17 February 2010


It would seem the British have always been blessed with good cheese. That's not to say the rest of Europe aren't catered for in the cheese department - France, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Germany all have massively distinctive varieties of cheese. Then there's the Dutch varieties, which I used to turn my nose up at, only having experienced what was labelled 'edam' and 'gouda', and which came complete with a mad woman with a flag and a smile that would shame a shark, which somehow projected beyond the waxy coating to illuminate the surroundings with a ghastly, Netherlandish air. I rightly put those words ('edam' and 'gouda', should you forget) between apostrophes for a reason: having tasted something I bought from the supermarket called 'Old Dutch Master' (note respectful apostrophes with capitalisation contained within). I am in a state of near ecstasy over this particular variety of Dutch cheese and can only assume there is better to follow. I conclude that an aged edam is at least as exciting as an aged Cheddar or a toughened-up Lancashire. Emmental, Brie and Rauchkäse: you have nothing to fear from this. Europe is safe, and America should quake.

Today's lament is for American cheese. What went wrong? We browse your supermarket aisles, America, and we find 'sharp cheddar'. Worse still, upon further investigation, 'Vermont cheddar' appears, or 'Colby', 'Longhorn' or 'New York Style'. It's okay - we too have these abominations that do not deserve to be called cheese. They're clearly labelled 'cheezstrings', 'Dairylea' or 'SUPERMARKET OWN BRAND DO NOT TOUCH'. No-one in their right mind dares to touch these things. It would appear, watching Jeremy Kyle, that we make allowances for those with children in tow, and that brings up a different world, with the accompanying irony of the common intimations of 'bringing up'.

Let us clear our palate. Cheddar in the UK isn't always capitalised. In fact, anyone in the UK, or indeed the world, can make cheddar by following the appropriate recipe, which usually involves kneading the curd with salt, cutting and allowing the whey to drain off, then repeating until you have something firm enough to age. Anything which gets to such a stage is usually marketed in the UK as cheddar, although I privately think of it as a 'cheddar-style cheese', which works pretty well for me, anyway. Certainly, any cafeteria or restaurant I've been to which claims to offer a cheddar-based product has always provided something I have taken or mistaken for cheddar. I dread to think what would happen in the US, but here in the UK it seems easy provide something similar to cheddar. (America, it's probably obvious by now that I hate your cheeses. Even Monterey Jack. Sorry.)

For real Cheddar, with the capital and the people who taste it and fashionably faint, by which I mean they actually contact brow with hand and lapse backwards, you have to visit Cheddar country, in the same way that anyone wishing to procure real Champagne would have to visit… well, the nearest supermarket. But relax… your supermarket has reached out to Champagne country for your posh wine, has it not? Well, it's done the same for your Cheddar. Nearly.

Cheddar has no protected designation of origin, and in fact it's only Stilton which has achieved any sort of protected designation of origin in the UK, which means that any bugger with a bit of congealed milk can call it cheddar, and even capitalise it if they wish. The European Union, bless their hearts, are a bit more stringent and will only allow you to label something as 'West Country Farmhouse Cheddar' if it's made in a traditional manner with local ingredients in either Somerset, Dorset, Devon or Cornwall. Join with me and 'whoopee', and then taste many of the bland, pointless, soul-destroyingly tasteless cheddars you can buy across Europe, to say nothing of the massive range available to the UK anti-gourmand.

Here in the UK, I have come to a solution, and that is if you can't find something labelled 'West Country' then avoid anything that says 'mild', 'everyday' or 'mature'. Go for 'extra-mature', and don't be fooled by things like 'young but mature', 'milky and full of taste' or 'magic and with a hint of plastic!'. Hold out for your rights like Jackson Browne, and all will be well. Don't be tempted by Philadelphia, Quark or <shudder> Supermarket Own Brand Slightly Yellow Cheddar. Similarly, don't be swayed by waxy-paper wrappers, sheeny-silk-pink plastic wrappers, rustic-looking paper-that's-actually-plastic trays. Do you really think the best product commands the best package? Use your judgement. Ask to taste. Let them prove it to you… make them prove it to you.

Cheddar… mmm. If you try.

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