Great American Cheddar

Cabot and Fiscalini wrap their cheese in 'bandages' — but there's nothing wrong with it at all

Cabot Cheddars

Cabot Creamery is a dairy cooperative started by local farmers in northeastern Vermont in 1919, and now owned by the Agri-Mark Cooperative, a large milk processor and packager in New York and New England. Vermont has long been known for making some of America's best Cheddar, and the Cabot offerings, widely available in supermarkets around the country, are always of dependable quality, if not necessarily anything that would find its way onto cheese boards at serious restaurants. An exception to the cheese board part is a specialty product with a mouthful of a name: Cellars at Jasper Hill Cabot Clothbound Cheddar — a kind of cheese also described as "bandage-wrapped." This is a limited-edition release, based on pasteurized milk from the Kempton Farm in Peacham, Vt., and aged for up to 14 months in the cheese cellar at another local property, Jasper Hill Farm, itself started by Andy and Mateo Kehler in Greensboro in 2003. (Jasper Hill makes its own cheeses, too, among them a unique one called Winnimere, washed in beer and enclosed in spruce bark, with a paste so rich and creamy that you can eat it with a spoon.)

Where does the bandage come in? Many cheeses are wrapped in something to protect them as they age. Some traditional varieties are enclosed in leaves of various kinds (grape, fig, walnut, even sycamore); blue cheeses are usually protected with foil, which helps keep them moist; wax is used to form an airtight seal on cheeses, like Edam and many commercial Cheddars, that are meant to be eaten fresh or aged very slowly. Sometimes wax-wrapped cheeses are first swathed in cheesecloth to help the wax adhere — and some rare cheeses are protected only by the cloth, which has the effect of protecting them but allowing them to "breathe" and form a natural rind. These cheeses are sometimes described as "bandage-wrapped," because the gauzy cheesecloth resembles bandages. Cabot's version is wrapped and then brushed with lard before aging. The result is a buttery Cheddar, sweet rather than sharp, with a hint of roasted almonds.

Another top cheese producer making a similar product is Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese. The Fiscalini family traces its origins to the tiny village of Lionza, about 10 miles west of Locarno in Ticino, the Italian-speaking portion of Switzerland. It was a desperately poor region, and in 1890, like many of his countrymen, Mateo Fiscalini immigrated to America in search of work. He made his way across the country as a railway hand, ending up in Cambria, on California's Central Coast, where many other Italian-Swiss immigrants had gathered — among them relatives of his who ran a dairy farm. Matteo's son, John Battista, wanted to go off on his own, and in 1914, hearing of cheap land that had become available, moved north to Modesto, in the Central Valley — a town perhaps best-known as the home base of the massive Gallo wine empire (and as the locale of the hit film American Graffiti, directed by Modesto native George Lucas). There, the younger Fiscalini bought 160 acres of pasture and 20 cows and went into the dairy business for himself.

Today, under the direction of John Battista Fiscalini's grandson John, Fiscalini Farms sprawls over 530 acres and has become known for its innovative dairy practices (among other things, electricity to run the operation is generated with the help of an anaerobic digester that produces methane fuel from cow manure and other waste products) — and as one of California's top cheese producers, above all for an extraordinary product called 30-Month Bandage-Wrapped Cheddar. This is a limited-edition product (the oldest Cheddar Fiscalini sells normally is 24 months of age), but well worth looking for. As it ages, it develops little crystallized bits of amino acid, called tyrosine, which gives it a wonderful mouthfeel and added flavor (think aged Parmigiano). Two cheesemakers produce about 900 pounds of this offering per batch, working by hand in open vats. The cheese is made with raw milk set with microbial rennet. It is an assertive cheese, sharper than Cabot's version but not mouth-burning, with an earthy, Cheddary flavor and a faint bitter tang at the end — memorable.