The answer is here in Ecuador, where I am currently traveling.
To be more precise, the source of the color—the “what?”-- is here in Ecuador, in the Oriente, the region that stretches, hot and humid, along the eastern length of this South American country. The complete answer to the question—the “why?”— is adrift in speculation.
The “what?” is annatto, the seeds of the fruit of the achiote, a small tree originating in the American tropics, which I got to see up close and personal for the first time on a tour of an orchid reserve in the jungle. Long before European contact, the indigenous people in South America used the seeds, which look as though they have been delicately dipped into a burnt-orange paste, for body paint and medicinal remedies.
Despite not having a particularly strong flavor, annatto has a fixed place in Latin American cuisine. It lends a slightly sweet and peppery note to dishes, but above all it’s prized for its ability to turn food the color of gold. Cheaper than saffron, annatto is used when the Spanish would have turned to saffron -- the most expensive spice in the world. Both will turn rice the color of sunshine.When and why did the Europeans, the British in particular, get the idea to add annatto to white cow’s milk to produce orange-colored cheese? For at least 200 years, annatto has tinted England’s oldest cheeses, Double Gloucester, Cheshire, and Red Leicester. Unlike Cheddar in the States, these cheeses don’t come in a choice of yellow or white; they always sport a shade of orange, from the reserved cantaloupe hue of Cheshire, England’s oldest named cheese, to the deep, rich orange of Red Leicester. In England, by the way, Cheddar is almost always “white.” It’s not just in England that this tropical botanical brings color to fromage: France’s pockmarked, hard-as-a-cannonball Mimolette is as profoundly orange as Red Leicester; Holland’s sweet, long-aged Goudas aren’t naturally that caramel-colored; and, of course, in the U.S. we are geographically divided by our predilection for white or orange cheddar, white for New England and orange for the South.
Orange cheeses, then, aren’t the product of marketing monsters in America. They are naturally dyed, and have been for centuries. Even before annatto made it across the Atlantic to Europe, the British most likely relied on local flowers and herbs to color their cheeses, such as goldenrod. What is this tinted deception about? No one quite knows, but the answer may lie in the fact that the milk of cows eating grass is not pure white; it has a buttercup shade to it, which comes from the beta-carotene naturally present in the grass. In northern climates like Britain, cows are brought inside during the winter and fed fodder and other grains. Without grass in a cow’s winter diet, the milk lacks a natural, yellow hue, and so do the cheeses and butters made at that time. To mimic cheeses produced with rich summer milk, cheesemakers may have added annatto to bring a bit of color to otherwise snow-white cheese. Another theory has to do with marketing: if you go into a store and see cheeses in the same hue, wouldn’t a bright-orange one stand out and tempt you to buy it?I find it truly amazing that a tree in the dense, humid jungles of Latin America is responsible for the color of some of our most iconic dairy products. Such is the wonder and reality of centuries of globalization and its enduring effect on the foods we eat every day.
Diana Pittet the Cheesemonger