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15-year Cheddar: The cheese equivalent of Colombian heroin

Hook's 12-year Cheddar (from their website)

I’ll be honest. I am n0t entirely sure where to start describing the 15-year cheddar from Hook’s Cheese Company, based in Mineral Point, Wisc.

It’s already a pretty famous cheese. Once you get the swanky Beverly Hills cheese shops praising your product, the opinion of a girl who grew up on Kraft American singles probably will not add much to the growing legend of this cheese.

But, I will provide my admittedly somewhat amateurish take on this cheese because I think there is some value in hearing about it from someone who does not consider herself a cheese expert.

First: How I came to acquire this cheese. While I tend to be frugal in nearly all of my food purchases and recipes, as I have mentioned, cheese is one of the few areas where I treat myself regularly. Thanks to the divine cheese display at Trader Joe’s in Madison, I’ve become very good friends with high-quality, semi-soft cheeses like Port Salut and raclette, among others, and my idea of the perfect no-cooking-required meal is to go pick up a fresh baguette and a small block of cheese and dig in. In short, I’ve come a long way from Kraft singles (although I still keep those around for grilled cheese and egg sandwiches).

So, when I heard about this mythical 15-year cheddar, the oldest currently on the market, my interest was piqued. In addition to semi-soft cheeses, I love sharp cheeses, from feta to blue cheese to Irish white cheddar — I’ve never met a cheese too strong for my palate. In particular, I love the acute but delightful pang I get in my throat glands when I eat a really great piece of sharp cheese. It’s just a wonderful feeling that is hard to replicate with any other type of food.

To say eating this 15-year cheddar was like the feeling of eating any other sharp cheese, though, would be a travesty. One of my biggest fears with this cheese was that paying $60 a pound for it would heighten my expectations too much and that no cheese could live up to that. I now realize what a foolish sentiment that was. It was, quite simply, sublime.

While unparalleled, it is somewhat hard (ironically) to get the full effect of how great this cheese is without a basis for comparison. So, if you’re biting the bullet to pay $50 or $60 per pound for this cheese, pick up a small piece of one of Hook’s other fine cheddars, as well. In my case, Lindsay and I decided on the 7-year cheddar, which was the oldest the Willy Street Co-op in Madison had.

The 7-year cheddar was a great cheese, firm and somewhat dry, like most sharp cheddars, with a pleasing tanginess that got my throat tingling for the 15-year cheddar. If the 7-year were the only cheese I had to consume that evening, though, I would have been more than satisfied.

However, the 15-year cheese was not only on another level — it was in another galaxy, possibly Heaven itself. Compared to the 7-year cheddar, the 15-year was cheese on steroids — the intensity of the flavor seemed way more than even doubling for its age could account for. This may sound dumb, but it reminded me a bit of the Cheez-it commercials that show a huge block of cheese getting put into every Cheez-it cracker.

Except, this was like a million, bajillion times better than eating a Cheez-it. As my co-worker Katjusa tweeted, the 15-year cheddar was the “cheese equivalent of pure, uncut Colombian heroin.” It had a strength and sophistication of flavor like no other I have experienced. When cut off the block, the cheese crumbled, but it was not remotely dry. The texture actually seemed a bit more moist than the 7-year, and it reminded me somewhat of the Cray-Pas oil pastels that I used to use in art class — both dry and moist, crumbly and yet silky smooth, with the occasional, delicious spark of a crystal from the aging process that went off like a firecracker in my mouth.

I am the queen of condiments — I pile extras on my sandwiches, salads, pizza and hamburgers like it’s going out of style — but I didn’t even want to mar the flavor of this cheese with baguette. It’s that perfect. The 7-year, while delicious in its own right, was quickly relegated to the corner of the cheese plate — switching back from the 15-year to the 7-year only resulted in unfavorable remarks, which is not what that cheese deserved.

As we continued to nibble our way through the 15-year block over the next week, I began to feel pangs of loss each time I ate some — while each bite was incredible, Lindsay and I both expressed sorrow that it also brought us closer to the end of the supply. Now that it’s gone, I would like to say that this cheese was a great one-time splurge and that if offered again, I wouldn’t pay another $15 for a quarter-pound.

That’s what I expected this experience to be like — worth it just to try to say I tried it, but not something I would regularly buy. But, that would be incorrect. If the Hooks decided to make this cheese a regular part of their repertoire, I would have a very hard time passing it up again. In fact, it’s probably better for my bank account that the cheese is limited-time only — but that doesn’t mean I won’t be on the look-out for it to come out again.

More information: The 5-year cheddar (which Barriques uses on its amazing grilled cheese sandwiches) got a write up in the San Francisco Chronicle. Even NPR took notice, interviewing Tony Hook (who confessed on the program that he has a 17-year cheddar back there that’s “only for family”) on “All Things Considered.”

2 Responses to 15-year Cheddar: The cheese equivalent of Colombian heroin

  1. We also tried the 15 year, and we too worried about having too-high expectations for this high dollar splurge. I totally agree that those worries were foolish. This cheese on the tongue goes supernova with flavor. I was still savoring it, actually adoring it, breathing through the back of my mouth to maximize the waning flavor many minutes later, though the cheese itself was long gone.

  2. Holy cow! Gotta get me some of this cheese!! Fabulous article, fabulous photos!

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