Moving further along our superb Girl and the Fig cheese course, in order of distinctiveness (to me), we find the Fiscalini Farms Bandage Wrapped Cheddar. This was my husband’s very favorite cheese on the plate.
It is, indeed, a special cheese. It has a wonderfully strong, complex taste that features a mix of salty and sweet flavors. There are hints of grass and nuts, along with a pleasing buttery quality.
Far from the gummy, uninteresting, mass-produced cheddars that can give this cheese a bad name, the Fiscalini is dry and on the crumbly side, without sacrificing any creaminess of texture. It’s aged 18 months, using unpasteurized milk from the Fiscalini Farmstead cows and traditional methods that include bandage-wrapping the wheels in cheesecloth. The cheesecloth lets the cheese breathe as it ages and lends it a nice porous rind.
The Fiscalini Cheese Company, in the California Central Valley town of Modesto, has been operating since 1914. Their current cheesemaker, Jorge “Mariano” Gonzalez, studied at Montgomery Farms in England and perfected his methods at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. His bandage-wrapped cheddars consistently win awards, competing with such cheddar stalwarts as Neal’s Yard Dairy in England.
Cheddar doesn’t boast the same name-protection as some other European cheeses, which can only call themselves by certain names if they come from specific geographic areas. As such, cheddar is produced in many parts of the world. The first cheddars were created in Medieval times, in the village of Somerset, England, and it is the “Somerset model” that some use to determine a true traditional farmstead cheddar.
Randolph Hodgson, the proprietor of Neal’s Yard Dairy, has worked with the Slow Food Movement to develop standards for artisan Somerset cheddar. These include using unpasteurized milk from a farm’s own herd, employing traditional “cheddaring” methods, like stacking and turning the curd by hand, and aging at least 11 months. Aside from geographic considerations, Fiscalini fits the bill, and is the only American farm to do so. (Shelburne Farms makes a clothbound cheddar, but it is in extremely limited production.)
After enjoying this tangy cheese, it will be harder for me to take the cheddars for granted. Pair the complex Fiscalini with a hearty ale or a fruity wine, and crisp apple slices. Due to quality and price, I’d make it a nibbly cheese, rather than a cooking cheese. And I’d certainly give it its rightful place on the cheese board.
Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman