The key to good cheddar cheese is age. Young cheddars are invariably bland. Aged cheddars, however, have a depth and intensity of flavor most people have never experienced in a cheddar. In my opinion, a cheddar needs to be aged at least two years before it becomes even moderately interesting.
The cooking and "cheddaring" of the curds are what give this cheese its distinctive flavor and texture. The cheddaring process involves cutting the curds into very small pieces and then stacking and pressing them together several times. This expels much of the liquid whey and gives the cheese its characteristic firmness. Cheddar is also a high-acid cheese, which can produce a gripping sensation on the tongue. About ten pounds of milk go into each pound of cheddar cheese.
Below are some of the cheddars I've tasted recently. They are organized from mildest to strongest.
Grafton Village Cheddar (Vermont). This award-winning American cheese is made from unpasteurized Vermont Jersey cow's milk. This milk is higher in butterfat content that some other kinds of milk and gives the cheese a rich, creamy flavor and texture.
Grafton's "Classic Reserve" cheddar, which is aged at least two years, is available at Buffalo area grocery stores. Although this cheese has garnered many awards, I found it to be too bland for my tastes. It might, however, be a good place to start for someone who is not already a serious cheesehead.
The folks at Grafton offer the following serving suggestion: "Slices of tart apples and pears provide a crisp foil to the creamy richness of the cheddar. Medium-bodied red and white wines bring out the earthy qualities of the cheese. Toasted walnuts, cured olives, grapes, whole grain crispbreads, crackers - and crusty breads are other classic accompaniments, and for good reason; these foods all have flavors assertive enough to stand up to the strength of aged cheddar."
New Zealand Cheddar. This cheese, which I believe is made by Mainland Cheese, is aged for at least two years but has the full flavor of a four year cheese. It has a softer texture and melts a bit more in your mouth than other cheddars. I think its flavor strikes an ideal balance between being too strong and too bland. It also has a lower price tag than almost any comparable cheese. Premier always has some of this cheese on hand.
Old Quebec Vintage Cheddar. This full-bodied cheddar is aged at least five years. Unlike some other cheddars of that age, it is not crumbly and still has that distinctive cheddar cheese texture. When I tasted a small sample of this cheese at Premier, I enjoyed it very much. However, when I took it home I found it difficult to eat very much of this cheese at one sitting because of its strong flavor. I still recommend trying this cheese because the experience of tasting an older cheddar can be very interesting and enjoyable. This cheese is also very reasonably priced. A cheese store in California offers the following serving suggestion: "Fabulous with a ripe pear, a piece of apple pie, a juicy burger or grilled between two slices of crusty bread. Also terrific on its own with a fruity red wine."
Cheddar trivia: White House historians claim that U.S. President Andrew Jackson held an open house party where a 1,400 pound block of Cheddar cheese was served as refreshment.