Edward Zahn, 73, was in Z's Cheese Shoppe's walk-in cooler last month, preparing to shut down his Oconto store. He pushed aside stacks of cheese to reveal several wooden boxes that had been overlooked for years.
Inside were blocks of unintentionally aged cheddar - 28, 34 and 40 years old - that, some experts say, might comprise the oldest collection of cheese ever assembled and sold to the public.
"It just got overlooked," Zahn told the Wisconsin State Journal of the 40-year-old cheese. "It looks just like the others except it's just a lot sharper. It's got character."
Ken McNulty, who owns the Wisconsin Cheese Mart in Milwaukee, bought about 20 pounds of the 40-year-old cheddar and 120 pounds of 34-year cheddar. He declined to reveal the price he paid.
Cheese is often sold by the pound, but McNulty plans to sell the oldest cheese by the ounce so more people can get a taste.
"Because there's so little, we didn't want to sell blocks of it on the Web," he told The Associated Press. "We just wanted people to sample it."
He said an ounce would be just enough for two people to nibble on. He suggests sampling the vintage cheese by itself, not with a cracker or other food that would compete with the flavor.
He said he found out about the cheese when Zahn's son called, told him his father was closing up shop and offered to sell some inventory. McNulty, long a fan of Zahn's cheesemaking expertise, said he wanted everything.
McNulty sampled the 40-year-old and 28-year-old blocks, pleasantly surprised that the milk in the cheese hadn't soured. He still hasn't tried the 34-year-old cheese, and acknowledges that he can't assume it will be edible. He plans to cut it open on Oct. 6 as part of a cheese-tasting event at his store.
Wisconsin, the nation's leading cheese producer, last made headlines for aged cheese in 2010 when Tony Hook, the co-owner of Hook's Cheese Co. in Mineral Point, sold 1,600 pounds of 15-year-old cheese for $50 per pound. Cheese connoisseurs described that cheddar as mature, rich, smooth and decadent.
So what does cheddar taste like when it's been sitting around since 1972, the year "The Godfather" was released and when gas was 55 cents per gallon?
"If you get a piece close to the outside, it's all crystallization, so it's crunchy like Corn Flakes," McNulty said. "As you get closer to the interior, it's creamier and overwhelmingly sharp."
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information from: Wisconsin State Journal