Monday, February 22, 2010

Cheese, Lite

Want to make a die-hard foodie crazy, absolutely loony? Start talking about reduced-fat or, better still, "lite" cheese. I know, because when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to be writing about this topic, I got lectured and harangued by people who are convinced that the only good cheese is a full fat cheese and that if people just ate in moderation they could enjoy a triple cream Brillat Savarin, a Herve Mons Camembert, or luxurious Italian Gorgonzola Dolce.

And, for people who excel at moderation, I'm all for indulging in full-fat cheeses. But some of us have proven track records of excess and for those people, who need to cut back and need help doing it, there's an entire industry of cheese making that is offering products that are less fatty and lower in sodium than their counterparts. One of these company's Beemster, actually sparked this search. Their PR folks sent me a new product of theirs, Beemster Lite.

Now you won't find these "lite" cheeses, including Beemster Liter, at Venissimo or Taste Artisan Cheese in San Diego. Gina Freize, owner of Venissimo, explained that she doesn't carry reduced-fat cheeses because "True cheese is simply milk, salt and rennet. And milk naturally has fats. Of course, some cheese types are made with skim milk with naturally lowers the calories, but they are not altered in any other way."

Taste's Mary Palmer doesn't source for them either. She's tried a few so-called low- or reduced-fat cheeses and found that they seem to lose flavor, texture, richness, and many of the distinctive qualities we eat cheese for. But, she said, "I've had customers on restricted diets who are avowed 'cheese nuts' and so I try to search out the skim milk cheeses that deliver."

Now, as both said, some cheeses are naturally lower in fat. These include string cheese, part-skim mozzarella, farmers cheese, and Neufchâtel. Plus, goat cheeses tend to be lower in fat than cheeses made from cows milk. So, all is not lost, but other than the goat cheeses, these typically aren't exactly the most flavor-packing cheeses either. And, while you'll certainly find low-fat versions of Jack and Cheddar, Swiss and Muenster, you'll discover quickly that, by and large, the flavor is lacking and the texture rubbery. This is what has the foodies who lashed out so infuriated. And, they have a point. So, if you're looking for flavor and mouth appeal, are there any good options?

Armed with my package of Beemster Lite and in a quest to find other reduced-fat cheeses that might hold some promise, I headed to Trader Joe's, Taste, and Henry's to see what they had. I was already familiar with a couple of the cheeses, of the new ones some were quite palatable, even strikingly good; one was an utter bust.

Let's talk about the Beemster Lite first, since this is what launched my little quest. If you're unfamiliar with the Beemster name, let's just say that their Beemster X-O is a godly little Gouda. Made for centuries in The Netherlands, the cheese is matured for 26 months, which results in an intensely complex flavor and gritty texture, thanks to the moisture's evaporation, that makes it wonderful served on a cheese plate or grated like Parmesan. You can find it at Taste.

You can't say the same about Beemster Lite. Yes, it's in the same family but you simply can't get the same qualities in a cheese that contains 30 percent less fat than other cheeses and 20 percent less salt. That being said, if you can appreciate it as a different being, it still has a very clean, nice flavor that works for making a grilled cheese sandwich or even just munching on. You won't get that marvelous X-O texture, but it's not at all rubbery. I melted slices on homemade sourdough for breakfast and thoroughly enjoyed it.


Then I turned to a cheese I've bought in the past and liked for the same reasons I liked the Beemster Lite. It melts well and has good flavor. That's the Kerrygold reduced fat aged cheddar. Henry's carries this cheese and I'm quite happy to grate it onto a tostada or bowl of chili or eat it in a quesadilla or on a piece of toasted bread with sliced fruit for breakfast. I probably wouldn't serve it on a cheese plate for company, but it's a good workhorse of a cheese for people who want a flavorful lower fat cheese but are looking to cut back calories.

Since these tasting games are more fun and useful with other people involved, I invited my friend Gayle Falkenthal over to help with the rest of the cheeses, which included a Cabot reduced-fat cheddar, a "lite" Celtic cheddar from Trader Joe's--not surprisingly called "Paddy Joe's"--a "lite" Brie, also from Trader Joe's, and a slice of Tomme de Savoie from Taste.

Clockwise from top: Kerrygold Reduced Fat Cheddar, Cabot Reduced Fat Cheddar, "Paddy Joe's" Reduced Fat Celtic Cheddar, Trader Joe's "lite" Brie, Tomme de Savoie

We ate the cheeses alone, with crackers, and melted a few on flour tortillas to make quesadillas.

The very orange Cabot reduced cheddar was fine, but nothing special. It melted well, it had a clear cheddar flavor but without any real sharpness or interesting texture.

On the other hand, the Paddy Joe's Celtic Cheddar was Gayle's favorite. It had a wonderfully crumbly texture as opposed to the usual reduced-fat rubbery quality you tend to get and it had a pure sharp flavor.

The lite Brie was dreadful. It has 50 percent less fat and 30 percent less calories, according to its label, and 100 percent less flavor or texture, according to our palates. I had left it out for two hours to come to room temperature and it remained a rubbery example of what not to do to cheese. We each had a bite and then I tossed it.

Now, the Tomme de Savoie was a whole other animal. This is an example of what Mary Palmer and Gina Freize were talking about, a semi-firm cheese naturally made from skim milk--in this case cows milk--with an earthy, almost mushroomy flavor. Tomme de Savoie is an AOC-protected French cheese from the Alps ("tomme" simply means wheel of cheese, so it's a wheel of cheese from the Savoie region of France). These cows are dining on mountain grasses and the skim milk is the leftover from the cream used to make butter and richer cheeses. So, it's naturally lower in fat content (between 20 and 40 percent) but still packs the flavor and has a lovely creamy texture and pleasingly sour rind.

While, by no means comprehensive, the little scavenger hunt proved instructive to me. I think I have to agree with my foodie respondents when it comes to high-fat cheeses like Bries. I don't think you can come close to replicating the pleasure in a lower fat version. Indulge if you must, but moderately if you can. But, I've been back to Taste for more Tomme de Savoie (and Beemster X-O), and will continue to buy the reduced fat Kerrygold cheddar as well as the TJ's copycat. Let me know if you have some favorite lower-fat cheeses you enjoy and where they can be purchased.

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