Flavor Behavior: Cheesemakers Mix it Up with Spices & Seasonings
I used to look askance at flavored cheeses, dismissing them out of hand. Herb-encrusted, port-laced, cumin-studded cheeses and their ilk offended my well-cultivated purist sensibilities. But in recent years my stance has softened into a fragile acceptance, even a conditional enthusiasm.
This confession comes late in my career as a cheesemonger. I had long considered myself a traditionalist, and my shop’s selection reflected it. I did not, as a rule, stock flavored cheeses, except for certain locally made herbed or peppered goat cheeses. But my conservatism was seriously challenged in August 2007, when I was honored to be selected as a judge for the annual American Cheese Society Competition held in Burlington, Vermont. Among my judging assignments was the dreaded “Open Flavored Cheese” category, to which cheesemakers submit cheeses that do not fit neatly into the more narrowly defined flavored categories, such as “Flavored—Peppercorn” or “Flavored—Jalapeno.” It is the freak show of the judging categories, and bizarre is the norm.
Yet as I tasted through this unorthodox array of contestants, attempting to swallow both cheeses and prejudices, I found to my surprise and delight that, aside from the truly nauseating (one strange amalgam of milk and chopped vegetables that seemed less cheese and more cream-of-vegetable soup left out to sour and harden) and the patently silly (balls of sweetened cream cheese rolled in coconut; if this is cheese, then cheesecake is cheese), some of these flavored entries were quite tasty. The cheeses that formed their base were clearly well made, their flavorings were of high quality, and their pairing was thoughtful and effective. I realized at once the absurdity of my purist position and that, provided high standards are met (discussed further below), my new acceptance of flavored cheeses was in no way inconsistent with my well-honed cheese cred.
The way I see it, flavored cheese is comprised of two categories: Externally Flavored Cheeses and Internally Flavored Cheeses. In the first one, flavoring is achieved by applying seasoning to the surface of the cheese. The flavoring may be solid matter, typically, herbs, spices, seeds, nuts, or fruits. Or it can be a flavored or aromatic wrapping (typically, leaves soaked in eau-de-vie) or a liquid flavoring, often a wash of wine, beer, or a distilled spirit. (Some will bristle at the inclusion of certain “washed” cheeses among the flavored categories. It is true that the primary purpose of these washings is to encourage the formation of a pungent bacterial smear on the surface of the cheese, which ripens the cheese and lends it the desired aroma of unwashed feet. However, this effect can be achieved using simply water or brine. Therefore I submit that the selection of beer, wine, or spirits as a washing medium must be partly attributable to the desire to add flavor to the cheese.)
It’s really the second, more wildly interpreted category—Internally Flavored Cheeses—that gets my attention here and now. In this group the spices, seeds, or seasonings are introduced into the milk or fresh curds during the cheesemaking process, just before the cheese is actually formed. As I discovered during my stint judging this category, anything goes when it comes to tinkering with flavor-added inventions. It’s the cheese world’s equivalent of open mic night—many more acts than talent. But a star is possible if the cheesemaker is really tuned in to his or her cheese and the quality of flavorings.
Case in point: At Holland’s Family Farm in Wisconsin, the very first batch of Marieke Gouda with Foenegreek won Best of Class in the Flavored Semi-Soft Cheeses (biggest category in the competition) at the 2007 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest. Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman admits it was a cheese she almost didn’t make. “You have to cook the foenegreek [fenugreek] the night before,” she explains, “boiling it for ten minutes. The first time I did this the smell was horrible. I thought, ‘I can’t add this to my cheese.’” But she did, as Penterman was determined to create a fenugreek-flavored Gouda that was as sweet and nutty as the one she ate growing up in the Netherlands. Beginner’s luck prevailed. For this cheese, one of her top sellers, she begins the process of making the Gouda by first importing the fenugreek seeds from Holland. After they’re cooked, the seeds are added to the curd just before it is pumped to the draining table and pressed.
Trufflestack by Mt. Townsend Creamery in Washington is another flavor hit, having won a Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation (SOFI) gold medal from the National Associa, tion for the Specialty Food Trade upon its release in 2010. Co-owner of the creamery Matt Day says that one of the challenges in creating the cheese was achieving consistency from batch to batch. “We use an imported product, Truffle and Salt, with 5 percent black truffle, that works well . . . the flavor is really stable.”
Penterman also has flavor consistency concerns, especially in the aging room. “The fenugreek flavor develops a bitterness if the cheese is aged for a long time. Some people like it, but I prefer it as a young cheese. Some of our other flavored Goudas—the pesto and the cumin cheeses—just get better with age, but the fenugreek Gouda is sold relatively young.”
