Cheddar is Australia's most popular cheese, but the name is indiscriminately applied to all manner of types, including block, waxed, grated, cubed, club, sliced and processed. If you want to experience real cheddar at its best, you simply can't beat the wonderful flavours and textures of a wellmade traditional cheese, matured the old-fashioned way under cloth. The only trouble can be finding it.
Authentic clothbound cheddar requires lots of care, skill and patience to make, and it has been on the endangered list for decades. It has a very special place in my heart because it was the first cheese I sourced directly from the farm for my business in London in the 1970s. (I recently retraced those steps for the new season of Cheese Slices.) So imagine my delight when a clothbound cheddar made by English migrant Ian Fowler in north-east Tasmania was declared Australia's Champion Cheddar for the second time at this year's Grand Dairy Awards.
The origins of cheddar lie in the West Country of England. The name was made famous when tourism to a spectacular gorge near the village of Cheddar in Somerset increased during the late 19th century. In those days, the local cheese sold to the visitors in taverns was made on the farm, or in small cooperative dairies, but there was no defined method of production.
That changed in 1859 when Joseph Harding, now known as the father of cheddar cheese, published an account on cheesemaking that stressed the importance of hygiene, temperature and acidity control, using a technique known as cheddaring. This involved hand-stacking blocks of formed curd into small towers to force out whey as they drained. The curd was milled and salted before being pressed in hoops overnight. The young cheese was then wrapped in layers of cheesecloth smeared with lard to keep it from drying out during maturation.
The industrial revolution marked the beginning of the end of traditional clothbound farmhouse cheddar, and over the next century it evolved into a commodity cheese, mass-produced on a vast scale. One of the most significant changes in maturation techniques after the invention of refrigeration was block cheddar ripened under vacuum. Easy to stack and store, this shape offered significant cost, quality and handling advantages over the old-fashioned barrels of clothbound cheddar.
Vacuum packing also avoided the problem of cheese mites, which feed on clothbound cheddar. While these microscopic arachnids do not pose a serious health risk to humans, they can become a real nuisance the longer a cheese is aged, eating into the rind and allowing mould in. It has now becoming increasingly common for cheddar producers to cheat by vacuum packing clothbound cheese as it ripens, and then removing the plastic for the last month or two so a grey mould forms on the cloth. The cheese looks almost the same but, once deprived of oxygen, it will never taste the same. The suffocating atmosphere of plastic alters the texture and leaves a distinct baggy flavour, which can be masked by the use of sweet, fruity Helvetica starter cultures, traditionally used in Swiss cheese.
Fowler comes from a family of English cheesemakers based in Warwickshire that's been making cheese for about four centuries, so he certainly knows a thing or two about making and maturing traditional clothbound cheddar. His prize-winning Bay of Fires Cheddar is handmade in a converted shipping container using fresh pasteurised milk, which is collected on a trailer from a mixed herd of dairy cows fed only on the rich grass of nearby Goulds Country. The four-kilo truckles are much smaller than traditional English cheddars, which weigh up to 25 kilos, but, like all clothbound cheese, they require a lot of hard work. Each truckle is carefully turned by hand every three weeks as it ripens on pine boards in a high humidity store, and the cheese is released at a minimum of 12 months of age.
Fowler describes his champion cheese as "sweet and nutty with a creamy aftertaste that reflects the addition of rich Jersey milk". It's less acidic than its English counterparts and, while his choice of starters is a close-kept family secret, he's less guarded about how he controls the mites: "It's simple. I smear the cheese with loads of pig fat - didn't you know mites are vegetarian and can't breathe without oxygen?"
If you are lucky enough to find Bay of Fires Cheddar, make sure it's cut fresh from the wheel to discover what traditional clothbound cheddar is all about.