There’s something inescapably tacky about the thought of Cheddar cheese blended with pickled onion or smoked ham and mustard, like a Ploughman’s lunch without the hard work. Nonetheless, blended cheese or cheese with extra “bits” (technically known as cheese with additives, although the industry is sensitive to the term), erupts over British cheese counters like lava down Krakatoa.
Such cheese with bits look like a larder gone hideously mad or a product of the sorcerer’s apprentice on acid. Over the years, I have had the misfortune to encounter cheese with piccalilli, garlic and mushroom, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, asparagus and leek, Guinness, Worcestershire sauce and pecan nuts, not to mention clashing varieties cemented together in weird layers. Colby jack or Cojack (as I like to call it) is an all-American combination of Colby and Monterey jack blended together before pressing that makes a “fun” snack. Right.
Phew, it’s all as cheesy as a Barry White song — and sells equally as well.
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Ilchester has been a leader in the U.K. specialty cheese scene ever since they launched their Beer Cheese in 1962. Today, their selection also includes Mexicana™ chili cheese, Cheddar with Pickled Onion & Chives, and Marmite™ Cheddar. Yes, you either love it or hate it.
Booze as a ‘bit’ in your cheese
And, what is it with cheese with booze – on either side of the Atlantic? Red Windsor, marbled with red wine or Port (and coloring), may be of ancient lineage but frankly is an insult to Bordeaux and looks like it has leprosy. And don’t get me started on Cahill’s Irish Porter Cheddar: once tasted, never forgotten … but not in a good way. And there’s also Cheddar and Whisky, Chile Lime & Tequila Cheddar, Caramelized Onion and Rioja Cheddar.
Dessert cheeses also have a following: Lemon Crumble, Cheddar with Fruitcake, Wensleydale with Mango and Ginger. At least it makes life easier for those who never know whether to serve the cheese before or after the pudding.
There are combinations that are meant to go together but such inventions as White Stilton with Apricots or Blueberries and Wensleydale with Mango and Ginger have no natural, logical affinity. Wensleydale with Cranberries, for example, marries sharp-tasting fruit with rich-flavored cheese in a disturbing combination that is inexplicably popular. Personally, I’d demand a divorce.
Cheese with date and walnut, apple and celery, or Thai spices feeds an obsession with novelty for novelty’s sake, a mass flavor-of-the-month mentality in a pick ‘n’ mix culture. Block-produced Cheshire with pear and almonds is as different from Appleby’s legendary hand-crafted production as, well, chalk from cheese.
Thankfully, peanut butter hard cheese has never made it past the dairy door — as far as I know. But it is probably just a matter of time.
Good cheese as a base is key
On the other hand, where there is a good cheesemaker you’re more likely to find a good cheese with bits: the delicate network of soft green veins that distinguishes Fowlers Traditional and Original Green Derby comes from natural sage, not lurid artificial coloring. Dutch Gouda with cumin seeds is a centuries-old, tried-and-tested combination. An artisan Cornish Gouda with Honey and Clover is now being made by a Dutch family in Cornwall (my jury-of-one is still out on this).
Dartmoor Chilli, Meldon (with English mustard and Ale) and Chipple (with spring onions) are all made on the base of the well-esteemed, sweet, mild Curworthy cheese. The Sharpham Estate’s Rustic is flavored with chives and garlic; and Wedmore, made by scattering chives through the center of each round of aged Caerphilly at Westcombe Dairy in Somerset captures the flavors of the lush Somerset meadows.
There can be a fine line between those cheeses that contain bits and those infused with an extra dimension of flavor, such as Cornish Yarg, wrapped with nettle or wild garlic leaves, or the coating of fresh herbs that add interest and contrast to soft cheese such as award-winning Rosary Garlic and Herb Goats Cheese. And the best smoked and washed rind cheeses, which are brushed with wine or cider, are about discretion not domination.
One problem with cheese with bits is the suspicion that it is a way of adding “extra value” to inferior, poorly textured, mass-produced cheese without adding extra care. No manufacturer will ever plead guilty, but the fact is: If the quality of the base cheese is poor, whatever you add won’t make it any better.
Cheese as an entrée point
But as fast as flavors come, they also seem to go.
These additives are fashion products. Maybe this sort of fun cheese can give younger folks, for many of whom cheese is just something that drips off a burger, an entrée into the cheese world and will lead them to better products — much as has happened in wine. Indeed, it may be that opening up the market, adding range and variety, may even save some standard cheeses from decline.
Maybe. But I still think the person who put Jamaican jerk sauce into cheese should be forced to eat it every day.
Main photo: New on the market in the United Kingdom from Marks & Spencer: White Stilton® with dried sour cherries and a candied orange peel coating, left, and Cornish Cruncher Cheddar with white balsamic vinegar and red bell pepper with a red bell pepper coating. Credit: Clarissa Hyman