It is impossible to establish precisely the origins of this phenomenon of flavor-added cheeses. Presumably, the practice of adding locally available ingredients to cheese is ancient and widespread. What led early cheesemakers to, for example, lace their haloumi with fresh mint, weave crunchy black caraway seeds into the braids of their string cheese, or stud their chèvre with peppercorns? One can surmise several possible motivations. Cheesemakers might have turned to flavorings to augment the taste and aroma of a dull cheese or to mask those of a flawed one. They might have added flavors to enhance their cheeses’ visibility at the market and to distinguish them from the competition (similar motivations are no doubt behind the practice of staining the paste of some cheeses orange with natural or artificial colorants, thereby hoodwinking generations of consumers into thinking that orangeness is a natural state of cheese). Or they may simply have wanted to expand the range of their product line and draw in new customers lured by the cheflike pairing of cheese and seasonings.
Daphne Zepos, noted cheese importer, educator, and historian, attributes the origin of the Dutch penchant for lacing Goudas with caraway, cumin, and cloves to a combination of two key factors: animals grazing on new land that was recently reclaimed from the sea may have yielded thin milk and therefore dull cheeses that benefited from flavor enhancement, and the rare, exotic spices from the Dutch East Indian trade were readily available to fill that role.
Cheesemaker frugality is another motivation. In northern France cheesemakers combine cheese scraps and loose ends with paprika and garlic to make the little rough-hewn cones of boulettes d’Avesnes. Additionally, one cannot minimize the historical role of cheesemaker ennui. I have polled several cheesemakers who feature large repertoires of both flavored and unflavored cheeses, and invariably their response is, “I get bored.”
Whatever the reason for flavoring a cheese, the practice is here to stay, if not proliferate. Skeptical as I may be, it’s hard to argue against it. After all, I practice myself a kind of flavor-added feasting. I adore the subtle briny contact of an oyster, but I don’t spare the mignonette. I enjoy bitter chocolates of rare provenance and varietal but don’t mind the introduction of a sliver of almond or a sprinkle of fleur de sel. And rarely do I enjoy my beloved pecorini, of which I have written so gushingly in these pages, without a dollop of pepper jelly. Cheese professionals and the lay cognoscenti delight in selecting for their cheeses the perfect food and beverage companions—crusty nut-studded bread, a drizzle of chestnut honey, a paste of sweet quince, or the hearty friendship of cloth-bound cheddar and bitter ales. What fundamental harm, then, in combining cheeses and their accompaniments into a convenient, ready-to-eat format?
None, within reason. I have established a basic set of standards against which I judge a flavored cheese to be legitimate and acceptable. First, the cheese itself must be of high quality, well made of good milk. It can be simple and mild but must be of sufficient interest independent of its flavoring. No flavoring of whatever quality will hide a poor cheese. Silk purse, sow’s ear.
Second, the flavoring must also be of high quality. Though it is not critical, I prefer flavorings that also have a local or traditional connection to the cheeses they flavor, such as the porter or whiskey in Cahill’s Irish Cheddar, or the black caraway seeds (a.k.a. nigella) in Karoun Dairies Middle Eastern–style string cheese. Flavio DeCastilhos of Oregon’s Tumalo Farms selects ingredients for his collection of flavored goat’s milk Goudas that reflect the traditions and terroir of the Oregon high desert, from Cascade hops to rare Oregon truffles. Juni, the flaky Piemontese juniper-flavored Toma, mirrors the locals’ predilection for cooking with juniper berries. Si.For’s Pecorino Pistachio from Sicily invokes the ancient Arab influence in the foods of the region.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the marriage of cheese and its flavoring must be a good one. At minimum the flavoring must not overpower or otherwise adversely affect the taste of the cheese, or vice versa. Ideally, the cheese and flavoring work in harmony, one bringing out and celebrating the charms of the other. Thus candied lemon peel foils the bright tang of Rustico. And flakes of musky black truffle point up the mushroomy charm of Mt. Townsend Creamery’s little puck of Camembert-like Trufflestack or the milky animal sweetness of Pinzani’s Pecorino al Tartufo. And in a truly well-conceived flavored cheese, new tastes and aromas will be created in the marriage, neither entirely of the cheese or of its flavorings. This is like the same payoff we seek when pairing cheese with wines or other accompaniments. Fenugreek seeds bring out the rich caramelized sweetness of Marieke’s young Wisconsin Gouda, and their combination creates an intoxicating aroma of maple fudge. And the introduction of ouessant seaweed, harvested off the Brittany coast, to Belgian Rochefort creates an oddly appealing flavor, like a briny spinach quiche. So it goes, ideally, with flavored inventions.
