Like little heads in a game of Whack-a-Mole, clothbound cheddars are popping up around the country. This year at the 2011 American Cheese Society conference, Lindsay Clothbound Goat Cheddar (made at Mariposa Dairy in Lindsay, Ont.) tied for second prize for Best in Show. It had bested more than 1,600 other cheeses and wasn't even for sale yet.
A week later I discovered that Toronto's Cheese Boutique had just released a batch of seven-year-old clothbound that they had commissioned from a now-defunct cheesemaker in the Ottawa Valley. They have thirty 40-kilogram wheels of this raw cow's-milk cheese, some of which are already promised to chefs in the city. And this year there is a new clothbound from Farmhouse Natural Cheese in Agassiz, B.C. "We decided that since we are a small farmstead cheesemaker, we wish to be as traditional as possible," says cheesemaker Debra Amrein-Boyes, "so we went from waxing our wheels to traditional bandaging and coating with lard. We love the flavour, which is to me more floral and complex than the very same cheese aged in wax."
Taste is one of the reasons cheesemakers are suddenly re-embracing this old-school technique, known as "bandaging." A plastic or wax seal cuts off air flow, while permeable cloth allows the cheese to breathe and facilitates microbial growth on the lipid (usually lard) exterior, providing flavour that diffuses into the cheese. But the clothbound technique is an innovation that first emerged for economic reasons. Early cheesemakers needed to wrap their product in something that would limit moisture loss and allow for the formation of a natural protective rind over time. Lost moisture "was money evaporating away," says Paul Kindstedt, a professor in the Department of Food and Nutrition Science at the University of Vermont.
Research for his upcoming book, Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization (due out in the spring), has led Prof. Kindstedt to a theory that may throw some diehard cheese lovers for a loop. He believes it's possible that clothbound cheddar was first developed in the United States and not in England, the country with which it's typically associated (stay with me, Montgomery and Keen's cheddar fans).
Early historical references suggest that American cheesemakers may have begun wrapping cheese in cloth during the 1840s, after cotton production in the southern states exploded and cheap cloth became affordable for wider-scale production purposes. The bandaging technique may have then crossed the Atlantic, just as the technique that preceded it – rubbing butter on the exterior of a cheese to moisten and seal the surface – appears to have been shared by English and American cheesemakers. "New England cheesemakers were originally English cheesemakers, and the development of technology began to flow back and forth," Prof. Kindstedt explains.
Cheddar (sometimes called Gloucester at the time) became chic just as bandaging cheese became more common on both sides of the Atlantic.
As demand for cheddar grew and technology progressed, there was a move toward the efficiency of producing the rindless block cheddars with which we are most familiar in North America. But cheesemakers who use the clothbound method, like Cabot Creamery in Vermont, where the multiple award-winning Cabot Clothbound is created (in tandem with Cellars at Jasper Hill, who age and market it), attest to the difference in taste. Wrapped cheddar has some crumble and a rounder flavour, compared to the cleaner, extra sharp bite of block cheddar.
"When you taste a well-made clothbound, it's pretty obvious what the value is," says Vince Ranzionale, the marketing manager at Cellars at Jasper Hill.
Ultimately, this high quality of cheesemaking is what inspired Paul Blake, president of Finica Fine Foods, to work with Mariposa owners Bruce and Sharon Vandenburg to develop the Lindsay Clothbound. "We had success as a company but we were known for making chèvre," he says, "Two years ago we decided to take the cheesemaking to another level, which is what we needed to do if we were going to get any recognition."
They achieved recognition beyond their wildest dreams for such a new cheese. Or should I say new-old cheese. Looks like bandaged cheddar is "chic" again.
Lindsay Bandaged Goat Cheddar, Ont. (about 18 months): Earthy, fresh aroma with a slight tang. Firm with some crumble and enjoyably crunchy crystals throughout. An elegant balance of flavours. It's mellow but nuanced, featuring grassy notes that resolve in a rich "dulce de leche" sweetness and lingering finish.
*Small release coming in November. Next lot to be available in February. Request at your cheese mongers.
Ottawa Valley Vintage Clothbound, Ont. (aged at Cheese Boutique): This raw cow's milk cheese has a creamy texture (amazing for seven years of aging) and also contains tiny crystallized bits of protein. The base flavour is full and milky but harbours a sharpness that rolls into a sweet crème fraiche finale. Hints of bitterness mellow on the finish.
*Available at Toronto's Cheese Boutique and at Everything Cheese in Edmonton.
Farm House Traditional Clothbound Cheddar, B.C. (six months): The baby of the bunch, its texture is soft and supple. Promising notes of grass and fruit with a sweet, clean aroma of rich milk. A buttery first bite finishes on a tangy note.
*Only sold in B.C., check Les Amis du Fromage in Vancouver.
Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar, PEI (usually 12 months): This cow's milk clothbound, which hit the Canadian scene in 2007, is dense and crumbly with earthy caramel notes that carry into a long finish. Addictive – provides stiff competition for the newbies.
*Usually widely available, inventory is tight until after Christmas.
Keens Cheddar (typically aged 12-18 months): Made in Somerset, England since 1899, this cheese hits with a full, sharp aroma. Its smooth, creamy texture delivers a spicy bite and acidity that lingers on the sides of the mouth. More sour cream than sweet cream, this cheddar is complex and commanding.
Montgomery's Cheddar (can be aged 1-2 years): Also hailing from Somerset, this cheddar sets the benchmark for new world offerings. Crumbly but moist with the expected protein crystals. Full, earthy with caramel notes. Big flavour but more rounded than the Keens. Achieves a wonderful balance of flavours – grassy, fruity, nutty with a sweet-savoury finish. Try side by side with the Lindsay to compare old school and new school.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.