Macaroni cheese (“macaroni and cheese”, in these climes; or just mac-and-cheese) was one of the great dishes of my childhood. I’m hardly unique in that, on either side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless: my mother’s version is not my version, and US iterations are different again, in more than name. So. Let’s talk about pasta and fermented cow-juice.
My mother’s macaroni cheese was simple and focused: boiled macaroni in a cheese sauce made with a flour roux, milk and grated cheddar. Once mixed, it went under the grill with a little more cheddar on the top to brown.
My mother’s macaroni cheese was my macaroni cheese, too, when I was young. I think at some point early on it may have occurred to me that one could put sliced tomato under the topping cheese, for added taste and different texture; but I certainly never went further than that. It never occurred to me that it was possible to go further, till I was staying with a friend’s family and discovered her mother’s version. Which had, ooh, peppers and mushrooms in the sauce, along with the macaroni! Revelation!
So then I was all about experimenting for a while, and combinations: I liked cauliflower cheese too, so why not mix them together and make cauliflower macaroni cheese? And a murrain on plain macaroni, we can get such good pastas these days; why not try orecchiette? Or I really like my food spicy, so why not pep the sauce up with a little cayenne? Or a lot of cayenne? Or, wait a minute, everything’s better with bacon; why not put bacon in it? Or on it? Or both…?
So, yup: changes were rung as a matter of course. I did experiment with other cheeses too, but I mostly came back to a good cheddar, because good cheddar just makes the best sauce. Only then I came to America, where people mostly seem to have grown up with macaroni and cheese from a box (NB, I impute nothing; I have not tasted it) and a good cheddar is hard to find. In fact, locally, a good cheddar is impossible to find. So my current default is made with blue cheese (“bleu” over here, I know not why; I mostly use gorgonzola), mushrooms and bacon.
Which is not to say that there is not good cheese in America; there is excellent cheese, made right here in California. Some friends took me on a cheese crawl a few months back, up into Sonoma. We ate oysters by the bay, with bread from a wood-fired oven, and drank raw milk that took me way back to my childhood and a Jersey cow called Nancy; but mostly we ate cheese, at eight or nine different creameries all across the county. It was a fabulous day. But nothing of that gets back to my local grocery stores, where everything is vacuum-packed and mass-produced and we will not even discuss the abomination called “American cheese”. Which even here may not legally be sold as cheese.
In another way, almost all the cheese I find here is American cheese. I’d been blithely assuming that legal names-of-origin like Parmigiano and Stilton were protected worldwide, but not so: only in Europe. Here, the Parmesan and the Brie come from Wisconsin, mostly. It’s not the same. Partly because of pasteurisation, partly differences in production and technique, partly of course environmental factors. One can track down imported cheeses, but that feels like cheating. I’d rather find good local substitutes, but my tastes are ineluctably English, trained from childhood to certain types. I want a blue cheese that will crumble under the knife, like a real stiff Stilton; a soft moulded cheese that will run like a ripe Brie; and above all, a cheddar sharp enough to make my gums bleed. So that, inter alia, I can make m’wife a proper macaroni cheese…