By Jessica Pook

Cheese has always been a passenger pleaser and now new flavours, consumer trends and dietary requirements are all driving new offerings onboard, says Jessica Pook

Cheese over chocolate? For me it’s a no brainer! From the humble sandwich to careful pairings with wine, the versitility of cheese knows no bounds. Personally, I’ve always thought of it more as an after dinner treat than a savoury snack but according to specialists, cheese is actually moving up the agenda as a guilt-free snack and can even now be considered a ‘healthy snacking alternative’.

Consumers are becoming more savvy, understanding that cheese contains ‘healthy fats’, along with calcium and protein. It has had long credentials as a calcium-boosting snack for kids and has now evolved into a protein food for adults too. As a result, mini portions are currently the strongest performer in the cheese sector, growing at over nine percent a year in terms of value and volume. And significantly adult snacking now outperforms children’s snacking.

Putting flavour into fromage

Right now, marinated cheeses and unique flavour-infused cheeses are top of the trending list, and it seems the bolder the better.

Cheese specialists Beemster offers a range of speciality and seasonal cheeses that are made sustainably from cows that graze freely. Its Graskaas cheese uses the cow’s first spring milk for a limited edition offering, ‘the creamiest cheese of the year’; while its Pumpkin Spice savoury cheese offers a taste of autumn. The new X-O offering is revered for its rich flavours of butterscotch, whiskey and pecan and its Classic cheese, which is already onboard Etihad, Qatar, United and others, taps into the craft beer trend by pairing well with hoppy, bitter craft beers.

The company is also innovating its offer to include new ways to bring cheese onboard with the Beemster Bun specifically designed to appeal to millennials. The bun is heated onboard with a great aroma which is already encouraging good buy-on-board sales.

Applewood has also been experimental when it comes to flavours. Blended with either cheddar or wensleydale, flavours include smoky Applewood, Spicy Mexicana and Ilchester Wensleydale with Cranberry. Its 20g Applewood spread and Red Leicester sticks have been a particular hit with airlines seeking an easy-to-serve, portion controlled cheese offering. It has also just launched a range of lighter individually-wrapped cheeses at 63 calories per serving and is in the process of developing a vegan cheese alternative, made with coconut to tap into the dariy-free sector.

Industry challenges

In premium cabins, one of the main challenges with cheese onboard is consistency. En Route International and its cheese partner Bradburys Cheese report that historically caterers sourced cheese from different manufacturers across different regions, leading to inconsistency along the sourcing supply chain. Cutting of the cheese, led to further inconsistency in portion sizes, and as the cheese was often plated under cling-film up to 24 hours before being sent to the aircraft, it began to sweat and spoil.

Having identified the issues, the partners evolved a solution which involved sourcing the cheese, and then cutting and packing it centrally to control the size and shape of all portions. In addition, special packing techniques were developed to secure the atmosphere in which the cheese was stored and enhance the served quality. Through these techniques, the cheese continues to ripen, without forming any sweat or crusts and customers receive it in peak condition.

Hamish Cook, executive director En Route International, said: “Cheese has always been a great accompaniment to good food. It’s a great way to end a meal and cheese boards can be tailored to cater for particular regional preferences eg, French, Spanish, English etc. We also offer rigorous training to cabin crew on a regular basis as menus change. Our training sessions even incorporate cheese and wine pairings so crew are fully informed on what they are offering to passengers.” The company has also evolved a Delectable Cheese Tray offer now flying onboard Virgin Australia which combines cheese with nuts and dried fruits.

Cheese pairings

Cheese also now makes a regular appearance as part of tapas platters or sharing boards for buy-on-board, as offered by Foodcase International and Gastro Worldwide, paired with olives, crackers and meats.

Speciality supplier Sid Wainer & Son is on a mission to educate the passenger too and has created an inflight cheese programme to help. Cheese is presented for pairing, offering an upsell opportunity inflight alongside the beverage service. The programme offers a selection of produce developed with a global network of cheesemakers and paired with beverages as a fun and social onboard experience. The offer is supported by product education information to create a unique passenger experience that can be tailored to meet airline demand.

The dairy-free appeal

The increase in passengers with specific dietary requirements and the broader dairy-free movement has only encouraged cheese manufacturers to adapt and evolve.

Free-from dairy, lactose and vegan-friendly cheeses have shown growth of 33% and that market is now estimated to be worth £39 million. Fatima De Amaral, of Sid Warner & Son, believes that millennials are the central influencers of speciality food and are driving innovation in plant-based alternatives.

She says “These key influencers are creating more demand for plant-based diets and as consumer demands shift, it is our duty to provide a quality offering that meets the needs of their diet choices. With this global shift will come much innovation in the speciality food sector, it will allow for new product entries, emerging markets, and product advancements to flourish across the speciality food industry. It is an exciting time for us cheese enthusiasts.”