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say Cheese : Specialty cheeses prove how much fun they are to use in a spinach pizza made with feta and Parmesan from Michael's Pizza in Aptos, Calif., in photograph below. At right, an appetizer of Brie layered with sage leaves was inspired by chef Ken Frank of La Toque.

September 22, 1988|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

Ever hear of stracchino? Gorgonzola? Cotija? How about manchego or mascarpone ?

Need a clue?

Say "cheese."

Then say "specialty cheese," or, if you prefer, "gourmet" or "boutique" cheese, the names used to describe a new category of cheeses that is growing in popularity in an affluent consumer market, even though many of the cheeses are as old as man.

And while you're at it, call them "fun" cheeses if you want, because they are the cheeses that make modern cooking a joy and eating them an Epicurean delight.

Specialty cheeses are fast becoming today's popular cheeses. They haven't yet replaced the "big three"-- Cheddar, Jack and mozzarella (in that order)--which command 75% of the cheese market, according to Elton Brooks of the Milk Stabilization Branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture in Sacramento.

According to John Ressi of Everfresh Foods Inc. in Ontario, whose company is one of the largest importers of specialty cheeses, the big specialty cheese sellers, such as French Brie, Norwegian Jarlsberg and Danish Havarti, are on a continual climb, but even the lesser-known so-called gourmet cheeses have doubled in growth sales in the last five years, say the experts. "Brie is considered a commodity now. We used to sell 200 wheels of Brie a month, now it's in the thousands. Others, like the fresh cheeses coming into market lately, have easily doubled as well," Ressi said.

Most gourmet food stores, such as the Cheese Shop in Beverly Hills, have seen a 100% rise in sales of specialty cheeses. "Specialty cheeses are part of the California cuisine picture now," said owner Norbert Wabnig. Goat cheese sales, Wabnig said, have skyrocketed, and many blue cheeses are being used in cooking. "People are trying mascarpone with basil and pine nuts and Gorgonzola with white truffles when in season. Bufala mozzarella is also a big seller now. People never had real Parmesan until they tried Reggiano," Wabnig said.

Rene Hanks, the cheese manager at Bristol Farms in Pasadena, reports the most popular cheeses are Brie and Camembert, with Parmesan Reggiano "right up there."

"Today we're doing a lot more consumer education of cheese at the cheese counter because people are now more interested in what they are eating than ever," she said.

What has caused the booming business in specialty cheeses?

"Travel, restaurants, health concerns and a better food distribution system," answered Larry Osborn, purchasing agent at Peacock Cheese Co. in Vernon, a large distributor of specialty cheeses.

"Only five years ago, most Americans used only a few cheeses--yellow, white and cheese food. Now people are conscious of what they are eating and learning more about it. With a far better distribution system available today, more and more perishable fresh cheeses have entered the market to compete for the consumer dollar," he said.

Transfer of the small business cheese trade to the supermarkets has also helped expose specialty cheeses to a wider consumer market. "We estimate that there has been a 70% increase in supermarkets going in for expanded cheese tables in the last 10 years. That means there has also been a gradual extinction of the small mom-and-pop cheese shop business," Ressi said.

The up-and-coming cheeses are now both imported and domestically produced Italian bufala mozzarella (both dried and fresh) and French and American chevre (fresh goat cheeses) which come in a variety of flavors, shapes and sizes and are considered healthful because of their low-fat content. Fresh cheeses contain less fat and are less caloric (about 90 calories per ounce) than aged cheese, which contains an average of 150 to 200 calories per ounce.

In fact, many formerly imported cheeses are now manufacturered in the United States due to Food & Drug Administration restrictions on some imported cheeses. California-made mozzarella is gaining in popularity. It's still expensive, but not as expensive as imported fresh cheeses from Italy or France, and far fresher. Even creme fraiche , manufactured locally, is gaining in popularity. French double and triple cream cheeses also are growing rapidly with St. Andre, manufacturered in small, tall rounds, among the most popular.

Fontina and Gorgonzola, once affected by an FDA ban some years back, now are being co-produced in the United States, thus enhancing both quality and cost. "We're getting the benefit of European quality manufacturing methods done domestically. The cheeses may not always be duplicated exactly, or be as good as the European original because of milk, climate and bacteria differences, but they are definitely improving the cheese picture for Americans," Osborn said.

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