There's no law that says Wisconsin cheddar has to be orange, but much of it is. While most cheddars coming from Vermont and New York are white, the majority of Wisconsin cheddar is colored. Why? No one knows for sure, but two prevailing theories suggest it's all about marketing.
First of all, what makes cheddar orange? All cheese is naturally white, or off white, or even a golden yellow, depending on the type of milk used. But you'll never find a cow that gives orange milk. The color instead comes from the flavorless Annatto seed, which gives Wisconsin cheddar that pumpkin orange hue.
Sid Cook, fourth-generation owner of Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle, Wis., believes the state's cheddars were tinted orange as far back as the late 1800s. In the early days of Wisconsin cheesemaking, cows dined on carotene-rich pasture, and their milk naturally produced a cheese with a rich golden color. Gradually, some dairies moved their cows off pasture and onto dry feed, with the resulting milk yielding paler cheese. Because consumers already associated the gold color with quality, cheesemakers used Annatto to bring back the color.
Another theory holds that Wisconsin cheesemakers wanted to differentiate their cheddars from those coming from New York, so they used Annatto seed and turned their cheddars orange, using it as their own claim to fame and capturing a portion of the market.
No matter the color - white, yellow or orange -- Wisconsin cheddar rules. Today, a handful of the state's cheesemakers are even turning back the clock and crafting Bandage Wrapped, or Cloth-Bound Cheddar, the way cheddar was made in England before the days of refrigeration. Two of my favorites:
- Eagle Cave Reserve, made by Meister Cheese near Muscoda -- crafted in 6.5 pound "mini" truckles, and aged 6-9 months, this new cheese on the market is one to watch.
- Cave-Aged Bandage-Wrapped Cheddar by Willi Lehner, Bleu Mont Dairy, near Blue Mounds. A perennial favorite and award-winner. Can't go wrong with this one.
Both of these cheddars are a natural whitish color and you can find both varieties at Fromagination in Madison. If you're looking for a good aged cheddar, Wisconsin has the corner on that market -- my favorites are:
- 10-Year Cheddar, Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point
- 6-Year Cheddar by Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa
- 4-Year Cheddar by Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle
All of these cheddars are orange and are widely available in specialty cheese shops. No matter the color, it's hard to go wrong with Wisconsin cheddar.