Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cheddar that can almost drive

Did you hear about this? NPR and others ran stories about this aged cheddar (15 years old!)which is selling for $50 a pound. If you haven't read about it, please check it out; the gist is this small cheesery (my word) let more than a thousand pounds of cheddar age beyond anyone's rational expectation and is selling it.

I loved hearing this story, but I wish they had found someone other than this man--the owner of Hooks Cheese Company--o interview. I have nothing against Mr Hooks (aka Mr Cheese), but he's obviously the guy in charge and not the master cheesemeister. If he was, he would be able to make attempts to describe the cheese.

Mr Hooks asserts that the cheese is not bitter, not acidic, has no off flavors but is very flavorful. In one interview, he says it has more of a cheddar flavor. In another, he says it has lost the acidic cheddar flavor. Well, I'm confused.

If you're selling it for $50 a pound, you must be able to justify that amount. Perhaps there are enough cheese aficionados to buy up all 1,200 pounds of it (that's $60,000 worth of cheese). I realize his NPR interview wasn't meant to be a sales pitch. Describing the taste of food isn't exactly easy, particularly if it is unusual. But listen to vintners or those who brew beer. There's a whole language to it. I refuse to believe that you can age a cheese for 15 years and only be able to describe it in the negative.

Compare his blah description (or non-description) to that of the Francis Ford Coppola Winery's description of their Sophia Blanc de Blancs: Delicately fruity and delightfully refreshing, Sofia Blanc de Blancs is a rare blend of Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscat. The crisp flavors of apples and pears are made brighter by a hint of citrus and honeysuckle. Elegant in character, this wine is lightly textured and vibrant through the finish.

Or, to Samuel Adams Boston Lager, described by their company as: Full bodied and complex. Carmel sweet balanced with distinct citrus and piney notes. A strong, smooth finish and mouthfeel.

Perhaps Mr Hooks should take a note from the Wisconsin Cheese website, by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. They, in fact, feature him and his wife, Julia, and note that they have been making cheese for 35 years. Perhaps he's not just the owner. Maybe he's just not well spoken in interviews. However, Wisconsin Cheese describes cheddar as follows: As Cheddar ages, its texture, flavor and performance change: Mild Cheddar has a firm, elastic texture. It slices, shreds and melts well. Medium Cheddar has a texture that is slightly creamier than mild, with a fuller Cheddar flavor often described as brothy. It slices, shreds, melts and blends well into sauces. Aged Cheddar has a texture both crumbly and creamy, with a flavor often described as beefy. It shreds and melts well.

It's possible (although, to be honest, I feel I'm bending over backwards at this point) that Mr Hooks was just employing words that have meaning in the industry and in common vernacular. The same Wisconsin Cheese site has a glossary of cheese terms. In it, bitter is described as "a sensation that is typified by the aftertaste of grapefruit peel". Acidic is "A descriptive term for cheese with a pleasant tang and sourish flavor due to a concentration of acid. By contrast, a cheese with a sharp or biting, sour taste indicates an excessive concentration of acid which is a defect." Indeed, even his negation of off flavors has some merit, as "off" is defined as "A term referring to undesirable flavors or odors too faint or ill-defined to be more precisely characterized." So, Mr Hooks was saying his cheese ISN'T these things.

The argument falls apart, however, when we look up "flavorful." I did find "flavor," which is described as follows: A general term for the taste cheese presents as it is eaten. Flavor is detected in the mouth and also by the nose. Flavors, in order of ascending aggressiveness, are described as faint (fleeting), mild (light or bland), pronounced (distinct) or strong (intense). Flavors may also be described by the tastes they resemble, such as nutty, salty, buttery, fruity and peppery. Flavor is categorized by initial tastes as well as by aftertastes.

SEE, Mr Hooks? So many words to choose from!

To be fair, The Hooks Cheese Company website has some description of the cheese. Starting with the 1 year old cheddar (A colored cheddar that has a nice flavor, a little sharper than our medium cheddar. This is what most stores would call a sharp cheddar,) it progresses:

Hook's Two Year Sharp Cheddar A white cheddar that is a little sharper than our one year cheddar.

Hook's Three Year Sharp Cheddar A colored cheddar that is starting to show the nice acidic sharpness with a good cheddar flavor.

Hook's Four Year Sharp Cheddar A white cheddar with a nice, sharp cheddary flavor.

Hook's Five Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp cheddar with a nice, full flavor.

Hook's Six Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp white cheddar with a nice full cheddar flavor.

Hook's Seven Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp cheddar with some calcium (calcium lactate) crystals that add a little crunch. This cheddar has a lot of flavor and is a little smoother than the Five Year.

Hook's Eight Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp white cheddar with a lot of flavor.

Hook's Ten Year Sharp Cheddar Our 10 year cheddar won 1st place at the 2006 American Cheese Society Show, the only 10 year cheddar to get a 1st place in this, or any competition. It has more calcium crystals than our 7 year cheddar. It has a full, rich cheddar flavor and a smooth finish.

Hook's Twelve Year Sharp Cheddar Our 12 year colored cheddar has a lot of calcium crystals and a great, rich cheddar flavor.

... Look, I appreciate the attempt, and there's probably a subtle difference between years, but years 5, 6 and 8 pretty much said the same thing.

I have no doubt that this is a fantastic cheese, and even worth it's price tag. After all, whether or not something is worth the money is usually determined by whether or not people will pay it. Certainly there are those who would buy it for the novelty, or for the snobbery, or for the curiosity. I guess I'm disappointed that the interviewers never pressed the point that is begging to be pressed: what does a 15 year old cheese taste like? For me, $50 better buy me a lot more than not bitter or off tasting.


  1. My preference is 4 or 5 year old cheddar. Younger that that and it is too bland and too moist. Older and it starts to get too dry and I don't like calcium crystals at all. Crunchy, yes; nice, no.

  2. Is that the cave aged one you get at Wegman's? Or am I thinking about something else? The articles mentioned that most of the pre-shredded cheddar is only a few months old, but didn't really address the age of sharp or extra sharp cheese that you might find.

  3. I live in Upstate NY near troy, NY. I bought a pound of the 15 year old cheese. Nuts, maybe, but the favor is nothing like I have ever tasted...
    Worth every penny. If there's any left I'm going to buy some more. By the way, i am not wealthy, I just love good cheese.