“Toasted cheese”, moans Ben Gunn, marooned in a lonely paradise; of all the trappings of his lost past, it is this that he craves the most. I, too, have been a stranger in strange lands, and I have always longed for cheddar cheese. Ubiquitous across Britain, synonymous, in fact, with the very idea of British cheese (imagine ordering a cheese-and-pickle sandwich and getting crumbly Wensleydale or aggressive Stilton), a decent or even semi-decent cheddar is almost impossible to find elsewhere. The stuff that some Americans call cheddar would be a joke, if it were funny; as it is, it is horrifying. I spent a year in upstate New York, and though, I think, every single sandwich I ate had cheese in it, not one cheese sandwich did I see. My (vegetarian) father tried to order one once, at a gas station deli somewhere in the Adirondacks, and was met with polite confusion. “Mayo, cheese, yes – what filling would you like?” Your American cheese lacks both the structure and the physical presence to carry a sandwich by itself – with the exception, of course, of the grilled cheese.
The grilled cheese is grilled in the sense that it is cooked directly on a solid flat-top grill, possibly alongside eggs over-easy, fat pancakes and little sliders; that is to say, it is fried. In its platonic form, before the current sourdough-and-raw-cheese reinvention, it consists of cheap sliced white sandwiched around cheap American cheese, the outside buttered or even mayonnaissed and fried or ‘grilled’ until golden brown. The stated ingredients perfectly match the treatment given them; sliced white (I will not call it bread) is of a uniform density which allows for both maximal surface crispness and minimal escapage of the cheese within, which, being so heavily processed, easily melts in the time taken to cook the sandwich. Sourdough is obviously a vast improvement in terms of flavour, but its irregular size and numerous holes present a new set of challenges to the sandwicheer; best, in most cases, to wrap the whole thing in foil and fry within. As for the cheese, I find the hard calcified click of a good cheddar wasted here, unless you happen to have some gratable odds and ends lying around. A classic melting cheese, something like a raclette or ogleshield, seems most appropriate; it is like a reminder of what American cheese could have been.
Personally, I prefer cold cheese; cold cheddar cheese, in malted brown bread. I resist the idea that every sandwich should be toasted – and no-one would argue that all cheese should be fondued. The joy of fresh mountain cheeses, crumbly, soft and sharp, lies partly in their coldness. Like a cucumber, there is something refreshing about their existence, so clean and white. These are also the easiest sorts of cheeses to make at home, which is nice; just sour and salt some milk and drain off the whey – no culture or clamp required. These are ancient things, particular to animal and soil and air; they are born fresh every day, in country, in village and in farm. It would be instructive and, of course, delicious, to do a comparative study of cheese terroir, ranging across all of Anatolia, Greece, Sardinia, Spain, to see the different flavours wrung out of dry slopes and distant seas.
Who could possibly say which is better, a ball of mozzarella cold out of its brine or melted across a scarce few millimetres of dough – the way the former tears into strings, the way the latter pools and glistens? I would rather eat a whole burrata with my hands. In a good pizzeria, I like my dough almost bare, just a few razor-shavings of garlic across the sweet tomato sauce. As the bread gets worse, the toppings pile higher – which isn’t to say I would turn my nose up at pepperoni, hot peppers, olives or even mushrooms, though I draw the line at sweetcorn; that way lies pineapple. To be honest, I have never encountered a pizza or indeed any form of melted-cheese-on-bread that I have truly, viscerally disliked. Even that sliced white grilled cheese, though barely providing sustenance, has a beauty of its own. Nothing else sits so well next to a cup of cream of tomato soup. Still, for all the joy of cheese-on-toast, of Welsh or Italian rarebit, of saganaki and fondue, if you put me on a desert island it is a good strong cheddar, cold from the fridge, that I would cry for in the depths of the night – so long, of course, as there were pickled onions.