MADISON – Once upon a time, a very special cheese was birthed. It was a golden cheddar, a prized cheddar. And one that would eventually be sold for $209 a pound. But, first, the world would need to be patient.
It was March 31, 1995 when Tony Hook of Hook’s Cheese Company set up the vat of cheddar that would eventually be divided into two batches.
The first batch, released in 2009, would shake the food world when it debuted as one of the oldest cheddars ever created. And that’s when Hook set aside nearly 500 pounds of the cheese and decided to allow it to age for another five years.
I had the opportunity to taste this much-anticipated cheese at a dinner at L’Etoile in Madison yesterday evening. The dinner – orchestrated by Chefs Tory Miller of L’Etoile, Justin Aprahamian of Sanford and Justin Carlisle of Ardent – featured an impressive series of dishes tracing the progression of cheddar from fresh cheese curd to 5-, 10- and 15-year cheddar, culminating with about an ounce of the delectable 20-year cheddar.
Every dish was spectacular. But, there was nothing quite like that little plate of cheddar. Delivered to the table with a glass of 20-year Quinta do Infantado Tawny Port (a fitting pairing for the cheese, and delicious in its own right). With the exception of occasional interruptions from the pleasing crunch of calcium lactate crystals, the cheese was exceptionly creamy – even more so than its 15-year brethren. The flavor was slightly sharp, but mellow, and the cheddar flavor lingered, leaving a pleasant glaze of caramel and tart fruit on the tongue.
The experience was spectacular on two counts – not only because the cheese was delicious and unlike any other – but also because, in a sense, it was an historical occasion. In a state like Wisconsin, which has gained a worldwide reputation for its exceptional artisan cheeses, it would be heretical to view it any other way.
And yes, that little slice of cheese made me somewhat convinced that I would pay the price to have just a bit more of it. Probably not a whole $209 of it (remember, I'm living on a writer's salary), but maybe a sliver. Or a small chunk.
But, I'm not sure if it will happen. Word on the street is that the cheese is pretty tough to find.
Hook’s 20-year cheddar isn’t the oldest cheese ever sold (though it’s the oldest cheese to be made on purpose). That record actually belongs to another Wisconsinite, Ed Zahn. In 2012, Zahn found a block of overlooked cheddar in the back of his cooler in Oconto that had been aging for 40 years. According to some reports, the cheese maintained an aroma similar to Doritos. Even so, it sold out quickly at $10 an ounce.
Hook’s 20-year cheddar will be officially released on Saturday, May 30 at the Dane County Farmer’s Market in Madison. And that might be the only place you have a chance of tasting it, unless you can get a hold of some of the stock still left at Metcalfe’s Market or Fromagination in Madison, both of which purchased a share of the cheese.
Nearly 500 pounds of the cheese was pre-sold to retail outlets around the U.S., primarily specialty cheese shops like Murray’s in New York. And the demand has been high. Just two days after Larry's Market in Brown Deer started taking pre-orders for chunks of the cheddar, the store had already sold six pounds at $209/pound. And, according to manager Patty Peterson, the shop is officially sold out of its holdings… though lucky customers may be able to take advantage if current pre-orders are cancelled.
Also – if you're looking for a good excuse to participate in this seemingly expensive indulgence, it might help to disclose that your money is also going toward a good cause – dairy research.
At last night's L'Etoile dinner, Tony and Julie Hook donated $40,000 of the money they made on the Cheddar to the new Babcock Hall/Center for Dairy Research Building Fund at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The facility, which will be completed in 2018, will be state-of-the-art, with 20,000 square feet dedicated to a new Center for Dairy Research.
And really, how can you argue with that?
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.