Still, I’ll take my port in a glass.
Cahill’s Plain Porter Cheese
Cahill’s, a company of third-generation cheesemakers in County Limerick, Ireland, has been making its Irish Porter Cheese from pasteurized cow’s milk for about 20 years. The porter is added to the curd after it has been formed and the whey drained off, which is what gives the cheese its unique appearance. Flavors are smooth and rich and taste distinctly of porter.
Available through CWI Specialty Foods
Cahill’s Whiskey Cheese
Alongside its sister cheese made with porter (see above), Cahill’s also produces a cheese made with Kilbeggan Irish whiskey. The paste of the cheese is gently mottled with a golden hue against the curd. The taste of the whiskey is distinct but not overwhelming and is balanced by a full, creamy mouth-feel.
Available through CWI Specialty Foods
Produced from raw cow’s milk by the Rosso family near Biella in Piedmont, Italy, Juni is produced in a small cylinder, weighing approximately one pound. The interior is dark ivory in color, crumbly, and punctuated with wild, local juniper berries collected from the surrounding mountains. These give the cheese an idiosyncratic taste, all at once spicy, rich, and tangy with a mineral quality.
Available through Forever Cheese
Braided String Cheese with Black Caraway Seed
Black caraway (nigella) seeds are traditional to Middle Eastern and Turkish cooking, and this is the basis for Karoun’s cheese. Available in a variety of different-size “braids” (with the largest, used in the photograph, weighing an impressive 7 pounds), this is a low-moisture cheese, which, again, would have been traditional in a cheesemaking region with no refrigeration. For the U.S. market, Karoun has reduced the quantity of salt used. Flavors are clean and milky with a delicate nuance of black caraway. It is recommended that the braid be unraveled (like angel hair pasta) for eating.
Marieke Gouda with Foenegreek
Made by husband-and-wife team Marieke and Rolf Penterman on their farm in Wisconsin, the recipe for this raw cow’s milk Gouda comes from their native Holland. Flavors are deep, rich, and caramelly, with aromas of maple and nut. Texture is ultra-smooth with soft nibs of foenegreek.
Pecorino al Tartufo
Made in Tuscany by Caseficio Pinzani using raw sheep’s milk, this version of Pecorino al Tartufo is small and has a relatively soft texture. The thin slivers of black and white truffles are added to the curd just before pressing. Flavors have an underlying sweetness with a hint of lanolin. The distinct notes of truffle lend aromas of earth and leaf mold.
Available at Murray's Cheese Shop
According to Flavio DeCastilhos, the creator of Pondhopper, the inspiration for this cheese stems from the high-quality Cascade hops and beer produced in Oregon. Using goat’s milk to form the curd and adding the flavors just before the cheeses are pressed gives the cheese a subtle beerlike nuance. This combines beautifully with the clean, grassy characteristics of the milk, lending a depth and gentle zest to this Gouda-style cheese.
Rochefort with Ouessant Seaweed
Produced in the historic town of Rochefort in Belgium, the curd for this pasteurized cow’s milk cheese is blended with ouessant seaweed harvested from an island off the coast of Brittany in northwestern France. The texture is semisoft and smooth, with a yellow paste densely populated with fine strands of seaweed, which gives the cheese a darker appearance.
Flavors are vegetal and savory with mineral and sea salt notes, and a mildly tangy finish.
Available through Atalanta
Produced in the Roman countryside in the province of Viterbo, Rustico is made in the pecorino style from pasteurized sheep’s milk with the addition of candied lemon peel. Resulting flavors are rich and sheepy, with a full, creamlike mouth-feel cut with the bright citrus of lemon. Notes of hay and herbs gently pervade.
Available through Forever Cheese
Fresh Pecorino with Pistachio
Produced near Palermo in Sicily from pasteurized sheep’s milk, this pecorino-style cheese is made with the addition of pistachio nuts. The result is a cheese with a firm yet moist texture, with a hint of nuts, salt, citrus, and wood.
Available through Atalanta
Created by Mt. Townsend Creamery in Washington, Trufflestack is a mold-ripened disk made from goat’s milk, studded with delicate flecks of black truffle. The texture of the cheese is yielding and soft just under the rind, and firmer in the middle. Truffle flavors are forward but balanced with rich notes of mushroom, salt, and cream.
Written by Matthew Rubiner
Photography by Jason Houston & Kate Arding