It may be surprising to some that Aspen, CO-based Avalanche Cheese’s much lauded Hand Bandaged Goat Cheddar was inspired by not just traditional English Cheddars, but also Scottish cheesemakers.
Yet, it was 2006, the year Wendy Mitchell, the dairy’s co-founder and head cheesemaker spent living in Edinburgh, Scotland that served as the inspiration for this cheese.
“I went to Quicke’s Cheese, which was making goat Cheddar truckles as well as traditional cow’s milk Cheddar, then worked with Robin Congdon, the original maker of Ticklemore goat cheese,” says Mitchell, who spent more than two decades working in the restaurant industry. “I tried to make the Blue, and the Cheddar came further down the line.”
Her travels around the United Kingdom taking cheese-making classes and interning on farms and dairies in order to learn how to make cheese obviously served her well. And Mitchell was further spurred on by the willingness of UK cheese makers to share information and give her the knowledge she needed to create the award-winning Cheddar.
Following her European excursion, Mitchell and her husband decided to invest in a small farm in Paonia, CO, about 90 miles outside of her home in Aspen, where they could raise goats and set up a dairy.
“Paonia was more affordable than Aspen and warmer year-round for better farming, plus it made sense to have goats, which are a hearty animal that can withstand the cold,” she says.
At one point, the 130-acre farm had 250 goats, but because of labor costs, the number either needed to expand to between 400 to 600 or decrease substantially. This year, Avalanche milked just 80 goats, after Mitchell felt it best to stay small and not expand the creamery.
“We grow our own hay to supplement their diet, especially in the winter,” says Mitchell. “Goats are on pasture year round and have a loafing shed to protect them from the inclimate weather.”
To create Avalanche’s Hand Bandaged Goat Cheddar, Mitchell did have to invest in a pricey cheese press. Yet, she tries to stick to the traditional cheesemaking methods, so instead of using the dairy’s round vat for mixing, she has fashioned a makeshift rectangular vat suitable for Cheddar that fits on top of the drain table.
When the Cheddar blocks are ready and the pH has dropped, the curds are milled to the point where they’re almost shredded.
“Ours is hand-milled with a mill that’s manually cranked,” says Mitchell, who likens the process to wood chipping.
The curds are then placed in mold lined with cheesecloth, pressed on one side the first day and on the other side the following day. The cheese is then wrapped in cloth with lard.
Mitchell prefers the cheese be aged no less than seven months, but preferably between eight and 10 months.
“This is the sweet spot when secondary cultures bring on the nutty caramel flavor of the cheese, which is like brown butter,” she says.
For months, the 20-pound Cheddar wheels are turned and the mold brushed off weekly to create the signature rind.
Mitchell admits the process is labor intensive. “When the time comes for the Cheddar to be sold, it’s said you’ve already lost all your profits,” she says. “But we like to think people will pay a premium for a hand-made cheese that is given our full attention throughout the aging process.”
The result of all this work is a Cheddar that some say has a Parmesan quality.
“I steer people to this Cheddar who are not fans of goat cheese, because even though it’s obviously not made from cow’s milk, it doesn’t have the flavor of traditional goat cheese,” says Mitchell.
She describes the flavor as butterscotch, but without the sweetness. The texture is similar to a hand-made cheddar, as it’s drier and more crumbly.
As for pairing recommendations, Mitchell says a nice sherry is the perfect complement or something with more substance, like a hoppy IPA or stout beer. It also is wonderful shaved atop a salad or served with onion jam.
“The hand-bandaged Cheddar has won awards from the American Cheese Society every year since we began entering it, with the exception of 2015,” says Mitchell. This includes a third place accolade in 2016 amongst all cow’s milk cheeses, first place in 2014 and second place in 2012. It also has won the Good Food Award for sustainably-raised products twice.
Unfortunately, this cheese can be a bit hard to come by due to limited quantities and the fact that it is not available online. The Cheddar can be found in some Murray’s Cheese shops, but the majority is sold out of Avalanche’s Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop. This encompasses a gourmet food market that features the farm’s dry-cured goat and pork salumi that debuted about three years ago, in addition to eggs, bread, desserts and a host of other foods. A restaurant takes up the other half of the space and serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. This includes world farmhouse fare, such as sandwiches, salads and soup in the afternoon and shared plates in the evening. Visitors also can grab drinks at the farm’s Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar or pair a nice sherry with the Hand Bandaged Goat Cheddar; it doesn’t get much better than that.