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GROCERY: The soft sell

Americans have fallen hard for soft cheeses, and despite rising prices and the latest diet crazes, don't expect this enthusiasm to melt away any time soon. In fact, sales are being aided by the low-carb Atkins and South Beach diets, and will likely be boosted even further by a recent study conducted by the National Dairy Council that found adults on a reduced-calorie diet who ate three to four servings of dairy foods each day lost significantly more weight than those who also cut calories but consumed few or no dairy foods.

"People lose more weight on diets that include three servings of dairy than on diets that don't," says Michael Zemel, Ph.D., professor of nutrition, director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee, and the lead researcher on the study.

"The growth of the natural cheese segment is enormous because of the Atkins diet," says one leading manufacturer, who wished to remain anonymous. "We're seeing double-digit growth rates now, and we're attributing that to people using a lot of natural cheese in their diets."

And more consumers are finding that soft cheeses can be a delicious and nutritious part of that diet. Laura Werlin, noted cheese authority and author of "The New American Cheese" and "The All-American Cheese and Wine Book: Pairings, Profiles & Recipes," defines "soft cheese" as "an unpressed, high-moisture cheese that is aged for a very short time." They're continuing to grow in popularity.

"Because Americans are more familiar with soft cheeses like Brie, they're more inclined to buy them," Werlin says. "And as they become more familiar with other styles of cheese and understand that that white rind on a Brie might extend to other cheeses, as well, it makes them a little more courageous when it comes to trying new cheeses."

That's carrying over in other areas of the cheese case, including the cream cheese section, where shoppers are discovering artisanal cream cheeses. "That's a tiny little niche market that's growing because when people try these artisan cream cheeses, they realize what cream cheese ought to taste like," Werlin says. Unlike national and private label brands that have gums and stabilizers added to prolong freshness, most artisanal cream cheeses are made from only fresh cream, with maybe a touch of rennet added to help separate the curds from the whey.

Also coming up on the radar is Creole cream cheese. "It's not like the cream cheese we know," Werlin says. "It's more like a cross between plain yogurt and sour cream, and it's usually mixed with sugar and fruit and eaten for breakfast. If you go to Louisiana and mention Creole cream cheese, people's eyes will light up and they'll talk about it with either nostalgia or current interest, because it's starting to be made a lot and being shipped beyond Louisiana."

But, thanks to heritage, volume, and an effective ad campaign, most consumers still think of chilly Wisconsin and not the Deep South when it comes to cheese. "Wisconsin is still the largest producer of cheese," says James Robson, c.e.o. of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board in Madison. "We try to focus on the pride and passion that go into the making of cheese in Wisconsin, and the fact that Wisconsin cheesemakers have won more awards in competitions around the world than any other [state or] country."

Robson estimates some 350 to 400 varieties of cheese are currently being produced in the state. Many of those are artisanal cheeses. "Within the last few years we've had an increase in artisan cheeses," he says. "I can think of several instances where dairy producers have gotten into the manufacturing of cheese right at the farm level. The net ability to produce additional specialty and artisanal cheeses in Wisconsin has definitely grown."

One of those is Denmark, Wis.-based BelGioioso Cheese, which is marketing its new Italico variety, an elegant surface-ripened cheese that's aged a minimum of two months. Along with a soft and creamy texture, it has a distinctive taste that enables it to be used in a number of ways, including in cooking, dips, and as a dessert cheese with fruit and wine. "The artisan cheese trend is becoming a strong category in the cheese case, especially American artisan cheeses," says Jamie Wichlacz, marketing manager at BelGioioso. "Grouping these cheeses together by brand creates a stronger presence and gives the consumer an option to check out new cheeses from quality brands that they may already be familiar with."

English-style cheddaring

Shoppers have been familiar with Fiscalini for years, only they didn't know that they were. Founded in 1914 as a dairy farm, the company sold its milk exclusively to Carnation, now Nestle, for years. Then three and a half years ago president John Fiscalini decided to start a cheese operation. Today Fiscalini makes a variety of cheddars, including Horsefeathers, a gentle horseradish spread; Purple Moon, a Cabernet-soaked cheddar; and San Joaquin Gold.

"San Joaquin Gold came about as a mistake," explains Heather Fiscalini, v.p. of marketing at the Modesto, Calif.-based dairy. "We were trying to make a different kind of cheese, and it just grew into San Joaquin Gold. It's a unique formula unto Fiscalini, and it's been very well received."

Fiscalini hired master cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez to head up its cheese operation. "He makes our cheddar in the true English style of cheddaring," John Fiscalini says. "Most people just stir the curds and put them into a press or mold. With ours we stack the curds into layers and flip them, and go from one high to seven high, and then run them through a milling machine. It takes us an extra two hours every time we make cheese, but Mariano insists on that as part of his cheesemaking."

