Hooked on Cheddar
A brief cheese-focused tour of Wisconsin this summer put my prejudices about Cheddar to the test. After two full days of creamery visits, I spent my final few hours at the Saturday morning farmers’ market in Madison, a huge bazaar in the heart of the city with plenty of regional flavor. Cheese curds, anyone?
Several Wisconsin cheese producers have booths at the market, including Anne Topham of Fantôme Farm, whose highly regarded goat cheeses never make it to California. But Anne didn’t bring any aged cheese to the market, and I wasn’t about to subject her fresh chevre to a long sojourn in my carry-on bag. I had no such qualms about aged Cheddar, however, which is how a vacuum-sealed one-pound block of Hook’s 10-Year-Old Cheddar ended up at my dinner table in Napa Valley.
Tony and Julie Hook make their Cheddars—and some superb blue cheeses—at a creamery in the postcard-pretty town of Mineral Point. Like most Wisconsin dairies, they produce Cheddar with pasteurized milk in forty-pound blocks, and they age them in sealed plastic bags. Because they aren’t exposed to air, the blocks don’t develop rinds or external mold, so they don’t have to be constantly monitored and brushed and pampered. Being less labor intensive, this bag-aging process for Cheddar is largely the American way.
The world’s finest Cheddars—think Montgomery’s from England, Fiscalini from California or Cabot Clothbound from Vermont—mature aerobically. The wheels develop hard natural rinds and profound aromas, and their flavor peaks at one to two years of age. In my mind, these famed wheels represented the epitome of Cheddar quality.
But I’m here to tell you that a 10-year-old Hook’s Cheddar is an equally captivating taste experience, albeit a different one. The Hooks sell most of their Cheddar much younger, but a few batches—the ones that Tony determines have aging potential—are allowed to keep on keeping on. Slowly, slowly, their character emerges, improving for five years, ten years or even more. I have had a rare 15-year-old Hook’s Cheddar and a delicious 5-year-old, but I don’t recall either vintage resonating quite as deeply with me as this decade-old chunk.
At the Hook’s farmer’s market booth, I purchased a Cheddar with no color added. (Most Hook’s Cheddar—and most Wisconsin Cheddar—has annatto added, just for looks.) Brought to room temperature, the cheese glistened a bit and released buttery, lactic aromas. I could tell from the smell that the cheese would be tangy. But first came a mouthfilling creaminess, so unlike the waxy, crumbly texture of most bandaged Cheddar, followed by a resounding yet mellow tang that wouldn’t quit. Full Sail Elevation, an Imperial IPA from Oregon with a creamy texture and brisk hops bitterness, matched it to perfection.
Hook’s (www.hookscheese.com) will ship cheese, but the minimum order is five pounds. You can split an order with a friend, but I’m betting you won’t want to share.