Flavored cheeses have not always had the best reputation, but they are covering new ground in a powerful way. Adding gourmet ingredients to sound, quality milk can lead to a masterful product. Thoughtfully considering the milk's characteristics and origin is another crucial element to incorporating culinary zing into a cheese's paste.
The Italian Rosso family has done all of the above with their creation of Juni. This raw cow's milk cheese has local juniper berries added to the curd. Juniper berries are the key botanical to the flavor profile of gin and grow wild in the Piedmont region. It makes sense to add the mountain's natural bounty to the milk of the cows that roam the terrain. After a couple of months of aging, the result is a well-balanced, tangy cheese that goes down like a silky gin martini. Enjoy this treat with a bottle of Villa Russiz Sauvignon Blanc Collio 2008 from Friuli, Italy. This wine enhances the creaminess of the already lovely Juni and complements the juniper with a touch of soft peach.
Kicking it up a serious notch, another unique flavored cheese is the Wasabi Disk from Westfield Farm in Massachusetts. Cheesemaker Bob Stetson masterfully adds real wasabi (Japanese horseradish, not the green stuff) and a touch of chive to the paste of fresh, velvety goat's milk. The cool earthiness of the base of the cheese comforts your taste buds as they water from the tingle of the wasabi kick. The unique combination blends handsomely in your mouth and leaves you refreshed with an exciting culinary experience. Substitute a smear of Wasabi Disk instead of your regular old cocktail sauce the next time you serve shrimp cocktail and amaze your friends with your ingenuity. Oh, and don't forget the sake. Make sure you pick out a cold sake like Rihaku 'Wandering Poet' to really enjoy this cheese.
Perhaps you find sweet more alluring than savory when it comes to flavored cheeses? Then crack into a wheel of Fenacho from Tumalo Farms in central Oregon. This semi-hard goat's milk cheese has a paste loaded with fenugreek clover seeds. These seeds are a spice in curry that balances the heat with a bit of sweetness (they are also used as a natural supplement to encourage lactation — for those of you who need a little help with that). Fenacho is exotic and nutty with hints of butterscotch on the finish. Eating this cheese reminds me of eating a stack of pancakes drenched in maple syrup and topped with homemade whipped-cream. Much the way honeycomb accentuates fresh goat cheese, the sweet character of the fenugreek seeds amplify the earthy charm of Tumalo Farm's aged goat's milk. You must try Fenacho while sipping a bit of Zaya Rum (yes, you can sip rum when it is made well). This Caribbean spirit is five times distilled, aged for 10 years in bourbon barrels and has a molasses flavor profile. With a little orange peel, cherry, banana, vanilla, coconut and cocoa, Zaya is the perfect counterpart to Fenacho. Seriously, who wouldn't want all those toppings with their pancakes?
Milk has become a canvas for cheesemakers to create and combine flavors as chefs do. Whether you prefer your cheese incorporated with a savory seed, hoppy beer, sprightly citrus, decadent truffles or even briny seaweed, the possibilities of combinations are endless. Trust the flavor profiles that work with the terroir and your own pairing experiences to expose your palate to a new level of cheesiness.