Wedding bells chimed through the City of Westminster, London. The bride, Queen Victoria, dressed in white silk and a headdress of orange blossoms walked giddily down the hall of the Chapel Royal in St James’ Palace, arms linked with her newly-pronounced husband, Prince Albert. The couple braced themselves before stepping outside into the dreary, gray weather. The newly-weds scurried through the rain and into the procession of horse and buggy carriages that took them and their wedding guests to Buckingham Palace for the reception where everyone enjoyed a piece of their 300 lb., 3 ft.-wide wedding cake.**
Days later when the happy couple (yes, historical accounts report that the couple was in love and happy) got around to opening their gifts, they received a present that surpassed even the king sized proportions of their cake. From a generous, perhaps slightly sadistic guest, they were gifted a 78 lb, 9 ft.-wide wheel of the cheese that England is probably most famous for: Cheddar.
Queen Victoria was not, allegedly, thrilled with this gift (in an effort to get it off her hands, she sent it on a tour of England and refused to take it back after it had made its rounds). Knowing cheddar’s popularity today, I don’t think getting rid of that cheese would be as much of a challenge now, as it seemingly was for Victoria in 1840.
In the U.S., Cheddar is ubiquitous and has been for decades; in the 1940s and 50s, “Government Cheddar” was about the only cheese on the U.S. market and today you can still find Cheddar almost anywhere, available from a number of producers and places. When I was cheesemongering, I noticed that Cheddar was the cheese people used most often as a reference.
This cheese is sharp. It kind of reminds me of a Cheddar
I’m looking for something to make sandwiches with. Do you have anything akin to a Cheddar?
These were remarks and questions I would hear often at the shop.
Cheddar is an American staple. How did that come to be? You may ask and What even is Cheddar anyway?
Cheddar originates from the town of Cheddar, England (makes sense to me). It was in this village, in the 12th century, that makers first began aging their creations in a number of caves that provided the ideal humidity and steady temperature for maturing a cheese. What differentiates an authentic Cheddar from a quasi-Cheddar is the step of “cheddaring” that takes place during the cheesemaking process. This is when the maker kneads the recently-formed curds with salt, cuts them into cubes to drain the whey, and then stacks and turns them and leaves them to sit together. Lactose in the curds turns into lactic acid which intensifies over time. This process gives Cheddar its distinctly sharp taste and firm texture. When Great Britain invaded the New World, expats struggled to adapt their beloved Cheddar recipe to the new environmental circumstances in the northeast. To withstand the hot, humid summers, settlers smeared the surface of their cheeses with whey butter and wrapped them in cloth, instating the tradition of lard/cloth-bound Cheddars. When the Industrial Revolution rolled around, cheesemaking was cheapened and scaled up thanks to modern machinery.
Today, Cheddar ranges widely in quality and is produced by artisan cheesemakers and industrial factories alike. This discrepancy in caliber is the result of Great Britain’s inaction to protect the name of their delicacy. Without this safeguard, any old entrepreneur can slap the name “Cheddar” on any old piece of food-product without facing any legal repercussions.
But you and I know that you don’t want just any old Kraft Cheddar. You, who’s read this far along, all the way through the nerdy cheese history, you’re interested in the real, farmstead, clothbound goodness that Queen Victoria nonsensically discarded after her wedding. I’m here to tell you just where to find it.
** Victoria and Albert’s wedding cake was so big, there was enough of it to go around, even nearly two centuries later!
Procuring and Tasting:
If you want the real stuff, look for Quicke’s Cheddar, made in Devon, England. This cheese is family-made, produced on farmland that was inherited into the Quicke family some 500 years ago. It is hand-cheddared (as opposed to cheddared with a machine) and wrapped in cheesecloth.
As soon as I opened the cheese paper that my Quicke’s was wrapped in, I was hit with the aroma of horseradish. The cheese was creamy and crumbly, like all good Cheddars should be. In flavor, it was buttery and faintly grassy. Once you made it to the rind, it was a whole different world: nutty, citrusy with more of that horseradish I was smelling.
Of course there are other quality varieties you could opt for instead of Quicke’s that would still give you the genuine English Cheddar experience. Your safest bet is to go with any cheese labeled “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar” which indicates the cheese was produced from local milk within four counties of southwest England – the prime Cheddar region that will carry a specific and special terroir.
Cooking With Quicke’s:
I decided to go with a Quicke-family original recipe: Quicke’s Cheese Scones. They turned out rather flat, in shape that is. As you can see, the recipe didn’t call for a leavening agent like baking soda so I ended up with Passover-observant Quicke’s Cheese Biscuits. Not what I was expecting, but still good!