All my life I’ve been having a love affair with cheddar cheese. Oh, I’ve sampled others, and grown to love, nay, adore many other types, chief among them aged camembert and oka. But I’ll always come back to cheddar. I’ve known some people to turn up their noses at my favourite cheese. To this, I can only say that perhaps they have not tasted a truly fine, well-aged cheddar. What they are thinking of is, undoubtedly, some ghastly memory of mild (aargh!) orange-coloured cheddar, that of the plastic wrapped grocery store variety, smelling and tasting stale, and not worth feeding to the dog.
My love affair with cheese began sometime soon after I could walk. I grew up on the outskirts of a tiny hamlet named Churchill (located in Ontario, not the more famous one in Manitoba), on a modest eight-acre allotment, part of which was owned by my market-gardening grandmother. It was a mere potager compared with the family-owned corporate farms which lay all around us, but it sufficed. Immediately next door was a somewhat larger farm belonging to an Italian couple, who made a sharply acidic, rinded, goat’s cheese, somewhat like camembert in texture, but with a walloping taste and smell I came to enjoy. I only made the mistake of packing some for my school lunch once.
But the cheddar, ah, the cheddar. For this I was sent, when I was old enough (about age seven or so) to walk the half mile up the hill and down the other side to Mr. Jackson’s general store. Far in the back, shrouded in semi-darkness, lay Mr. Jackson’s great wheels of cheese. In my mind they had been there for centuries.
In fact, Mr. Jackson’s cheese is still the strongest, sharpest, crumbliest cheddar I have ever tasted, including any of the extremely rare extra extra old that I can get my hands on today direct from are cheese factories.
Mr. Jackson stocked orange cheddar for the neophytes, which was probably aged about ten years, given what I now know. But for the real aficionados, there was the white cheese. Of unknown age and provenance, it packed a wallop. I was instructed by my grandmother and grandfather to sample the cheese each time, as it varied from week to week, and wheel to wheel. Only the extra old (“extra stinky” as we referred to it privately) would do.
I would present my small, shy self, some crumpled bills clutched tightly in my sweaty hands, asking to sample the cheese. Mr. Jackson would invite me into the back, cut off the merest sliver from the great wheel, and watch, patiently, as I chewed. Inevitably, I would nod in approval, and a pound or two of cheese would be pried with the point of his knife – never cut – from the great mother cheese. It was wrapped first in waxed paper (NEVER plastic) then in brown (not pink) butcher’s paper, and tied securely (not taped) with string from a large ball suspended somewhere in the ceiling of his old-fashioned, dimly-lit shop.
Mr. Jackson’s cheese was always tangy, dry and delicious. Where he got it I never knew.
Alas, one day, Mr. Jackson and his wife retired and sold the store. The next proprietor continued to sell cheese, until the stock ran out. And then, Mr. Jackson’s Cheese faded to a memory. People stopped driving up from Toronto on Saturday mornings for their very own eye-watering piece of it.
Since then I’ve loved cheddar. Not being able to eat Mr.Jackson’s particularly pungent variety only increased my desire. I tried to love other cheeses, I really did. In fact, I’ve eaten my way in vain through pounds of the stuff, to no avail. The Extra Old Cheddar (aged five years) that was once made by Forfar Cheese Factory, in the little village of Forfar, near Smith’s Falls, was the closest I ever came to that heaven of my youth. I’ve tried the cheese from other cheese factories, but, quite frankly, no others even come close.
My loyalty is forever with the memory of “Mr. Jackson’s extra smelly.” His cheese may be long gone, but it has never been forgotten.