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Say Cheese: Old, older and oldest cheddars

From left: 5-year, 10-year and 15-year aged cheddars from Hook's Cheese Company in Mineral Point, Wisc., sampled with Bell's Brewery Kalamazoo Stout. (Domenica Marchetti)

The funny thing is, it looks so unassuming, like a big brick of yellow-orange slicing cheddar that you would find at the supermarket deli counter. But that’s pretty much all Hook’s 15-year cheddar has in common with its sorry processed cousin (which, indeed, probably has more in common with the plastic wrap in which it is encased than with real cheese).

There is, of course, the price tag: $50 a pound. Even this dairy queen balked at the thought of paying double the price of a good Parmigiano-Reggiano for a yellow cheddar from Wisconsin. What was it about this cheese that warranted such a price?

Tony Hook, owner of Hook’s Cheese Co, in Mineral Point, Wisc., considers the company's long-aged cheddar something of an experiment gone well. Very well. Hook and his wife, Julie, have been making cheese for more than four decades. The milk they use comes from 23 small family farms in Wisconsin, each of which has between 11 and 60 cows: mostly Holstein but some Jersey as well. In addition to cheddars (aged anywhere from a few months to 15 years), the Hooks produce Colby, a variety of jacks, several blues, and even a Parmesan-style and a Swiss-style cheese. Several of their cheeses have won national and international awards.

In 1994, the Hooks made a large batch -- 5,200 pounds -- of cheddar and set aside a portion of it for extra aging in new caves they had acquired. In the caves, the 40-pound blocks were kept at 38 degrees in long-hold bags that prevented any oxygen from making contact with the cheese. Twice a year the Hooks would taste the cheddar to see how it was aging.

“We didn’t think we’d go much beyond 10 years of aging,” Tony Hook said in a phone conversation the other day. “But it was aging so well that we decided to let it keep going.” Some cheddars risk becoming bitter as they age, but this batch continued to “smooth out,” as Hook put it.

Last December, the Hooks released, to quite a bit of fanfare, a limited quantity -- 1,200 pounds -- of the 15-year-old cheese. It went fast, in spite of the steep price, and not one little crumb made it anywhere near my lips. But recently they released another limited supply (1,600 pounds), and some of that found its way to La Fromagerie in Old Town Alexandria. When Sebastien Tavel, La Fromagerie’s owner, sent out an email alert to customers, I hightailed it over there and bought a small (1/4-pound) piece. I also picked up pieces of Hook’s 5-year and 10-year cheddars, so that I could compare the three.

I liked the 5-year cheddar well enough at first, and at $15.50 per pound its price was at least respectable. It was sharp and creamy, if a bit bit sticky on the tongue, and it had a pleasant barnyard-y finish.

But the difference between the 5-year and the 10-year ($25.50/pound) was pronounced. The latter was firmer and near-crumbly, sharper and tangier and yet smoother, and it contained those lovely, crunchy, calcium lactate crystals that tend to develop in mature cheeses. I liked it much better, as I tend to prefer aged cheddars anyway.

As for the 15-year cheddar, well, it easily put the 5-year cheddar in its place, but I have to say that the 10-year held up pretty well in comparison. The texture of the two was similar; like the 10-year cheddar, the 15-year was firm and had lots of crunchy crystals in every bite. The big difference was in the complexity of flavor. The sharpness of the 15-year cheddar was intense and almost winey, but it also had rich, subtly sweet caramel notes that lingered.

If you’re looking for a good cheddar to elevate your mac & cheese, go for the 5-year. But the best way to enjoy such the other two is as table cheeses, washed down, as Hook recommends, with a sturdy red wine or a good stout beer.

-- Domenica Marchetti
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  March 9, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, cheddar, cheese  
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I had the same thought when I saw they had all three cheddars in stock, but decided to bring home some Fiscalini clothbound instead to compare with the 15-yr. Both exquisite cheeses. Bet it was terrific with the stout!

Posted by: ColleenFoodieTots | March 10, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

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