Getting Better With Age ...
the delicious past and present of Wisconsin’s most famous cheese creations
Before I say what I am going to say, please believe me when I tell you that I am a huge Packers fan. I watch every season, including pre-season, even when it is obvious they aren’t any good. I wear the same lucky socks, t-shirt, and sweater for each game. One time last year, I even tried to get my dad to stay in the basement by himself for part of the game because the Packers scored a touchdown while he was down there grabbing beers for everyone. With all that said, I must admit that I hate those cheeseheads worn by the fans. I mean, they are just so … cheesy. (If you care, I also hate any Packer apparel that has a camouflage pattern, but that’s a different story.)
I get it. I do. What else are we supposed to wear? Raw meat on our heads, like Lady Gaga, as a way to pay homage to the Indian Packing Company, the canned meat business who gave The Pack money and jerseys in the early days? If I had to choose, I see why they decided to go with cheese. For one thing, meathead isn’t a very endearing term. For another, it would look even weirder. And most importantly, Wisconsin does in fact have a long history in cheese making – especially cheddar.
Wisconsin’s legacy in cheese making began when European immigrants started to move into the area and realized how great it was for farming (dairy included). Because there was so much milk being produced, the farmers logically began using the extra milk for cheese making. According to the book Wisconsin Cheese: A Cookbook and Guide to Cheeses of Wisconsin, before 1850, almost all of the cheese made in Wisconsin was cheddar. Today, it is still the top producer in the country of cheddar cheese, which is the considered the most popular type in the United States and maybe the world. In recent years, there has been one kind of Wisconsin cheddar cheese in particular that has been getting a huge following – and that’s aged cheddar.
On Larry Meiller’s Wisconsin Public Radio show on July 26, his guest Jeenee Carpenter from Wisconsin Cheese Originals said that there has been a “renaissance of small farmstead artisan cheese plants” in Wisconsin over the past 10 years. In fact, Carpenter noted that 43 new dairy plants have opened since 2004. These artisans are doing everything from the breeding and caring for the animals, milking the cows, and making the cheese themselves. This could account for the increased interest in aged cheddar rather then the typical mass-produced “young” cheddar sold at most grocery stores.
In order to be considered “aged,” cheddar needs to sit for at least 60 days. Jeremy, the cheese guru at Foster Cheese Haus out of Osseo, told me that as cheese ages, the texture becomes more dry and crumbly and it develops a sharp, rich, nutty flavor. At Foster, you can buy young cheddar cheeses of all flavors, including cajun, vegetable, jalapeno pepper, and smoked, but there are many options of aged cheddar as well. When I was recently there, I saw cheeses aged 1, 3, 6, 7, 10, and 12 years. Most of these were made by Hook’s Cheese Company, who is especially known for their 15-year aged cheddar. This cheese is so famous that when they release the yearly batch around Thanksgiving, it will be completely sold out by Christmas. Most of the aged cheddar sold at Foster Cheese Haus and other cheese houses is the orange cheddar that Wisconsin is famous for.
No cheddar is originally that color, though. In order to make it that famous yellowy-orange, companies add an all-natural food coloring called annatto. Jeremy explained that the reason they started doing this was to cover up natural swirling in the cheese that some people found unappealing. Today, as a way to keep the cheese pure in form, he said more and more artisan cheese makers, such as Castle Rock Organic Farms (also in Osseo), are going away from adding this coloring, which leaves it a natural white.
As a way to keep the cheese pure in form, more and more artisan cheese makers are going away from adding coloring to the cheese, which leaves it a natural white.
I’m not gonna lie. As cheese ages, it also gets more expensive. At Foster Cheese Haus, you can buy a 3-year-old cheddar for $12 per pound and go all the way up to a 12-year aged cheddar for $40 per pound. From what I’ve seen, these prices are very similar to other locations with coveted aged cheddar. There is good reason for the high cost, though. As I said before, the artisans work in all aspects of the cheese making process, from milking the cows to making the cheese. Also, think of the time and care it takes to keep the humidity and temperature just right each and every day for 12 years to create such a perfect specimen of cheese. Can you imagine working with the same piece of cheese for 12 years? I personally don’t think I could handle that responsibility. I’m sure I’d get bored by year two, if not sooner.
If you are interested in buying aged cheddar, but you are worried about the cost, just remember that you don’t need to buy a full pound. If you don’t see a cheese that is the weight you would like to purchase, talk to the workers at the shop. Many places that sell artisan cheeses are able to slice off the amount you’d like. Even though my husband Shawn and I aren’t millionaires, or even rich for that matter, we splurge on good aged cheddar from time to time. On our last trip to Foster, after we ate some delicious wood-fired pizza, we bought a block of 3-year-old cheddar. Although this may sound boring and not fancy enough, our favorite way to eat aged cheddar is on Triscuit crackers or even just by itself. We also love to put it on a thick, juicy burger. The mixture of the meat with the sharp taste of the cheese is simply irresistible.
I may not like the Packers’ foam cheeseheads, but I really love my cheese. I especially have a growing appreciation for Wisconsin’s aged cheddar. Because as cornerback Charles Woodson once quipped, “I don’t think I could live if there’s no cheese. I’m literally a Cheesehead.”