Monday, September 05, 2016

Small-Batch Bandaged Cheddars of the Midwest

The long hot month of August can be a slow time in the world of specialty cheese retail, so we cheesemongers spend extra time thinking of clever ways to encourage customers to keep buying cheese. That's why one day last week, the cheese counter at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale turned into an impromptu Battle of the Bandaged Cheddars, after a customer asked to try several to see which she liked best.

In an exquisite stroke of good timing, cheesemaker Willi Lehner had just that morning arrived with two wheels of his Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar. The wheels were placed in the walk-in next to two new truckles of the elusive Fayette Creamery Avondale Truckle. And, because all good things come in threes, one of our favorite distributors the day before had delivered two long-awaited Flory's Truckles from the same batch that in July won a blue ribbon at the American Cheese Society competition.

The stars had aligned, creating a trifecta of Midwestern bandaged cheddar goodness. We started stripping wheels of their larded linen and cutting wedges to taste and sell.

From left: Flory's Truckle, Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, Avondale Truckle.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

 A quick break for a public service announcement on bandaged cheddars: while it is undisputed that cheddar was born in the middle ages in the town of Cheddar in Somerset, England, the origin of bandaged cheddar is a bit murkier. Read this column from Culture Magazine for the scoop. In any case, all cheddar, regardless of aging style, starts in the same way. After starter culture is added to the milk, and rennet separates curds from whey, the curd is cut and the whey drained off. The mass of curds left behind are then cheddared, milled, hooped and pressed into forms. After the cheese has set, wheels are coated in lard and wrapped in cotton cloth. Each cheesemaker generally has a signature way of wrapping his or her cheddar. Wheels are then placed in a cool, humidity-controlled aging room for six months to two years, depending on the desired flavor profile. By the time the aging process is complete, bacteria has completely consumed the lard coating, leaving a mottled, aromatic rind in its place once the cloth is removed. Bandaged cheddar has a drier, crumblier texture than a waxed or plastic-wrapped cheddar. But what it lacks in body, it makes up for with a more complex flavor profile of caramel, fruity and earthy notes, which trend toward grassy and earthy flavors closer to the rind.

In England, a handful of cheesemakers still make traditional, clothbound cheddar. You can read about three of them in these posts from my 2014 cheddar journey to Somerset County: Montgomery's Cheddar, Quicke's Cheddar, Westcombe Cheddar. In the U.S., some of the most awarded and well-known cheeses are bandaged cheddars, including Cabot Clothbound in Vermont and Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar in California.

But I digress. Back to our Battle of Bandaged Cheddars at the Metcalfe's specialty cheese counter.

The undisputed winner (according to the customer, whom we all know is always right): Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar. Cheesemaker Willi Lehner gets a lot of good press, all of it deserved, and is considered by many to be a living legend when it comes to making artisan cheese. With no cheese factory of his own, he makes cheese at four different factories, and then ages it in an underground cheese cave he built on his farm near Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, in 2007. In 2013, his Bandaged Cheddar took runner-up Best in Show at the American Cheese Society competition. The rind is delightfully musty and cave-y, and once cracked open, emits aromas of earth and pineapple. The cool thing about most bandaged cheddars is they taste nothing like how their rind smells - a good bandaged cheddar is nutty, with hints of fruit on the finish, with calcium lactate crystals dotting the paste. Blue Mont Bandaged Cheddar is one of the best. The wheel we tasted was about 18 months old and perfect.

Tied for first runner up: Fayette Creamery Avondale Truckle. The Avondale Truckle is absolutely a beautiful cheese. Fayette Creamery (also known as Brunkow Cheese) is owned by Karl and Mary Geissbuhler near Darlington, Wisconsin. In 2007, the pair, along with cheesemaker and marketer Joe Burns, worked with a world-renowned consultant to create the recipe and a special mold for this elegant, extra tall, drum-shaped cheese. The cloth-wrapped cheddar is aged in Brunkow's hand-dug cellar for 6 to 18 months and is made from milk sourced from Lafayette County dairy farms. Round and buttery in its youth, Avondale Truckle develops a full, layered flavor and wild, earthy aromas as it matures. The bandage had been removed on the truckles we received, so it was hard to get a gauge of the cheese's age, but I would guess it's on the younger side, because fruity and floral notes shine through. Most Avondale Truckles are sold in the Chicago market, so we are super lucky to get a taste of this elusive cheese in Madison.

Tied for first runner up: Flory's Truckle. At this point, you're probably asking yourself: "what the hell is a truckle and why don't I have one?" In old English, a truckle means cylinder shape. Flory's version is shorter than Fayette Creamery's truckle, and is produced on a dairy farm near Jamesport, Missouri by Tim and Jennifer Flory. The couple has ten children and 30 Jersey cows. After aging 60 days on the farm, Flory's truckles move to Milton Creamery in Iowa, where they spend the next 10 months being turned three times a week. Similar to Bleu Mont's Bandaged Cheddar, this cheese is exceptionally creamy and fruity with just-the-right-amount of earthy notes creeping in from the rind. This is another cheese that's hard to find, so to have it on the shelf next to Avondale and Bleu Mont is a cheesemonger's dream come true.

Cesar's Bandaged Cheddar
Photo by Uriah Carpenter
Of course, no post on small-batch bandaged cheddars would be complete without mentioning Cesar's new Bandaged Cheddar. You may be familiar with Cesar Luis' World Champion hand-stretched Queso Oaxaca that he and wife Heydi cut into sticks for us Americans to eat as string cheese. The Wisconsin pair of licensed cheesemakers recently branched out to harder cheeses, including bandaged cheddar. Cesar's creamy cheddar lacks the fruity and floral notes one might expect of a bandaged wheel, but replaces them with brothy, herbal and earthy notes, highlighting the aroma of the rind. We sampled it one day last week for a few hours at Metcalfe's and promptly sold half of the 25-pound wheel. Only a few wheels of this unicorn cheese exist, but Cesar says he will be making more. Stay tuned.

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