I did not grow up in a house that embraced flavored cheese. Like Kim Severson’s colleague in Severson’s late 2016 piece in the New York Times food section about cheeseballs, my parents, post-war European immigrants, liked their fermented milk products straight up, untarnished by herbs, truffles, or anything else not produced by the goat, sheep or cow. Yet mid-century America developed an interest in molded foods (orange and kiwi aspic, anyone?) and softened cheese was a willing player, the center of attention in cheeky appetizers and round desserts. But fashion, even in food, has a way of repeating itself and cheese is, once again, having a fun moment. With a wink and a nod to the craft cheese movement, that of the organic buffalo milk and locally sourced grass, big name cheese producers are embracing the idea of cheese flavored for the season. Throw in some shapes and seasonings and we can party like it’s 1945.
I am not from Texas so I do not have a deep love or appreciation for queso, that singularly Texas dip that is as runny as it is melty. Often done up with tomato and green chile, queso must adhere to a textural standard that is nary impossible for “real” cheese to achieve. Enter Kraft Foods. Velveeta, Kraft’s pasteurized, prepared cheese product (nope, can’t call it “cheese”) melts in such a way that Texans and many, many others adore for its perfect, oozy consistency. Kraft also introduced Americans to Cheez Whiz, a cheese sauce variation on Velveeta. Kraft makes no bones about the artificial nature of these cheese-like foods and even developed Cheez Whiz Light and Salsa Con Queso flavors to make the pouring and spreading of Cheez Whiz that much easier. On the waistline, I mean. Queso is not seasonal or shaped but it is eternal.
If you paid attention at the grocery store last fall, you might have noticed the explosion of products bearing the words “pumpkin spice.” Once limited to Williams-Sonoma, who lured you into their stores with the aroma of their freshly baked sweet bread, redolent with cinnamon and nutmeg, pumpkin spice is a hugely popular flavor that sells well from early autumn through mid-winter. Perhaps noticing this, Fiscalini recently introduced a Pumpkin Spice goat cheese. Soft and creamy with a hint of clove and cinnamon, the cheese is designed as a seasonal addition to the cold case. And its mild goat flavor could convert hardline cow cheese lovers to the charms of goat milk cheese. I suspect it is also awfully good swirled into pumpkin pie.
With its gorgeous pink rind, the limited edition, seasonal Peppermint Bellavitano cheese from Paolo Sartori makes merchandising for any holiday a breeze. Dimpled with real peppermint candy, the cheese is as festive as it is colorful, making it saleable throughout the year. The company recently promoted the cheese by committing to make a charitable donation to the National Breast Cancer Foundation in honor of your purchase. Looks they’ve got October (breast cancer awareness), December (Christmas) and February (Valentine’s Day) sorted out. Now, to eat peppermint cheese in July….
Cheese is as old as bread so finding new ways to pique a consumer’s interest means a lot of fun for an eater. Infusing cheese with savory and sweet flavors is nothing new but making these products accessible to a new generation of consumer means experimenting with seasonal marketing. Could it be that the iconic midwestern cheeseball has launched a flavored cheese revolution? Sure looks like it from where I stand. But I’d like to hear from Texas.