Innovation is also being seen in imported cheeses, like the new Champignon De Luxe Pfeffer, a double-cream soft-ripened cheese studded with tangy green Madagascar peppercorns that's imported from the Bavarian Alps by Kaserei Champignon in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. "Our cheeses pair wonderfully with wine, enhance many recipes, and are delicious on their own," says Birgit Bernhard, general manager. "We've been selectively introducing our product to the U.S.A. in order to allow consumers to experience the different varieties over time. Novel introductions will debut in order to bring our cheese innovations to the world market. Pfeffer is the newest, and we are thrilled about its upcoming launch."

Another European semisoft cheese gaining popularity in the States is Halloumi, which is handmade on the island of Cyprus from the milk of sheep and goats. Similar in consistency to mozzarella, it tastes best fried. "We're selling it mostly in specialty stores, like Dean & DeLuca, Zabar's, and Whole Foods," says Timotheos (Tim) D. Mavrellis of Mediterranean Ventures, the product's Ann Arbor, Mich.-based importer. "As it builds up distribution in these channels and becomes more popular, I think it may eventually become mainstream."

Of course, no cheese is more mainstream than Kraft. After all, according to its commercials, America spells "cheese" K-R-A-F-T. And now America's largest cheese brand is taking a big leap into the organics case with its new Back to Nature brand of organic cream cheese and shredded cheeses, which are expected to hit store shelves this month. "We have a reduced-fat cheddar, white cheddar, and American slices that are not individually wrapped, but separated by interleaf," says Sarah Delea, senior manager, communications at Kraft's Madison, Wis. office. "We also have Back to Nature mozzarella and cheddar shreds, cheddar cubes, cream cheese, and Neufchatel, which is one-third the fat of regular cream cheese."

Kraft is also making additions to its flagship Kraft, Cracker Barrel, and Philadelphia brands. Philadelphia Whipped is being expanded to include Garlic & Herb, Ranch, and Cinnamon Brown Sugar varieties. "These are perfect for vegetables or spreading on crackers and bagels, and make a great low-carb snack on their own," says Alyssa Burns, a spokeswoman for Kraft Foods in Northfield, Ill.

Cracker Barrel is adding cubes and sliced shingles to its lineup, as well as packaging some of its bars in recloseable zippered packaging. "Consumers like this packaging so much because of the resealability," Burns notes.

Kraft is also expanding its String Ums line of snacking cheeses. "They are made with 2 percent milk and are a good source of calcium and low in carbs," Burns says. "They are portable and can stay out of refrigeration for a few hours, so they're perfect for adult and school snacks."

Fresh mozzarella cheese is also a great snack, in addition to its better-known role as a pizza topping. Last year, to increase its production capability, Formaggio Italian Cheese Specialties moved from Staten Island to a 60,000-square-foot facility in Monticello, N.Y. In addition to fresh and smoked mozzarella, Formaggio sells ciliegine balls, hand-twisted string cheese, prosciutto roll, pepperoni roll, sundried-tomato-and-pesto roll, and other specialty items to supermarkets and club stores across the country. "Formaggio got into the forefront of specialty mozzarella cheese before anybody else, and well before the majors realized what a market there was in specialty cheese," says Joe Moran, president of Western New York Food Products in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., which represents the company.

Lioni Latticini is another specialty mozzarella manufacturer on the move. Like Formaggio, the company has expanded its packaged ciliegine balls to include a version packaged in oil and herbs. "Instead of the stores having to buy marinade and repackage it from the foodservice tubs, we're just putting them in the box and right out on the shelf," says Jeff Silver, Florida distribution and operations manager in the Vero Beach, Fla. office of Union, N.J.-based Lioni Latticini.

Buffalo milk mozzarella

Through a relationship with Star Hill Dairy in Woodstock, Vt., Lioni Latticini is also expanding its distribution of water buffalo mozzarella. "We've done so well in the last six months that we're waiting for more calves, and we'll probably start milking them in about two months," says Silver, adding, "Unfortunately buffalos don't milk every day, like cows do. They're very limited in their milk production."

There have been some concerns that the milk pricing situation in the United States might cause consumers to seek out cheeses from Europe, but the strength of the euro and the pound have caused imported cheeses to see price hikes, too. "Given the strength of the pound in the last few months, cheese exports to the U.S. have taken a hit," says Jeewat Biljani, marketing consultant at Foods From Britain (North America), Inc. in Riverside, Conn. "A lot of retailers are now sourcing domestically, like Whole Foods. They buy a lot of cheese from the U.K., but they tell me a 15 percent increase in price they can't justify to the consumer." Foreign cheeses are also subject to quotas. "Cheese is one of those categories that are highly regulated by the U.S. government," Biljani says.

Nonetheless, U.S. consumers continue to seek out unique cheeses from Britain, Greece, and even New Jersey, showing that today America spells "delicious" C-H-E-E-S-E.
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