by Mike Sula
That's all Ed Zahn had to say about the taste of his 40-year-old cheddar that was sold like a precious metal yesterday at the Wisconsin Cheese Mart in Milwaukee—the oldest commercially available cheese in the world, while it lasted.
Mart owner Ken McNulty put it a different way. "It's definitely an extreme food. It's barely edible." He wasn't criticizing. He was trying to sell the stuff, after all. He just meant that the concentrated sharpness of the 40-pound block that had been aging in the back of a cooler in Oconto, Wisconsin, since the Nixon administration could only be taken in small doses.
Zahn, 73, made the cheese, along with a batch that's now 28 years old, while he was working at a now defunct cheese company. Later, when he ran his own shop in Oconto, the plastic-encased cheese housed in wooden boxes got pushed to the back of a cooler and forgotten. This year he was in the process of shutting the place down when he rediscovered the boxes—along with a 34-year-old batch—and began quietly selling it off to locals. His son then contacted McNulty, who bought the whole lot of it.
Zahn and his extended family were on hand in Milwaukee for a ceremonial cutting of a block of the 28-year-old. When McNulty cut open its plastic tomb it smelled like someone had opened an enormous bag of Doritos. Zahn said that back then the milk he was buying from farmers was made into cheese on the very same day it came out of the cow, which contributed to its quality.
Samples were passed around. It was surprisingly creamy—not at all like a clothbound cheddar that loses moisture over time and becomes harder. But it was similarly mined with tiny bits of pinkish-orange crystallized amino acids, like flavor bombs that send chills down the back of your legs when you crunch into them. Like the man said, it was good. Really good. But I didn't think it terribly more intense than, say, Willi Lehner's two-year old bandaged cheddar.
And then McNulty announced that one-ounce portions of the 40-year-old would be sold in the store's neighboring cheese bar for ten bucks apiece. This shortly set off a kind of panic among some of the attendees, because none of his many workers seemed to have any clue where the cheese was. Finally, the single employee who had possession of the remaining ten pounds of 40-year-old was located, and my team secured a few ounces. Again, it was creamy, sharp, crunchy, and delicious, but not a great measure more intense than the younger stuff we'd tried earlier. Reports say that after a few cheese flights held later that day, all of the 40-year-old cheese is gone.
You can, however, still purchase half-pound blocks of the 28-year-old online for a mere $48 through the Cheese Mart's website. This is very much worth doing if you can get a group together to share. McNulty also has a stash of a 34-year-old cheese that Zahn made, which will be released at a later date. That one's the current record holder for oldest edible cheese in the world.