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Article Archive - May 27, 2005

Provolone enjoys renaissance as consumers seek taste variety

Editor’s Note: Each month, CMN profiles a different cheese in these pages, giving our readers a comprehensive look at production, marketing and sales, as well as any other interesting details we can unearth. Please read on to learn more about this month’s featured cheese: Provolone.

By Amelia Buragas

MADISON, Wis. — Provolone, an Italian-style cow’s milk cheese, is a deli staple here in the United States. Sales of Provolone are rising, but not because the cheese has changed. On the contrary, besides mechanization, production of Provolone remains the same today as it was hundreds of years ago.

Rather the sales surge is a matter of a reawakening of the American palate and a rediscovery of the excitement that a flavorful cheese can add to the dining experience. Provolone today is popular not only in sandwiches but on pizza, salads and as a shredded garnish.

Yet Provolone sales are increasing passively, not being driven by innovations or aggressive marketing. Dominique Delugeau, vice president of sales, DCI Cheese Co., Mayville, Wis., says cheesemakers have the opportunity to drive Provolone to a new height of popularity.

“I think the product has a very good chance to develop into something more than it is,” says Delugeau. “Especially when it comes to aged Provolone.”

• An Italian sculpture

Provolone is indigenous to Italy and is a pasta filata cheese, meaning the curd is stretched during production. The result is a malleable cheese that can be sculpted into a variety of shapes, depending on desired function or the whim of the cheesemaker.

“Since it goes through the stretching you can get a variety of shapes,” says Errico Auricchio, president, BelGioioso Cheese Inc. “In the old days at Easter time they used to make it in the shape of animals.”

Auricchio moved to the United States in 1979 and founded BelGioioso in Denmark, Wis. The Auricchio family has been making traditional Italian cheeses for more than a century.

Auricchio says Provolone’s original shape was round, but with the invention of molds in the early 1900s, the salami shape became most popular because of its practicality for hanging and slicing. Many companies continue to hang and age their Provolone using ropes, a throwback to traditional practices.

“It was always hung with ropes because it is too soft to sit on a shelf,” says Auricchio. “This would allow it to age without losing its shape.”

While the final shape of Provolone only is limited by a cheesemaker’s imagination, the most popular shapes include salami, melon, conical and bottle. Provolone also comes in a variety of sizes, from a 1-pound bocci ball to a 600-pound salami and everything in between.

• Modernizing traditional techniques

Besides the evolution of shapes and sizes, cheesemakers say very little has changed in the way Provolone is produced.

“Technologically speaking, it’s a very traditional cheese,” says Roger Krohn, quality assurance manager, Trega Foods Inc., Luxemburg, Wis. Krohn is one of only two cheesemakers certified as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker in Provolone.

Cheesemakers have, however, embraced technology that makes the traditional production techniques easier and more streamlined.

“I don’t think the process has really changed, it’s just been mechanized,” says Eric Liebetrau, president, Park Cheese Co., Fond du Lac, Wis.

Liebetrau notes that in the past a wooden tub was filled with hot water and the cheese was mixed with a canoe paddle and then hand-shaped. Today, stainless steel vats, electric mixers and forms are used to perform the same tasks.

• Mozzarella with bite

Provolone is very similar to what is perhaps the most famous pasta filata cheese — Mozzarella. In fact, the list of similarities between the two cheeses would be longer than a list of differences. Both cheeses typically are made with cow’s milk and according to the FDA standards of identity have a 45 percent milkfat content. It is the moisture levels that differentiate the two cheeses. Provolone’s 45 percent moisture content is lower than Mozzarella’s standard range of 52 to 60 percent moisture.

Liebetrau says this is one reason pizza makers often use Provolone in addition to or instead of Mozzarella on their pizzas, despite Provolone’s higher cost — less of the product evaporates during cooking. Chefs using Provolone are assured that the cheese will stay where put and not shrink.

“It’s a little more expensive,” says Liebetrau, “but you’re not buying as much water.”

Krohn adds that a lower moisture content gives Provolone a longer shelf-life than Mozzarella and that Provolone holds up better as a slicing and shredding cheese. Both of these qualities make Provolone a favorite of sandwich and deli shops.

To further differentiate between Mozzarella and Provolone, most cheesemakers add enzymes to add flavor. However, this is not required in the standard of identity. Because the type of enzymes added affect taste, there is plenty of room for individualization and each company’s Provolone can be truly unique.

Cheesemakers also will smoke Provolone to create another taste category. Krohn says demand for smoked Provolone is a small segment of the overall market, because consumers have strong reactions to smoked cheeses.

