Herb It Up

Herbs and spices help create unique new cheese flavors consumers are excited to try

To explore how herbs can impart flavors to cheese, I visited Liberty Heights Fresh (1290 S. 1100 East, SLC, 801-583-7374, LibertyHeightsFresh.com) at the invitation of owner Steven Rosenberg to peruse their high-quality cheese selection.

A beautiful wheel of traditional Alp Blossom cheese stood out with its colorful floral coating of dried lavender, blue cornflower, rose and calendula petals. The creaminess blends with the subtle to strongly flavored herb bits, resulting in a cheese meant to be savored.

Another less showy wheel had a modest green rind with particles from the fresh hay in which it was ripened. The flavor of the firm, edible rind brought back memories of blue-sky days during haying season. Pecorino that had been coated in juniper berries had an interesting astringency.

There was a soft cheese dusted with shitake mushroom powder, Gouda dotted with peppercorns and a cheese from Cyprus packaged in its minty brine. Varieties of soft chevre were flavored with basil, chives or apricots and honey.

Herbs and cheese make great companions because herbs’ aromatic essential oils blend with fat in the cheese to complement its flavor. Novel vegetal flavorings include wild fennel pollen, cedar, brandy-soaked raisins and roasted hops (which pair well with beer).

Besides enhanced flavor, herbs add visual appeal to cheese with their bright color variations. Red chili flakes, blue lavender flowers and dark green specks of nettle can add interest to an attractive cheese board. Consider Gouda infused with basil, garlic, Herbs de Provence, Sambal, fenugreek, truffle, walnuts and mustard.

Rubbed the Right Way
To achieve these complex flavors, a variety of methods are employed in the cheese-making process. Marinating, rubbing, rolling, dusting, mixing and aging cheese with herbs and spices all affect the final product. Timing of each unique process must be precise to achieve the perfect outcome.

Flavors can be subtle or bold. There is Liptauer, an unripened Hungarian cheese made from sheep’s milk, combined with paprika, capers, caraway seeds, anchovies and garlic. And there’s No Woman, named after the Bob Marley song, from Beecher’s Handmade Cheeses, that’s a jack-style flavored with a complex jerk blend and a bit of brown sugar.

Utah has its own award-winning cheese artisans who have skillfully perfected some herb/cheese blends. Gold Creek Farms makes an eye-popping Cherry Sage Cheddar which shows off bits of local dried crimson cherries with green sage flecks. They also make a bright Rosemary Mint and a Bacon Chive Cheddar that’s perfect for a more adult version of a grilled cheese sandwich.

Beehive Cheese features cheddars with unique, fragrant, flavorful rubs like espresso and lavender coated Barely Buzzed, Big John’s Cajun, Red Butte Hatch Chile and Teahive rubbed with Earl Grey tea.

Heber Valley Artisan Cheese makes an award-winning, intensely flavored Wasatch Back Jack with notes of jalepeño, lime, sweet bell pepper and sundried tomatoes. Their Fuego Rojo is a fiesta of flavors: salsa rubbed cheddar with extra heat in the rind. Or try the Vanilla Bean-rubbed cheddar, which achieves a mellow smoothness after the zing of cheese has dissipated. Speaking of zing, Heber Valley’s Lemon Lavender is sure to refresh the palate.

What are the inspirations for these combinations?

Is the cheese mild, strong, pungent, hard or soft? Will it be sliced, melted, spread or just nibbled? A rule of thumb is milder cheeses such as chevre go well with milder herbs like chives, tarragon, dill and marjoram.

Nothing beats traditional mozzarella with fresh basil. Briny feta can handle stronger, earthy herbs like oregano. Cheddar blends with bold sage and can balance with sweet or savory flavors. Versatile, creamy havarti combines with gentle dill or hot horseradish.

Utah is fortunate to have cheesemongers such as Steven Rosenberg who choose to bring in the best and most authentic offerings. It’s worth spending time there to bring home a wedge of world-class cheese and, in my case, to marvel at the art and craft required to marry herbs with cheese to achieve uniquely flavored offerings.

DIY Herbed Cheese
A cheese log is easy to make by mixing 8-ounces cream cheese and 8-ounces goat cheese. Roll the combo into a log and roll again in diced fresh herbs like chives, parsley and chervil to cover it in green. This can also be modified to make bite-size cheese balls.

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