I don't have kids. But I'm an aunt. And the other day, I decided to involve my twin niece and nephew in a tasting designed to gauge their openness to so-called grownup cheeses. Because while I can't blame my busy sister for feeding her kids quesadillas with pre-shredded cheese, I've always wondered if she doesn't give their palates enough credit.
Here, the results on how various cheeses fared, plus other ideas for gateway cheeses to feed the kiddies.
Maybe it's precisely because I'm not a mother, but I've always kind of thought that children get the short end of the stick when it comes to food. Why do we automatically assume that they like only the most simple of things?
There's something to be said for exposing young kids to new flavors. Sharing food builds bonds, inspires a sense of family, and prepares your young'ins for a life full of unique and fulfilling food experiences. Plus, it's much more fun to raise an adventurous eater than a picky one.
Bloomy Rinded Cheese
I started our tasting with a bloomy rinded sheep milk cheese from Andante Dairy. Thought I'd begin with something creamy and mild, with just an ever-so-subtle gamey funk from the sheep milk. They both ate it up, entirely undeterred. I believe the exact words my nephew used were "yummy in my tummy." And that white, skin-like rind? Ate it without a second thought. No digging out the insides of brie wheels for these relatives of mine.
• Conclusion: If kids enjoy mild creamy cheeses like Havarti or Monterey Jack, they very well might make strides into the world of bloomy rinded cheeses, like bries, camembert, or even young and creamy mixed milk, robiola style cheeses.
• Try: La Tur, Brunet, Vermont Butter and Cheese Bonne Bouche, Rochetta, Jasper Hill Farm Constant Bliss or Moses Sleeper, Brie de Nangis, or Fromage D'Affinois.
Next up was an 18-month aged Gruyere, sharp and nutty. Again, a pretty easy sell. "Like pizza!" said my niece. They're both big fans of grilled cheese. And I couldn't help but think how much more complex a lunch they could have with some melty Swiss Gruyere instead of their typical American singles.
• Conclusion: If you've introduced your kids to simple, mild Swiss cheeses like Jarlsberg or Emmenthaler, they'll probably go for other strong aged cheeses in the mountain cheese style, or even aged Goudas, which are also characterized by sweet and nutty flavors.
• Try: Gruyere, Comte, Aged Appenzeller, Fontina Val D'Aosta, Hoch Ybrig, Boerenkaas, Noord Hollander, Vincent Van Gogh Gouda, Prima Donna
I know they both love cheddar, and so next I tried them out on a farmhouse cheddar. Farmhouse cheddars are strong. Musty tasting, like earth or hay or a cave. I had Cabot Clothbound cheddar from Vermont, and perhaps had I chosen Keen's or another stronger English one they'd have been more opposed, but again, they were total takers.
• Conclusion: Go beyond a mild block cheddar. Try something aged and sharp to start, like a New York state block cheddar aged for a year or more, and then venture into English-style cheddars that are cave-aged and earthy. There are some interesting French cheeses that have cheddar-like qualities, too, like those in the Cantal family.
• Try: Cantal, Cantalet, Salers du Buron, Quicke's Cheddar, Double Glouchester, Fiscalini Bandaged Chedddar, Beecher's Flagship Reserve, or Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
Next up was a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which my nephew promptly grabbed and started eating whole. My sister has since had to figure a way to coerce him to eat parm by the slice as opposed to the entire piece.
• Conclusion: Your kids might be obsessed with Parmigiano-Reggiano, like my nephew. If you buy pre-grated or even canned domestic parmesans, try going for the real stuff. Or pecorinos.
• Try: Parmigiano-Reggiano. If your kids like this, they're set for life. And then venture into other Italian-style aged cheeses, like aged Pecorino Toscanos and Pecorino Romano.
Finally, I ended with blue. Sadly, and expectedly, this wasn't terribly well received. A bit of reverse psychology would have worked better, because I really went in for the kill with some positive reinforcement, presenting the sampling with perhaps a bit too much reinforcement.
• Conclusion: Maybe blues aren't the best for young kids, but it's well worth a shot. Start with mild blues.
• Try: Fourme D'Ambert, Montbriac, Cambozola, Gorgonzola Cremificato
For other ideas, use what you know your kids already like as a springboard for other cheeses to try. If they're into cream cheese and mozzarella, introduce them to other fresh cheeses that are stronger, like fresh goat cheese. And if they like the fresh goat, go towards aged versions, like Humboldt Fog, Haystack Mountain's Haystack Peak, Coupole, Chevrot, Chabichou du Poitu, and Crottin de Chavignol. And if they like munster or even red wax gouda, try slightly more stinky cheeses, like Taleggio, Fontina Fontal, or Meadowcreek Dairy's Grayson.
And if they don't like what you give them, try and try again.
What cheeses do your kids love? Anything unexpected crop up in your cheese adventures with the children?
Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop. Until recently she was a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show. She is currently a freelance food stylist and private chef in New York City.
Related: Gourmet Grilled Cheese: Tips from Ruth Reichl
(Images: Nora Singley)