Cheddar is the Swiss army knife of cheese. It keeps well, travels well, pairs with wine or beer, makes a great host/hostess gift and enhances any meal - whether it's sliced, grated or melted. When paired with a ginger compote, it can double as dessert, or kept simple, it's perfect power snack to nibble on while making your zillionth shopping list.
The broad range of cheddars in the cheese aisle, however, can be overwhelming. Cheddars span from two-month-old preemies to 15-year-old elder statesmen. Is older always better? Cheese expert Kathy Guidi, author of, Canadian Cheese: A Pocket Guide, says it's a matter of personal taste. "To really appreciate what aging does to the quality of a cheese, do what professionals do and have a vertical tasting," she says. "Explore three to five different cheddars of the same age or three to five different ages of one brand." You may like a particular age on one brand and not another, because all cheddars age differently. Ms Guidi also cautions consumers to be aware of quality: "There is a market for extra-old cheddar, but what some brands refer to as extra old would not come close to Canada Grade A standards. Since specific age guidelines are not mandated, be careful to know what you are buying."
'Tis the season for checking lists twice, so after making a short list of favourite cheddars, I enlisted the knowledgeable palates of my fellow Cheese Club members (like Fight Club but messier). The result is a list of tried and true Canadian cheddars ready to multitask their way through brunches to midnight snacks. They are available at most specialty cheese stores and major grocery stores.
Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar (Cows Creamery): This was a unanimous winner. Comments ranged from "earthy, caramel, yummy goodness" to "a lovely morsel of heaven." A sophisticated host/hostess gift.
Balderson Heritage, three year old: Though this cheddar has developed a sharper bite and more crumbly texture over time, the balance of flavour in this cheese is impressive. It has a smoky/meaty quality off the top and a long, tangy finish. Exhibits some crunchy protein crystals, a full, creamy complexity and inviting milky aroma. Makes a decadently oozy ham and grilled cheese.
Chevre Noir (Fromagerie Tournevent): Chevre Noir is a chic, snow-white cheese encased in black wax. Made from goat's milk, its flavours are rich and complex with caramel, nutty notes, and it has naturally formed, crunchy protein crystals encased in its firm, crumbly paste. Aged one to two years. An elegant twist on cheddar for a cocktail party.
Île-aux-Grues, two year old: This was another across-the-board favourite. Boasting big flavour and a crumbly texture, this cheddar's tangy sharpness cries out for chutney or honey. A good one to put in a sandwich with some Branston pickle.
President's Choice Cheddar (Mapledale): I love younger cheddar for its creamy, milky quality and its delicate flavour. This one-year-old is mellow with a nice salt balance and a sour-cream finish. It also comes aged at two, four and five years. The "any time, anywhere" cheese for all ages.
St. Albert, seven year old: If you're looking to try an extra-aged cheddar, this co-op-made cheese is a great start. It maintains a smooth, melt-in-your mouth texture featuring complex flavours and a sharpness that's tempered by its creamy, clean finish. Slice onto crisp, buttered rye toast and pair with some honey-infused black tea. Pure comfort and joy.