Kosher Cheese for Shavuot
Kosher cheese goes upscale
Written by Barbara Pash
Photography by Kirsten Beckerman
If anyone knows cheese, it’s Brigitte Mizrahi. She’s French. She grew up eating great cheese and, a dozen years ago, Mizrahi formed her own company to bring kosher cheese to America.
“Historically, kosher consumers are not big cheese eaters. We are trying to do the same thing the kosher wine industry did. We are trying to educate consumers that not everything has to taste like muenster cheese,” Mizrahi says from her office in New York.
Ms. Mizrahi’s company is called Anderson International Foods and it sells kosher cheese under two brands: Les Petites Fermieres (“The Little Farm Girl”) and Natural And Kosher. Both brands are sold in grocery stores throughout the United States.
Anderson International makes its own kosher cheeses and imports them as well. Northern California is the site for its plant, with its own rabbinic supervision. On the import side, goat cheese comes from Chile; brie and camembert from Canada.
The company’s tactic seems to be working. Since its founding, the market for kosher cheeses has grown, says Mizrahi. Consumers are requesting a wider variety of cheeses and more convenience, like zip-lock packaging.
She sees two distinct markets for her products. First, there’s the “everyday consumer,” who wants American cheese slices for sandwiches and shredded cheese for omelettes. Second, there are consumers who want “fancy” cheeses like Monterey jack and pepper jack or, in industry terms, an assortment of flavors in one cheese.
Ron Wise is national director of kosher products for D.P.I. Specialty Foods, a national distributor of ethnic food in the U.S. Overall, the kosher market in this country is estimated at $200 billion. That includes anything certified as kosher, from Oreo cookies to Coors beer. The ethnic market, aimed specifically at the kosher consumer, is in the $18-billion range.
Wise seconds Mizrahi about kosher cheese. He’s noticed a spurt in consumption in the past five years. Partly, that’s due to consumer demand and partly to the availability of kosher cheeses in American supermarkets.
“Many countries make kosher cheeses for the domestic market and now, because of the growth of the U.S. market, it’s worth sending here,” he says. “Consumers buy the brands in the stores. They don’t realize where they came from.”
Like Mizrahi, Wise also says that kosher consumers are requesting a wider variety of cheeses beyond the standard cheddar, muenster and mozzarella. Now you can get kosher brie, camembert and gruyere.
Israeli kosher cheeses are available, too, although Wise says it’s not a “huge portion” of the kosher cheese market, certainly when compared to domestic kosher cheese manufacturers.
The reason? Israeli cheeses are not the kind Americans usually eat. “Israel is known for goat’s cheese, feta cheese — the typical Middle Eastern cheeses you’d expect,” says Wise.
That’s fine in certain places like New York, Los Angeles and south Florida, where a lot of Israelis live. They know the brands — Barkanit, Gad, Tneva — and are delighted to find them here. Some Israeli manufacturers are trying to expand their U.S. market by repackaging their products and even changing their names.
Locally, Jack Fromberg is the “go-to” guy for cheese. Fromberg is head of The Great Cheese, a Baltimore-based distributor of specialty cheeses, of which kosher cheese accounts for a fraction of his business.
“I do it out of love for my native country,” he says of cheeses from Israel. “It’s a mitzvah.”
Unlike France and Italy, or even Denmark, Israel is not known for its cheeses. That’s changing. In recent years, thanks to a more sophisticated Israeli consumer, the country’s cheese industry has grown. Most of the cheese made in Israel is consumed in Israel, but some is exported to Europe and the U.S.
“They tend to be the softer variety like labne, which is a cheese native to the Middle East and is eaten for breakfast, and feta and emek, a Swiss-style cheese,” he says.
According to Fromberg, a big problem for imported kosher cheeses, including those from Israel, is kashrut certification. It’s difficult for kosher consumers to assess standards. For that reason, he says, “most of the kosher cheeses you find in grocery stores are from the U.S., because consumers can pretty much rely on the certification.”
Fromberg says the only nearby retail outlets for Israeli cheeses are Seven Mile Market, in Baltimore, and Kosher Mart, in Silver Spring. However, a few restaurants do offer Israeli cheese. “It adds variety to their cheese menu,” he says.
That doesn’t mean you can’t find kosher cheese in Baltimore, though.
Whole Foods, in Mount Washington, carries the following kosher brands, all made in the U.S.: Tillamook, a farmer-owned vegetarian product; Sugar River Cheese Company, with a variety of cheeses; Hawks Hill Creamery, vegetarian and kosher; and Five Spoke Creamery, located in Pennsylvania.
“People do come in and ask if we have kosher cheese,” says Whole Foods’ Molly Kushner.
Trader Joe’s sells Tillamook brand cheddar in selected stores on the East Coast and Midwest.
Eddie’s of Roland Park stocks a variety of kosher cheeses. Among them are jarlsberg from Norway, goat’s cheese from California, fresh mozzarella from Italy and organic cheddar from New Zealand.
“We get requests for hostess cheese baskets with an assortment of cheeses and the requests are for kosher,” says Eddie’s Jo Alexander. “We don’t promote ourselves as a kosher market but we do have extensive kosher products.”
Nina and Saul Blecker
Nina and Saul Blecker are newcomers to Baltimore. The couple moved here last July from New York City so Dr. Blecker could accept a three-year fellowship at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in internal medicine. They have a 15-month-old daughter, Joey, live in Federal Hill and belong to Bnai Israel Congregation.
“We’d never been to Baltimore before. It’s a big change from New York and a bit of an adjustment,” says Nina, who works part-time at Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health on an international public health management project.
Since their arrival, the Bleckers have been busy exploring the city and surrounding suburbs. Nina says they really like the downtown area. “There are lots of things to do with kids. We can walk to the Inner Harbor, to the (National) Aquarium,” she says.
They also enjoyed their first autumn in Maryland. “We were told the ‘shoulder’ seasons, fall and spring, are lovely. We thought the fall was really nice and we’re hoping spring will be equally so,” she says.
Nina says she cooks “a fair amount.” For Shavuot, she prepares a lot of dairy dishes. “We always like to make cheesecake or strawberry shortcake,” she says. “Those are our favorites for Shavuot.”