Kosher cheese lags behind libations in quality, but passionate artisans are catching up.
Nothing goes better with a fine glass of wine than a nice hunk of aged cheese. But when you’re cracking open a lovely bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon whose grapes were harvested from the mineral-rich hills of the Promised Land, a shrink-wrapped package of Muenster cheese slices just won’t do.
Especially during Shavuot, when we Jews celebrate all things dairy, a question emerges: Why, in an age when kosher vintners produce some of the finest and most varied bottles available, is the state of kosher cheeses so far behind? Why is it so hard to find a decent Parmesan to grate over our pasta, or a tangy fresh goat cheese to spread over our baguette? Sure, our local kosher market overflows with pre-sliced squares of bright-orange cheddar, and big bags of grated mozzarella — but why does it remain hard to find something a little more special?
To look for answers, we turned to some kosher cheese experts: Brent Delman, a wholesale food distributor who founded The Cheese Guy, his own line of high-end kosher cheeses that he ages in his Yonkers cheese cave; Brigitte Mizrahi, owner of the New Jersey-based kosher cheese company Anderson International Foods; Mark Bodzin, a former marketing manager who successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign to produce a limited-run aged kosher cheddar in Vermont; Yoram Behiri, president and CEO of Tnuva USA, a billion-dollar food conglomerate specializing in kosher dairy; and Rabbi Zushe Blech, a kosher consultant formerly of the OU and the author of “Kosher Food Production.”
Delman’s spacious Yonkers home has all the trappings of a middle-class life: a large backyard where the kids can play and a friendly, romping yellow lab puppy. Yet there’s something a little different about the house, which is revealed when Delman opens the door to the basement stairs: there’s something funky in the air. That funk emanates from wheel upon wheel of aged, European-style cheeses that sit on plastic racks in Delman’s custom-built, temperature- and humidity-controlled cheese cave. Nutty, crumbly Parmesan; tangy veined blue; cheddar that’s actually sharp: it’s all here.
“It’s all about the rennet,” Delman said of the secret to his kosher cheeses, referring to the naturally occurring enzyme used in cheesemaking to coagulate milk, separating it into curds and whey. Because this enzyme is produced in a calf’s stomach — the animals need it to digest the milk they drink from their mothers — it is unsuitable for making kosher cheese. So, for decades, kosher cheese producers have focused on creating the wonderful soft “cheeses” — cream cheese, cottage cheese, farmer’s cheese — that make up such a huge part of the Jewish diet: these spreads are not technically cheeses and require only vinegar or lemon juice, not rennet, to be made. Cheeses requiring rennet — especially European-style aged cheeses — were neglected in favor of these dairy choices.
But over the past 20 years, the availability and affordability of microbial rennet, which is produced by certain fungi, has revolutionized the kosher cheese world: This rennet can be used in the same way as its traditional counterpart to create the flavors in cheese that connoisseurs like Delman seek out.
There’s another issue at play, Delman says: cheese is seen, somehow, as less central to a special meal than is meat.
“In the kosher world, cheese has been the neglected younger sibling to meat,” he said. “At a celebratory meal, you can have meat, or you can have cheese. Diners typically choose meat, and cheese has gotten the short shrift.”
Mark Bodzin, whose Kickstarter campaign to fund two days of kosher cheddar production at a mainstream Vermont cheese factory exceeded its $16,000 goal in March, agreed.
“People need to have exposure to this in order to know that they want it,” he said. “Slowly but surely, we’re going to begin to demand a bit more of our cheeses.”
Rabbi Blech sees another obstacle to widespread enjoyment of kosher cheeses: cost. He notes that while the quality of most factory-made kosher foods can be monitored by systems, not people, kosher cheeses specifically require the presence of a mashgiach — and when companies have to pay for a mashgiach, the overall cost of producing the cheese goes way up.
“For rennet-set cheeses, the mashgiach has to be there to add the rennet,” Blech said, “or he has to watch as someone else puts it in. These productions are labor-intensive, and the cost of the cheese can be prohibitive.”
The expense of kashrut is a competitive advantage for larger companies that can more easily absorb the costs.
Tnuva, a cooperative Israeli farms founded in 1926 to provide drinking milk to the nascent state, is now the country’s biggest dairy manufacturer. It has invested in a collaboration between its kosher supervisors and its research and development department in order to increase the number and quality of kosher cheeses it can produce.
“The production of kosher ‘chalav Israel’ cheeses is more complex than the production of kosher wines,” said Behiri of Tnuva USA, referring to dairy products that require the supervision of an observant Jew.
Many factories in the United States, for example, produce mostly non-kosher cheese, which means that they must pay to kasher the entire factory. That expense in turn means they must make mostly cheeses that appeal to a broad market and not those that are more challenging to the palate.
Most of the experts we consulted estimated that the world of kosher cheese lags about 10 to 15 years behind that of kosher wine. Yet they were optimistic that a new breed of kosher cheesemakers is beginning to close that gap.
One of them is Brigitte Mizrahi of Anderson International Foods, which produces both European-style kosher cheeses such as brie and American-style flavored kosher cheeses like Colby and Jack. She said that the young, foodie generation of kosher consumers has developed a taste for the wonderful cheeses they may have sampled during trips abroad.
“That age group of 25-35 is exploring different types of world cuisine in their travels — and that includes cheese,” Mizrahi said, noting that Israel, for example, has had a long tradition of excellent kosher cheeses. “These are the kinds of people who buy our product.”
She noted that companies like hers and Delman’s are flooding the market with more and more choices—and that cheese eaters love them.
“You’re starting to see a lot more variety — in terms of country of origin, in terms of milk — not just from cows but also from goats and sheep, and also a lot more interest,” she said. “I see it when we go to any industry event and sample out our cheese; people are trying it more and more.”
Mizrahi said she was confident that in a few years, the selection of kosher cheeses will be nearly indistinguishable from that of conventional cheeses.
In about a decade, Behiri said, virtually every cheese on the market will be available to kosher customers.
The smart money seems to see the potential in kosher cheese. According to the Israeli business publication Globes, a controlling interest in Tnuva is about to be sold to a Chinese company, Bright Food Group, for about 8.5 billion to 9 billion shekels (about $2.5 billion).
“We’re still a few years behind the explosion that’s happened in kosher wine, but we’re getting there,” Mizrahi said.
Helen Chernikoff contributed to this article.
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