There are dark corners of social media that no self-respecting cheese purist should visit. Type #CrimesAgainstCheese into Twitter and a disturbing ID parade of dubious characters is revealed. Think Espresso Martini Wensleydale, Salted Caramel Cheddar and even Parma Violet-flavoured Cheshire. Don’t even get me started on Brussels sprouts-flavoured cheddar (I’m giving Asda a hard stare here).
Welcome to the wild world of flavoured cheeses, which divide opinion like nothing else on the cheeseboard. For every person that loves a tangy Wensleydale with mango and ginger, you will find an idealist that believes ‘cheeses with bits in’ are an abomination.
I’ve heard cheesemongers let out audible moans of despair at cheese awards when judging the flavoured cheeses section and witnessed food writers rant furiously about how adding cranberries to cheese is a symbol of everything wrong with the world.
The reason these cheeses are so controversial is complex. There’s a long held suspicion that adding flavours is a way to hide faults in the original cheese, while some argue that cheese should be a pure, unsullied expression of milk. Others just see them as industrial gimmicks.
It’s hard to disagree with that last opinion at Christmas when putting weird stuff in cheese is as much a part of festive traditions as putting up the tree. Last year, Aldi treated us to Bombay Spice and Mango Chutney Red Leicester and Asda brought us mince pie-flavoured Wensleydale, alongside its Brussel’s sprout cheese, to name just a few.
While aficionados may balk (or is that boak?) at flavoured cheeses, there are plenty of Brits who love them as a bit of fun at the end of a meal. We consumed 5,400 tonnes last year and they rank highly in surveys of the nation’s favourites. Wensleydale Creamery in Yorkshire claims it first came up with the idea of blending cranberries with cheese in 1996. Today the cheese accounts for a quarter of the company’s sales, equal to around 1,000 tonnes a year. People just can’t enough of the sweet cheesecake-like combination.
As you can probably tell, I’m not a huge fan of industrial cheeses with bits in (I was traumatised at an early age by a Thai Green Curry cheddar). But like a mature Stilton, I’ve mellowed with time and have rethought my position. Much of the horror that greets these cheeses is borne out of snobbery and double standards. Cheese lovers wax lyrical about sexy Italian cheeses soaked in wine, truffled brie from France and Dutch Gouda with cumin, while holding Wensleydale with cranberries or smoked cheddar in disdain.
There are some seriously sophisticated flavoured cheeses being made in Britain, if you know where to look. I defy anyone not to fall for Wild Garlic Yarg, which is dressed with wild garlic leaves, foraged from Cornish woods. The flaky, lemony cheese takes on the bosky perfume of the foliage in a wonderful way.
Another firm favourites in the McGuigan household is Smoked Lincolnshire Poacher, a Comté-cheddar crossover smoked for 24 hours over smouldering oak chips to give it a rich, rounded flavour. We’re also fans of Graceburn, a Feta-style cheese from Kent that is marinated in thyme, garlic and pepper-infused rapeseed oil. What unites all three is the base cheeses themselves are delicious. But just as importantly the added flavours are balanced, bringing complexity to the cheese, rather than masking its flavour.
My about turn on flavoured cheeses has reached the point where I would love to see someone make a cloth-bound, farmhouse Wensleydale with cranberries. I’m sure an artisan version could work, maybe with wild cranberries or even rosehips. I suggested as much to Ben Spence, who makes the buttery raw milk Wensleydale Old Roan earlier this year. The look of indignation was a sight to behold. “No,” was his one-word response.
Perhaps the redemption of flavoured cheeses has a way to go yet.
Five decent flavoured cheeses to try…
Sharpham Rustic with Dulse & Sea Lettuce
An unpasteurised Jersey milk cheese from Devon with a subtle mineral tang thanks to flecks of seaweed.
Truffled Baron Bigod
This oozy woozy brie from Suffolk contains a fragrant layer of black truffle and Mascarpone.
Rosary Garlic & Herb Button
A lemony fresh goat’s cheese from Wiltshire, speckled with fresh parsley and garlic. Zingy and refreshing.
Cornish Gouda with Fenugreek
Made by a Dutch family in Cornwall, this six-month Gouda has a scented almost walnutty flavour thanks to crunchy Fenugreek seeds.
Charles Martell of Stinking Bishop fame makes this full-fat cow’s milk cheese by encrusting the rind with toasted hops, which add citrusy, grassy notes.