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Rediscovering Cheddar

Prior to 1850, nearly all the cheese produced in the United States was Cheddar. Cheddar production in Wisconsin began in the mid 1800’s and by 1880, more Cheddar was produced in Wisconsin than any other cheese type. Today, it accounts for a large percentage of the cheese made in the state, which makes Wisconsin the leader in U.S. Cheddar production.

The problem is, I’ve been preaching for years that Wisconsin’s dairy industry is about more than cheddar. I tell every group I meet that America’s Dairyland is about much more than the foam cheddarheads we wear at Packer games and it’s more than the commodity cheddar our factories have cranked out for the past 100 years.

I’ve been so focused on trying all the new funky, washed-rind, sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, original, fabulous cheeses our cheesemakers are crafting that I’ve been a bit remiss lately and have overlooked Wisconsin Cheddar.

Then I ran into two cheesemakers who set me straight and reminded me that Wisconsin still does cheddar proud.

First, it was Joe Widmer at the Madison Food & Wine Show in October. Joe, owner and third generation cheesemaker at Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wis., has a saying, and it’s this: “Take no shortcuts and accept nothing less.”

Making cheddar is an art, just as is making a washed rind or funky American Original. It takes dedication, skill and true mastery to make a cheddar capable of aging out for 10 years or more. And Joe is one of the best when it comes to making cheddar.

Perhaps more well-known for his award-winning brick cheese, Joe’s cheddar is equally exceptional. In fact, his 6-year cheddar consistently wins either first or second place every year at the American Cheese Society competition in the aged cheddar category.

Made in a traditional annatto-orange (and lately available in white – Midwest consumers are finally coming around to the fact that cheddar doesn’t have to be orange to come from Wisconsin), Widmer’s cheddars are rich & nutty and become increasingly sharp with age, hitting exactly the right notes in the initial tasting and finish.

In fact, Joe expects to do more mail-order business this year with his brick and cheddar cheeses than anything else — in fact, he does just about the most mail-order business of anyone I know during the holidays, which is good for his bottom line (no middleman taking a cut) and good for consumers, since they get cheese right from his plant. Joe has a great series of holiday gift boxes lined up again this year, ranging in price from $28 to $41, which I think is more than reasonable.

The second cheesemaker that reminded me Wisconsin Cheddar is still king was Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese. Bob accepted an award from the Dairy Business Innovation Center yesterday for his outstanding work in helping launch at least a half dozen artisan cheesemakers out of his plant in the past 10 years.

Not only is Bob a master cheese technician and kind-hearted soul, he also is an amazing cheesemaker dedicated to crafting cheese in an environmentally-sustainable manner. I was reminded of just how good a cheesemaker he is when I bought a pound of his Organic Sharp Cheddar this week to serve to friends.

Cedar Grove’s Organic White Cheddar is like discovering that your long lost best friend from elementary school actually lives across the street from you. This cheddar sings in your mouth and the finish is beautiful – sweet but tangy, creamy but a bit aged. Pair it with a plain cracker and welcome to the perfect food.

In Wisconsin, we seem to take our cheddar cheesemakers for granted. It’s nice to rediscover what really good cheddar tastes like. Thanks to Joe & Bob for the reminder.

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