“You either love them or you hate them,” says Krohn.

• Dolce or piccante, it’s still Provolone

Today Provolone can be divided into two basic categories — dolce and piccante. Dolce Provolone is a mild cheese made using calf’s rennent and aged for up to three months. Piccante Provolone, on the other hand, is a sharp cheese made using goat or lamb’s rennent and typically is aged six months to a year.

The dolce variety is what most Americans associate with Provolone cheese as it is the predominant variety sold in supermarkets, restaurants and delis, according to cheese producers. Krohn says the majority of Provolone on the market is sold by three months of age.

Auricchio estimates the dolce variety makes up 90 percent of the market. He says aged or piccante Provolone makes up another 8 percent and the last 2 percent is specialty artisan Provolone such as Manteche, a Provolone moulded around a sweet cream butter center.

For consumers looking for an authentic Italian Provolone, piccante cheese is the only way to go, according to Auricchio. The traditional Provolone out of Italy was aged because it could withstand traveling long distances.

Auricchio says in general the longer Provolone is aged, the better it is. He says you get a good cheese at 7 months, but he prefers the 10-month to 12-month range. However he adds that after a year and a half to two years, the benefits from aging level off and the quality begins to decline.

Liebetrau says that the larger forms are used for aging the cheese and smaller shapes are more ideal for the dolce variety.

“It’s always been a function of moisture loss and comes down to mass vs. surface area,” says Liebetrau. “If you take a small 1-pound ball and age it for a year without putting it in a bag you’re going to have a cheese that’s hard as a rock. A big chunk of cheese can tolerate a longer aging process.”

For Park Cheese’s aged Provolone, Liebetrau uses 7-foot tall salamis of Provolone that weigh 600 pounds. The company air cools them for a year.

• Sales and demographics

Production of Provolone cheese in the United States has risen steadily for the past two decades. According to data from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, 94 million pounds of Provolone were made in 1980. By 1990, that number had jumped 67 percent to 157 million pounds. Over the next 10 years, production increased by 58 percent, reaching 248 million pounds.

The biggest single-year jump in production was between 1995 and 1996, when production rose 13 percent from 183 million pounds in 1995 to 207 million pounds in 1996.

Cheesemakers attribute the growth in the market for Provolone cheese to its flavorful nature.

“I think people are continually looking for new experiences and palates are changing toward more flavorful cheeses,” says Krohn. “Provolone fits that bill.”

Growth in production of Provolone has slowed down in recent years. The last year with double-digit percentage growth was 2000 with a 12 percent increase over 1999. Production in 2001, however, grew only 1 percent. Production grew by 4 percent in 2002 and 2003. In 2004, 296 million pounds of Provolone were produced, a 5 percent increase over 2003.

Elio Camilotto, vice president of sales, Grände Cheese Co., Brownsville, Wis., predicts Provolone sales will continue to rise as “people continue looking for more flavorful types of cheeses.”

“I think the consumers’ tastes are changing,” says Camilotto. “They are seeking out difference in flavor and Provolone can provide that.”

Of course, USDA’s numbers do not differentiate between the artisan style of Provolone and the commodity style of Provolone. Both Auricchio and Liebetrau, however, say the artisan section is growing.

“We deal with the non-commodity traditional aged type of Provolone,” says Liebetrau. “Sales are fairly steady, although they’re not as quick as the commodity side of the business.”

Auricchio calls Provolone a “sleeper cheese,” noting that the cheese has not grown as quickly as other Italian cheeses such as Asiago.

According to IRI data, supermarket sales of Asiago increased by nearly 50 percent between 2002 and 2003. Provolone sales only increased by about 19 percent in the same time period.

Delugeau says while sliced Provolone is available nationwide, sales of aged Provolone are concentrated in areas settled by Italian immigrants. He says 70 to 75 percent of aged Provolone sales occur in the area between Boston and Philadelphia. He also notes that Provolone has a generation gap, with the typical purchaser of aged Provolone being in their 50s or older. He says Provolone needs to give itself a trendier image to appeal to younger generations.

Auricchio says BelGioioso has had success in making the aged, sharp Provolone more convenient for customers by introducing a sliced aged Provolone. Auricchio says there is consumer demand for artisan cheeses, but only if they also are convenient.

Delugeau says convenience is an ideal way to grow the category. He notes that sliced and cubed cheeses are the quickest-growing categories of cheeses and that Provolone could take advantage of this trend.

“I don’t think we’re going to see major innovations in the cheesemaking,” says Delugeau. “The major innovation will be in processing. That’s the way to really grow the category.”

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