The History of Cheddar Cheese
Cheese making in Britain goes back as far as the time of the Celts. Cheddar cheese records are found as far back as the 12 century. The name Cheddar comes from the Old English word ceodor, meaning deep, dark cavity, or pouch. As most other cheese, Cheddar evolved from a need to preserve the very perishable milk, from times of plenty, to those of scarcity. It is largely believed that the Romans occupying France, and then into present day UK and Somerset, brought the craft of cheese making with them.
Early Cheddar was originally produced solely on the farms (mostly by the farmers wife, but that's another story) centered around the Somerset region in Southwest Britain.
Cheddar was originally part of a larger group of smaller cheeses intended for local consumption and all characterized by their locale and milk quality. The production was centered around the town of Cheddar, and its famous Gorge riddled with caves, that may have been used for aging.
Cheddar was the most famous of these cheeses, and records show that much of it was bought and paid for even before the cows were milked.
Most of this went to the Royal Courts, and at times Cheddar was unobtainable unless you were associated with the "Royals".
It wasn't until well into the 1600s that transportation technology improved via many canals and river systems, as well as improved wagon roads. This helped to move the cheese to market towns and more urban areas, especially to the growing market in the larger cities such as London. By then, the breaking up of the manor farms, and the effects of the industrial revolution, were big factors in the population migration and growth in these larger urban centers. Eventually in the 1700s, when the railroad improved transportation, these population dynamics and growing urban areas began to force changes in the cheese being made. The need for drier cheeses to undergo longer aging, and the need for larger, sturdier cheeses to withstand travel and storage, were apparent. The earlier cheeses were too moist and could not withstand the longer market time of several months; they would simply be too difficult to handle and suffer during the long transport and market delays involved. The cheeses would simply rot or fall apart during the longer cycle. The decreasing population in the countryside made it absolutely necessary to change the way cheese was being made.
As the markets improved, and the population increased, there was a greater need to increase cheese production for these growing markets. Of course, this meant there was also a need for larger herds and more efficient production in cheese country. For Cheddar, these changes came fast. One of the biggest changes was making much larger cheeses, but these needed to be made drier to prevent internal decay. Initially, it was the solved by scalding the curd mass with hot whey, in a separate draining vessel, and this became what is now known as the "cheddaring" stage. This process would become much updated by the mid 1800s.
As these changes took hold in Britain, the emigration to the new colonies in America and Canada also included the cheese makers of Britain. Cheddar style cheese was already being made in America.
Changes going into the industrialized period of the 1800s
It was not until the mid 19th century that cheddar took on it's current standardized character. Up until that time, the smaller cheddar production was quite varied, with a broad range of qualities, from totally sub-standard cheese (high moisture with limited aging, gas development, unclean ferments and gas, as well as maggots, yum!) to the cleaner, high quality special cheeses, reserved for royalty.
It was in the mid 1800s, that Joseph Harding brought new standards of sanitation. Up until then, many cheeses were low in quality, due to lack of sanitation and standardized fermentation. Harding's newer methods were then adapted by cheese makers in North America' as well as Scotland. It was also his sons that introduced the newer standardized cheddar to Australia and New Zealand. Harding defined the new character of the cheese as
"close and firm in texture, yet mellow in character or quality; it is rich with a tendency to melt in the mouth, the flavour full and fine, approaching to that of a hazelnut."
Salting the Curds, and Cheddaring
Harding's new methods also introduced the salting of the curds before molding, as well as a modification of the cheddaring process. In his modification, the curds were actually cooked in the same vat as they were coagulated in, then transferred to a separate table where the they were drained and cut into large slabs, then stacked as they continued to develop acid. They were then rendered into smaller pieces and direct salted before forming and pressing. This is the cheddaring process as we know it today.
***NOTE: These steps of slabbing and breaking of the curds, and salting before forming, had already been going on for a long time before it was employed in the Cheddar region in the mountains of central France in the region of Salers and Cantel, as it still is today. However, in a slightly different manner.
The American Cheddar Cheese Factory
It was also at this same time (1851) that the Jesse Williams family, in upstate New York, developed the first production cheese factory in America (it seems Cheddars time had come). This was the point at which milk began to be sourced from many farms and made by a cooperative of trained cheese makers. This was also the point when men took over from the women.
Needless to say, this proved to be a huge leap in production of cheese, but eventually became the undoing of hand made cheese in America. In less than a hundred years, the small farm cheese makers practically disappeared.This was also the direction for British Cheddar.
While James L Kraft grew up on a Dairy farm in Ontario, he moved to Chicago and from there we know the rest. Kraft slices are certainly not what Cheddar is all about.
US and Canada Export to Britain
The late 19th century in Britain saw the rapid development of the rail network, allowing for the easy transportation of perishable goods, like milk. Farmers that had previously viewed cheese as a way to preserve the value of their milk came to view cheese making as an expensive and time-consuming pursuit. Rapid transit of goods around the country also had the effect of broadening the range of cheeses available to consumers, including cheaper imports of cheddar from North America. Many farmhouse producers could not compete with these lower prices and moved away from cheese making.
