Americans who grew up on grilled cheese and macaroni have developed more adventuresome tastes in adulthood, experimenting with a broader range of cheeses and often seeking the sharper flavors that have traditionally been popular in Europe.
Food experts shared their observations on Americans' evolving palates this week as judges chose the world's best cheese at the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison. The top honor went to a Swiss Gruyere, a type of hard cheese that may once have been considered exotic but is now commonly featured in food magazines.
"People are more open and adventurous than they used to be," said Liz Thorpe, a vice president with Murray's Cheese in New York City. "Ten years ago if you offered someone goat's milk cheese they'd say, 'That's weird, get it away.' Now they say, 'That's weird, I want to try it.'"
The change of heart has been fed by a number of factors -- food-related TV programming, greater access to a range of imported cheeses and attention to a growing number of awards for U.S. cheesemakers at international contests like the one held in Madison, Thorpe and others said. Tastes also have changed as more people travel internationally.
Cheeses made from sheep and goat's milk are common in Europe because the smaller animals are better suited to grazing on hills and mountains than cows. The cheeses were all but unknown in the U.S. until tourists who encountered them overseas began looking for them when they returned home, Thorpe said. As tourism increased, so did demand in the U.S.
For example, Murray's Cheese sold $400,000 worth of goat's and sheep's milk cheese in 2004, Thorpe said. Last year, its sales were $2 million.
Bill Schlinsog, a former cheesemaker and one of the judge's at this year's World Championship Cheese Contest, said diners like the idea of sheep's milk cheese for sampling something new.
"It's special, it's something they haven't tried before," he said. "And now that the quality of the cheese is improved, people are more accepting of it. They're willing to be more adventuresome."
American cheesemakers once lacked Europeans' skill in working with sheep's milk, but that's no longer the case, said Laura Werlin, who has written four books on cheese trends.
Jeff Roberts, a co-founder of the Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont, said he thought the recession also had encouraged Americans to be more adventurous, particularly at the grocer's.
"People started saying, 'Instead of taking $20 to go out to eat, let's take that $20 and go to a good specialty cheese store and eat it at home,'" he said.
And as more people sample specialty cheese, they see it as interesting rather than intimidating.
"What we're really starting to see is, this appeals to people who like to taste food from different areas and enjoy exploring different cultures," Christine Hyatt, the vice president of the American Cheese Society.
U.S. cheesemakers' success in international contests also has helped boost sales, much as interest in wine grew when California vintners began holding their own in European wine competitions. For example, American cheesemakers won gold medals in 51 of 77 categories this week in Madison, including nine for goat's or mixed milk cheeses.
That means any diner should be able to find a cheese to match taste and budget, the experts said. Hyatt recommended pairing a sheep's milk cheese with a fruity red wine to bring out the cheese's rich buttery flavor, while Thorpe likes cheeses flavored with herbs or peppers.
The good thing about cheese is that "you can buy a small amount," Werlin said.
"Leave your Costco mentality at home," she recommended, "buy just what you need for tonight and just enjoy it."
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.