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Cheese Outlook

Last year, strong milk prices paid to farmers coupled with rising fuel costs caused a spike in wholesale cheese prices.

By the summer of 2007, commodity cheddar cheese prices had reached a whopping $2 per pound wholesale, dipping to $1.88 by the first quarter of 2008. Since half of the U.S. milk supply goes to making cheese, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, everyone was experiencing higher wholesale prices.

The outlook is a bit brighter for the remainder of 2008. First of all, the ERS projects an increase in American milk production over 2007, from 185.4 billion pounds to 190.2 billion. More milk should translate into higher cheese production and put downward pressure on cheese prices. “We’re forecasting prices down for the rest of the year,” reports Roger Hoskins, dairy outlook agricultural economist for the ERS. “By next quarter [April to June], the price should drop to $1.67 a pound—still high, but not as high as late in 2007.”

“New factors are at play in the cheese market,” claims John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. “World demand is way up, especially in Japan, China and Indonesia, and there have been production declines in the E.U.” Although specialty cheese imports from abroad are still reaching our tables, American-made cheeses are increasingly making their way to other countries.

Product cutting

Kerrygold’s Dubliner cheese

Led by Enda Howley, Cheese Grader

Dubliner is an Irish specialty cheese made from milk produced during the summer months and aged a minimum of one year. It uses starter cultures similar to those of Cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan; the cheese has the richness of a mature Cheddar with the sweet nuttiness of Swiss and the bite of an aged Parmesan.

  1. Check the packaging. Foodservice sizes are available in 5-pound loaves shrink-wrapped in plastic film; packaging should be clean and reasonably snug around the cheese.
  2. Unwrap the cheese and note appearance. Color should be golden and uniform. Texture should be even with some evidence of crystal formation to reflect maturity. These are calcium lactate crystals that occur naturally during aging and give the cheese a slight crunch.
  3. Smell the cheese. The aroma should be clean with no off odors.
  4. Cut into the cheese. The texture should be a little crumbly but not as pronounced as in a cheddar.
  5. Taste the cheese at room temperature. Dubliner has a unique sweet, nutty flavor with a hint of salt and pleasant mouthfeel; it is less acidic than aged cheddar but nicely complex.
  6. Melt a slice of Dubliner on a piece of bread. It should exhibit good melting properties, enhancing the flavor of the cheese and producing a desirable gooey texture.

Q & A with Francesca Elfner

BelGioioso Cheese, Denmark, Wisconsin

What trends are you addressing?

We’re focusing on artisanal cheeses. Our newest are burrata, a fresh mozzarella filled with cream; crescenza, a rindless cheese with a mild, milky flavor; and Italico, a soft, earthy table cheese. Since our cheese maker is from Italy, these are very authentic even though they’re produced in the United States.

How can foodservice operators spec customized products? 

Just ask. Several companies are going in this direction. BelGioioso does custom blends of Italian cheeses, such as a 63 percent parmesan/37 percent asiago mix, and we package cheese in crumbled, cubed, shredded and shaved forms. When asked to age a cheese a little longer or less, we can also oblige.

What issues should operators consider when buying cheese?

Food safety is very important to consumers right now. Work with suppliers that offer tours of their facilities, conduct third party audits and can trace products.

Are broadline distributors offering more specialty cheeses?

Sysco has a new service called ChefEx. Operators pay Sysco directly and BelGioioso or another company is then responsible for shipping out specialty cheeses right to the restaurant.

Can you share storage tips?

Cheese has to breathe, so monitor temperature and oxygen transfer. The right wrappings help; paper absorbs some of the moisture and plastic keeps it moist. For fresh, creamy cheeses, refrigerate at 34 to 38°F., wrapping with both paper and plastic. Store hard cheeses at 40 to 50°F. wrapped in plastic.

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