen says. 

This guide can help you explain Cheddar ageing to your customers:
• Mild Cheddar – under six months old
• Medium Cheddar – six to 12 months old
• Mature Cheddar – 12 to 18 months old
• Extra mature Cheddar – 18 to 24 months old
• Vintage Cheddar – 24 months old and over

“The cheeses get stronger as they age due to the fact that they lose moisture, and more of the lactose in the milk is broken down into lactic acid, which causes the older cheeses to taste sharper,” Jen explains.

“Flavours develop in traditional Cheddar because of starter cultures used, time, humidity, and the temperature of the ageing rooms,” adds James. “This is more applicable to farmhouse and genuine single-herd, often clothbound, whole Cheddars.

“Larger, industrially produced cheeses often use thermophilic cultures that are usually associated with mountain cheese like the Swiss and French Gruyere and Comte cheeses,” he continues, adding that the culture tastes candy-like and has a more one-dimensional flavour profile.

What is clothbound Cheddar, and what makes it different?

The term ‘clothbound Cheddar’ refers to the wrapping of the whole Cheddar cheese, which helps it maintain its shape while it ages and matures, James says. “This also allows the cheese to take on the microbiome of the room or cave that it is ageing in.”

“Often the outside of the cloth is rubbed with lard or butter, which stops the cheese from drying out and cracking,” Jen adds. “Wrapping Cheddar in cloth also causes a traditional rind to form, which usually has an earthy aroma. Clothbound Cheddar has a very distinctive taste with complex savoury flavours. Often sweet with hints of nuts.”

What is cave-aged Cheddar, and why is it different?

“Cave-aged cheeses are exactly as you’d imagine – cheeses that have been matured in caves,” Jen says. Some are aged in traditional caves, such as those in Cheddar Gorge, while others are man-made, such as the maturing space at Westcombe Cheddar. “Caves are used because they maintain a consistent temperature. They generally have a higher humidity than other areas, and they have fairly low barometric pressure, making them ideal for cheese maturation. 

“Cave-aged Cheddars tend to have richer flavours,” Jen says.

The art of maturing cheese is called affinage, and this process can produce strikingly different flavours in a cheese. “The Academy of Cheese founded an affinage competition that encourages cheesemongers and makers to compete by ageing a Cheddar from the same cheesemaker,” James says. 

“The goal is to take a young cheese and age for over nine months. The results are amazing. Each cheese, although originally from the same producer, tastes different. This is due to temperature, time and humidity. This is because each location where the cheese is stored and taken care of has a unique biome,” he continues.

“If you place a cheese in a clean room without any other cheese close by, it will develop but not offer the same flavours of one aged in a cave with mould spores adorning the walls and airflow, plus a constant temperature and humidity.”

What are the crystals in Cheddar?

Crystals can form in Cheddar and other hard cheeses as part of the maturing process. They form when naturally occurring lactic acid and calcium combine to create calcium lactate crystals, or when amino acids like tyrosine form as protein breaks down (typically found on the cut surface or eyes of cheeses like Gouda, Gruyère, Comté or Parmesan).

Traditionally, crystals weren’t found in Cheddar. In fact, cheesemakers often avoided it so their customers wouldn’t confuse the crystals with mould. These days, more Cheddar makers are using production methods and bacteria that create these crystals to give their cheeses a distinctive crunch.

Will Cheddar continue to age in the fridge?

The short answer is yes, but it will only age well if it is stored properly. Cheddar is traditionally aged in cool, dark caves. Affinage, or the process of maturing cheese, is a science and an artform in itself. Ageing cheese requires a lot of training and research.

Which Cheddar melts the best?

For customers planning on using their Cheddar in a toastie or on a burger rather than a cheeseboard, a younger Cheddar typically works better. A variety of factors can affect how cheeses melt, from moisture to acidity to age. More mature cheeses can become oily rather than achieving a creamy melt. Grating Cheddar can also help to produce a more even melt.

Can Cheddar be frozen?

Cheddar cheese can be frozen safely, but be warned that as the cheese thaws its texture and flavour can be significantly altered.

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