How flavoured cheese went from naff novelty to foodie favourite

Flavoured cheese is not just for Christmas, as M&S's sales prove
Flavoured cheese is not just for Christmas, as M&S's sales prove - Paxton and Whitfield

“This is the year that we show the world that flavoured cheeses are not just limited to wensleydale with cranberries,” wrote cheese expert Emma Young in a newsletter late last year, predicting trends for 2024.

As a cheese lover I was intrigued. At my local supermarket I noticed the cheese fridges were packed with chilli-, garlic- and apricot-flavoured cheese – and those were the palatable ones. Online, I found heinous-sounding rum and pineapple or Sunday Roast cheddars. Boursin they were not.

Flavoured cheese is controversial. In the industry’s upper echelons it is often frowned upon, if not derided. This is less to do with the concept of adding flavour, says Jazz Reeves, quality manager at centuries-old London cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield, and more because flavoured cheeses are “associated with lower quality cheeses”. In an attempt to disprove this assumption, the venerable business teamed up with Rave coffee company to launch its own fusion fromage last December – Kaldi, a goat’s cheese matured with a coffee coating which lends it notes of peach and nougat, as well as espresso.

'In the industry's upper echelons, flavoured cheese is often frowned upon', writes Morrissy-Swan
'In the industry's upper echelons, flavoured cheese is often frowned upon', writes Morrissy-Swan - Sharpham Dairy

Most of us consider flavoured cheeses a festive treat. Asda, for example, sees a 169 per cent increase in value sales of the stuff in December. But, increasingly, a flavoured cheese is not just for Christmas. At M&S, where cranberry wensleydale is the bestselling iteration (followed by a garlic and herb soft cheese and a chilli-spiked Cornish Cruncher), flavoured cheeses are showing double-digit growth this year, outpacing their more traditional unflavoured counterparts.

Greg Parsons, co-owner of Sharpham Dairy in Devon, which makes a beautiful satellite-shaped goat’s cheese called Ticklemore, is a producer who doesn’t shy away from unusual additions. “In the artisan world, people don’t like what they might term as ‘mucked-around-with cheese’,” Parsons admits. However, his semi-hard cow’s cheese, Rustic, has versions made with garlic and chive or dulse and sea lettuce.

Nicky and Greg Parsons, owners of Sharpham Dairy in Devon
Nicky and Greg Parsons, owners of Sharpham Dairy in Devon

“It’s got a massive following, we’re definitely not ashamed of that,” says Parsons, who used to work for M&S, where he realised just how much people loved flavoured cheeses. Rustic is a creamy, mellow cheese and a “really good carrier of subtle flavours,” he explains. Indeed, the seaweed version has delicate umami notes but, crucially, doesn’t taste like a maki roll.

The Sharpham Rustic
The Sharpham Rustic, which has garlic, chive and seaweed flavours - Sharpham Dairy

One reason for the popularity of cheeses such as the wax-coated chilli Lancashire Bomb, Parsons suggests, is convenience. There’s a reason supermarkets sell roasting joints in trays – people don’t want to touch raw meat. Why add chutney to your plate when you can simply scoff caramelised red onion cheddar?

In fact, far from being a naff novelty, there’s a long tradition of flavouring cheeses. Cumin gouda has been eaten since the 17th century, a result of the spice trade. Mint is involved in the production of traditional halloumi. More recently, truffle has become the enhancer of choice: when handled delicately, as in Paxton & Whitfield’s brie aux truffes or the excellent truffle Baron Bigod produced by Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk, it’s a welcome addition.

“If you enjoy something, I don’t think there should be any controversy in enjoying it,” says Reeves. “All cheese has its market.”

8 flavoured cheeses to try

Sharpham Rustic with Chives and Garlic

from £9.90 for 450g

This herby version of Sharpham’s beautifully mild, creamy but crumbly cheese won’t scare off garlic refuseniks – it’s no Boursin. The garlic and chive scent and flavours are instead a mere backnote, so you can still taste the excellent cow’s milk cheese.

Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Truffle Gouda

£4.50 for 180g

Truffle can easily overpower, especially when in oil form, but here specks of real truffle add a delicate funkiness that complement the mellow, sweet, nutty gouda wonderfully. It’s a really delicious cheese and makes a killer toastie, particularly when blended with a good mature cheddar.

M&S Food Cranberry Wensleydale

Ocado, £3.20 for 200g 

A pale cheese contrasted by huge – and plentiful – purple-red cranberries. It crumbles nicely and the cheese is light and mildly acidic, which works nicely against the sweet, tart, juicy fruit. They do slightly overpower it, but deliver a good overall taste.

Sainsbury’s French Roulé

£2.10 for 125g 

Taking inspiration from the cult favourite Boursin, this soft cheese rolled in flecks of garlic, parsley and chives is fresh, bright and lemony. The garlic and herbs are powerful, dominating the cheese. But anyone who loves garlicky Boursin will see this is a treat.

Rave x Paxton & Whitfield Kaldi

£15.50 per 250g

Made in collaboration with Cirencester-based coffee roasters Rave, Kaldi is a beautiful goat’s cheese. Relatively hard, it’s sweet, slightly lemony, with hints of caramel and nougat. The coffee rind is potent but not overpowering, and it’s surprising how well it complements the cheese.

The Chuckling Cheese Company Sunday Roast Cheddar

£4.95 for 200g

Those fearing a blend of beef and Yorkshire pudding will be relieved; instead it’s the aromatics of a traditional roast – garlic, black pepper, rosemary – which have been incorporated here (the latter is the predominant flavour). It looks a bit grey but the adaptation pays off, amazingly.

M&S Food Mango & Ginger White Stilton

Ocado, £3.20 for 200g 

A pale white stilton that pairs quite nicely with the mango and ginger. A good contrast of flavours, but the cheese is rather lost, just a salty backnote, with the mango and ginger doing the heavy lifting.

Waitrose Davidstow Cheddar with Chilli

£2.90 for 180g

There’s plenty of chilli speckled throughout this pale, soft but mature cheddar, lending a fruity, peppery hint that works well. Not a bad effort, though I think I’d prefer plain Davidstow with a dollop of chilli jam.

And one to swerve…

Sainsbury’s Chipotle Chilli Cheddar

£2.65 for 200g 

It certainly doesn’t look appetising – as though someone has squished cheese and chilli chunks together in their hands, like putty. The ingredients list includes chilli, sugar, white wine vinegar, dried onion and garlic purée, as if the intention was to make a spicy sausage. It tastes disconcertingly like chorizo, too. In fact, nibbled blind one might think it is ‘nduja – it’s barely recognisable as cheese.