It wasn’t until I visited Fiscalini Farms one swelteringly hot, fine Modesto spring day that I truly understood the cheddar tang. There at Fiscalini, I witnessed the act that gives cheddar its sharpness, its spicy character, its oomph.
People often ask what makes cheddar sharp. Although we’re used to sheep and goat’s milk cheeses like Mahon or Panteleo getting spicy and more tangy with age, many popular cow’s milk cheeses like Comté, Fontina, or Joe Mato’s St. George, develop a sweeter, deeper buttery character when ripening.
So why is Cheddar, also a cow’s milk cheese, so punchy?
Let me tell you a little story about Cheddar.
After driving to two incorrect Fiscalini addresses – first, the family home where the smiling owner pointed a blushing Kirstin in the correct direction, second, to the Fiscalini dairy where a man holding a large baby bottle to feed new calves also pointed me in the right direction (always forward, never straight)- my visiting grandmother Oma and I arrived at Fiscalini cheese, late. Lucky for us, cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez took pity on an excited cheese geek with worse directional skills than a toddler driving a Big Wheel, and her grandmother who had only ever purchased cheapie cheddars at the supermarket. Although we missed the initial cheese curdling, we were in time to watch the “Cheddaring” process.
Making Cheddar- Lactic Acid Magic
After adding rennet and separating the curds from the whey, the cheesemaker cuts the curds into flat, long sheets and stacks them one on top of each other. Then, he leaves them to sit. As the sheets sit, the lactose (milk sugar) converts to lactic acid.
Throughout the cheesemaking process and ripening, lactose turns to lactic acid. It helps provoke curd and whey separation, and the sugar conversion makes it easier for lactose-intolerant folk to digest aged cheeses – less sugar is left to bother tummies.
In the case of cheddar, lactic conversion is swiftly encouraged within the first hours of cheesemaking. When stacked and left to sit in a room temperature room prior to salting, the sweet sugars in the milk turn sharp sooner. That tanginess in your cheddar? That’s lactic acid, inspired.
After the stacked curds have hung out, kicked back, relaxed, acidified sufficiently, the cheesemakers cut the sheets once more into “fingers” (what Wisconsin calls cheese curds). They stir the fingers around and salt them. A lot. Then they take the curds and press them into molds.
Pressing huge wheels of cheddar is a lot of work, and if your grandmother is with you, she will tell the cheesemakers over and over again how strong they are. Note: after a little exposure to making cheddar, this cheese fiend has decided artisan cheddar is romantic not because of its connection to years of beautiful tradition, but because of the passion it requires from someone about to lift a hundred or so pounds of cheese curds one to three times a day for the rest of their life.
Next, the wheels are left to age, and are flipped every day as they mature.
Fiscalini Farms doesn’t often give tours, but if the rare chanse arises to see Mariano Gonzalez in action, take it. Cheddaring, and Gonzalez at work are cool things to see. Bonus? If you bring your grandmother, she’ll leave understanding why artisan cheese is worth more than the bright orange, rubbery cheddar at the supermarket and may have some waiting for you next time you visit. It’s possible. Unfortunately, she will also leave slightly dissapointed because she forgot to ask if the cheesemaker’s assistant was single. For you, she says. Sigh. So, seek out Fiscalini bandage-wrapped Cheddar at a cheese shop near you. They take immaculate care of their animals, and their cheddar is one of the best in the country.
What are your favorite domestic cheddars?