According to legend, it was accidentally created by a forgetful medieval milkmaid who “refrigerated” a pail of milk in a cave overly long. Upon remembering and going back for it, the milk had hardened – into the first cheddar cheese.
However it really came into existence, it quickly became popular at the royal court. King Henry II (1133-1189) ordered 10,240 pounds of it in 1170 and declared it “the best cheese in Britain.”
The cheddar cheese Henry II fell in love with is not what we eat on a burger today, though.
Cheddar cheese, depending on where you find it, runs the gamut from the sweet, milky white and crumbly U.K. version to the still white but with more bite Vermont cheddar – and, of course, our beloved orange Wisconsin version.
The orange shades of cheddar are produced with a natural dye and food additive called annatto. Annatto comes from the achiote tree, which can be found in Mexico, South America and the Caribbean. The coloring of cheddar cheese, and some other cheeses, has been around since the 17th century, when unscrupulous European cheesemakers used it to enhance the color of lower-fat cheese. (At the time, unlike today, low-fat cheese was not considered desirable, and less fat led to a whiter look.)
The coloring trend carried over to the U.S. as a marketing tactic (that brighter cheese had more flavor), but New England, as it often does, remained skeptical – leading to the white version often found in the region.
In upstate New York, Jesse Williams and his family created the first cheese factory in 1851 – for cheddar cheese. Prior to then, cheddar (like most cheese) was made mostly on-farm for the family, with any extra being sold in the immediate area.
Factory cheddar quickly caught on, getting more and more efficient as years and then decades spun by, to the point of the ultra-processed Velveeta and spray cheese, and then full circle to artisanal cheddar cheese made again on-farm.
Mature or sharp cheddar is aged nine months or more. Vintage cheddar is aged 18 months or more, and experts say the best cheddar is between 5 and 6 years old.