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Say cheese! 40-year-old cheddar up for sale in Wisconsin

Aug. 30, 2012 at 5:25 PM ET

It’s 40 years old and has spent most of its existence sitting in an old wooden box. Yet people can’t wait to eat it.

Slabs of cheddar cheese that were first created in 1972 are about to hit the open market in Wisconsin as part of what experts believe to be the oldest collection of cheese ever sold to the public, according to a report in the Wisconsin State Journal. The rare cheese was discovered by former Ocanto, Wis., cheese shop owner Edward Zahn, 73, who found it in the back of an old walk-in cooler while moving his business to a new location.

He also discovered other wooden boxes that contained blocks of cheddar that were 39, 34 and 28 years old. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture requires that every block of cheese has a date of manufacture and vat number on it, and since it was from Zahn's own stock, he was able to determine quickly that he had stumbled upon cheddar from the Nixon administration.

"I knew there was old stuff in there, but I didn't realize it was that old,'' Zahn told TODAY.com. "It happened by accident, and the rest is history.''

Zahn was selling the 39-year-old cheddar on the side to locals for less than $50 a pound in May after discovering the cache. However, after he encountered health problems and had to undergo six surgeries in the spring, he and his family decided to liquidate their inventory of the cheese that he found. An email from Zahn’s son to the president of Wisconsin Cheese Mart in Milwaukee about the find resulted in the store buying 20 pounds of the 40-year-old cheese along with 120 pounds of the 34-year-old cheddar.

The rare cheese is prized for its sharp taste and richness.

"It gets sharper with age,'' Zahn said. "Sometimes it can age too fast and ruin the flavor, but this was aged just right.''

"It's the sharpest cheese I've ever tasted," Wisconsin Cheese Mart president Ken McNulty told the State Journal. "Although what you'd expect is that it would be really dry, but it's actually very creamy."

The aging process created about an inch of crystallization around the edge of the cheese, but once that is cut off, it should be perfectly edible, Zahn said. The demand from his local customers has resulted in him already selling the inventory that remained after the sale to Wisconsin Cheese Mart.

"I had two 20-pound blocks of the 39-year-old (cheese) at the store, and I sold the last pound on Wednesday,'' Zahn said.

The cheese will go on sale Oct. 6 for $10 an ounce in a cheese-tasting event at Wisconsin Cheese Mart. It will not be sold online.

"I would be happier if my health was better and my sight was good, but (the cheese-tasting event) is going to be quite a good time,'' Zahn joked.

TODAY.com writer Scott Stump hates cheeseburgers yet loves pizza.

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