This, along with the rapidly growing population of Britain, led to a short supply of good cheese, prompting their government to lower the tariff. thus opening the Cheddar market to America and Canada. Between 1840 and 1861, New York exports to Britain increased from just over 700,000 pounds to 40 Million pounds; that's a 5700% increase! By 1913, over 80% of cheese consumed in the UK was imported
New York Export of Cheddar is it's own undoing
This is where things go south. The efficiency of the new cheddar factories, like most today, looked to their bottom line profit. They soon began producing higher moisture cheese for greater yield and skimming the cream to make more high valued butter. The wet cheese did not age well, and the skimming of cream, of course, is where much of the flavor and smooth texture lie. It did not take long for the British to realize the changes made in the cheese.
In addition, the factories in America began replacing that stolen cream with Oleomargarine (AKA Beef Fat) and these soon became known as filled cheese. They were still falsely being marketed as Full Cream Cheddar Cheese. They seemed fine for a short while, but then the lard oxidized and became rancid. Within a few years, this trade, that provided 148 Million pounds of Cheddar in 1881, had totally collapsed. On the other hand, Canada maintained its higher quality of drier and more flavorful cheese, and continued their lucrative trade. Britain turned also to imported Cheddar from Australia and New Zealand to fill the gap. By the late 1890s, laws had already been written to right the wrongs of skimmed milk and filled Cheddars.
20th Century: The Undoing of the British Cheddar
The first half of the 20th century brought further hardship, as two world wars caused considerable disruption, both through the removal of manpower from the rural economy, and later through the introduction of rationing, which forced producers to standardize their cheese production with the 1933 creation of the Milk Marketing Board (MMB). Of the 514 farms making cheese in the Southwest of England in 1939, only 57 were still in production when the Second World War ended in 1945.
This trend towards streamlining production, and away from diversity, has continued to the present day, and much of the knowledge of cheddar-making accumulated through centuries of practice has disappeared.
Production of Cheddar cheese skyrocketed in England during WWII, not because of the good circumstances, but because of the need of English government to better stockpile their milk. The majority of milk was transformed into what was called “government cheddar” that was rationed to the people all around the country. This had an unfortunate effect of decimating local production of cheddar cheese in England, with 3,400 of cheese producers being shut down, and fewer than 100 remaining after war was over.
The 1980s and Onward with Artisan Cheese Revival
Growing up in the 1950s-70s, my world of cheese was limited to the family jokes about Dad's triple wrapped and well boxed Limburger lurking in the back of the fridge (which of course I did not appreciate then) and the annual trip to Vermont for the best Cheddar ever, with some serious age and those big white crystals (one of the biggest reasons I do what I do today). The state of cheese in the kitchen though, was from the big Yellow Box (I am sure it was yellow) to the big green cylinder for anything Italian. By the late 80s to early 90s, I grew up a tad, just in time to see America wake up a little to what was wrong with cheese. The back to the land movement had cracked open the desire to make real cheese again. This has now grown worldwide into an incredible change in what the quality of cheese can be. It was a little slower than good wine and beer, but the appreciation is still growing. This is not to say really great cheeses totally disappeared during this time because I still find the great cheeses of Switzerland, France, and Italy on the small farms that never went away.
For Cheddar, there is some great small scale Cheddar still being produced, and I have been fortunate enough to learn from the best in Britain. Jamie Montgomery and Val Bines have been the heart of Real Cheddar. Today, in America, we have some amazing Cheddar makers as well, with the likes of Mariano Gonzalez in CA, the Roelli and Hooks family in WI, as well as several producers in Vermont.
Cheddar today is primarily produced as large block commercial production.
The name "cheddar" is not protected by the European Union, so it is produced as Cheddar throughout the world.
However, the use of the name "West Country Farmhouse Cheddar" does have protection.
Today Cheddar is made in Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, Finland and the United States.
55% of all cheese is cheddar
During the mid 19th century, agriculture in Ontario turned from wheat to dairy, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Cheddar cheese became their second largest export after timber. So there is still some good Cheddar produced there, but today most of the great Cheddar comes from Quebec
Much of the Cheddar cheese in New Zealand is factory produced. While most of it is sold young within the country, some New Zealand Cheddars are shipped to the UK, where the blocks mature for another year or so.
The original Cheddars came from the southern cheese country, today collectively called "West Country Farmhouse Cheddar", and includes the counties of Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall. All milk for this cheese must be sourced from these countries. In addition The Slow Food Movement has created a Cheddar Presidium, which goes further than the "West Country Farmhouse Cheddar" PDO, and requires that Cheddar cheese be made in Somerset and with traditional methods, such as using raw milk, traditional animal rennet, and a cloth wrapping.
Today much of UK production is large scale commercial and the cheeses are short aged versions of the original cheese like most of the world cheddar production.
Many states, including California, Idaho, upstate New York, Vermont, Oregon, Texas, and Oklahoma, produce cheddar. It is sold in several varieties (mild, medium, sharp, extra-sharp, New York-style, white, and Vermont). Wisconsin has the largest production. Vermont has gained its own distinction in first class cheese production with Cabot, Grafton Village, and Shelburne Farms.
California has Mariano Gonzalez working for Fiscallini Farms (but then again he came from Shelburne Farms in Vermont). Much of the US production though, is from large expansive factories producing large blocks of short aged cheese, some of which is outstanding.