Cheddar for the Ages


The crunchy heirloom apples at the farmers’ market last week put me in the mood for a piece of Cheddar, and I found a superb one. From Canada, of all places. We receive so few cheeses from our northern neighbor that I’m always drawn to the ones I do find. The other feature that lured me was the age. When was the last time you had a 7-year-old cheese?
Old Quebec 7-Year Vintage Cheddar comes to us via a Pennsylvania retailer—a small chain called S. Clyde Weaver. The retailer has been importing young Canadian Cheddars for about 25 years and maturing them in a temperature-controlled facility in Lancaster—initially to please its own customers, who wanted Cheddar with a sharper taste. The program has been so successful that Old Quebec Vintage Cheddar is now a national brand. I’ve had the 5-year-old version but never seen the 7-year-old until recently.
The cheese is produced in massive 640-pound blocks by a giant Canadian dairy cooperative from heat-treated (not quite pasteurized) milk. After a couple of months, these giants are evaluated, broken down into 40-pound blocks, and sealed in heavy plastic bags for aging.

To a Cheddar snob like me, this doesn’t sound like an auspicious beginning. Traditional English Cheddars are made from raw milk, in smaller wheels, and aged with exposure to air.
But Sam Neff, who ran S. Clyde Weaver until his retirement, made many trips to Canada and learned how to identify batches that were capable of extended aging—young cheeses without defects, like bitterness or barnyard aromas, that might become more pronounced with age. Today, the Canadian cheesemaker knows the flavor profile that the American retailer seeks and selects the lots. The Cheddar is exported at nine months and the Pennsylvanians take it from there.  
“Between nine months and two years, flavor and complexity intensify,” Sam Neff told me in an interview years ago. “There’s another jump between two and three years, and after that the curve flattens out. But after six to seven years, you have some beautiful cheese.”
Because it was aged anaerobically, Old Quebec Vintage Cheddar never develops a rind. It has the color of pale butter and a faintly grassy, herbaceous aroma. But what I admire most is its texture— firm yet creamy, with a multitude of tiny protein crystals that give it some crunch. The salt is perfect, and the acidity is bright but not biting. It is robust, mouth-filling and mellow; I would not call it sharp.
Daniel Neff, Sam’s brother, runs the family company now. They sell some 10-year-old Cheddar at their own stores, but it’s not significantly better. “At seven years, the cheese is about as prime as it’s going to get,” says Neff.
I paid $27 a pound for this Cheddar, at a store with a high markup. You can probably find it for less. A malt-forward beer, like Hangar 24 Oktoberfest, is great with it. 
Look for Old Quebec 7-Year Vintage Cheddar at the following shops: Andrew’s Cheese (Santa Monica); Beverly Hills Cheese Shop; Cheese Shop of Carmel; Corti Brothers (Sacramento); Dedrick’s (Placerville); Deluxe Foods (Aptos); Draeger’s (Menlo Park); Monsieur Marcel (L.A. and Santa Monica); Oxbow Cheese Merchant (Napa);  Robert’s Market (Woodside); St. Kilian’s Cheese (Denver); Surfas (L.A. area); Wally’s (L.A.); and Whole Foods (select locations).