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Article Archive - September 30, 2005

From Italy to the United States, Asiago cheese gains acclaim

Editor’s note: Each month, CMN profiles a different cheese, 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: Asiago.

By Amelia Buragas

MADISON, Wis. — Asiago came to the United States more than 80 years ago as a virtual unknown. Even in its home country of Italy, Asiago only recently has gained acclaim outside the small mountain enclave where the cheese was developed. Here in the United States, the Italian immigrant population kept the cheese alive and recent interest in specialty cheeses has made Asiago one of the fastest expanding cheese categories in terms of sales in the United States

“Asiago is our fastest growing cheese,” says Stan Woodworth, national sales and marketing manager, Antigo Cheese Co. Inc., Antigo, Wis. “Asiago is a very versatile cheese. We see a lot of folks that are getting more awareness of the product.”

Scott Stocker, president and CEO, Shullsburg Creamery Inc., Shullsburg, Wis., calls Asiago an “up and coming” cheese.

“Asiago doesn’t hold the same place in distribution as Parmesan does, but it has a very pleasing taste and consumers respond really well to it,” he says.

Asiago originates from an Italian town of the same name, located on the Asiago plateau. The town is northeast of Venice and surrounded by the Astico and Brenta mountain chains. In addition to being the birthplace of Asiago cheese, the area is a well-known summer and winter holiday resort.

Italian Asiago production is limited to four provinces in northeastern Italy — Trent, Vicenza, Padua and Treviso — and strictly monitored by the Consorzio Tutela Formaggio Asiago, which oversees product quality, develops awareness campaigns and regulates usage of brands, markings and seals. In 2000, 20,000 metric tons of Asiago were produced in Italy which places Asiago at No. 5 in the Italian cheese market.

Errico Auricchio, president, BelGioioso Cheese Inc., Monroe, Wis., says Italian Asiago is very different from the cheese produced and sold under the same name in the United States. In Italy, the most popular variety of Asiago is fresco, and Auricchio says this young cheese more closely resembles a Muenster. In the United States, roughly 90 percent of the Asiago produced is “mezzano,” or medium-aged. By comparison, Auricchio says only 20 percent of Italian Asiago is aged.

Asiago is a semi-hard cheese made with part-skim cow’s milk and has a rich, buttery and nutty flavor. It has a pale yellow interior with many small holes and often is made in small wheels with glossy rinds. As the cheese ages, its texture changes from elastic to firm to hard and granular.

The U.S. federal standard of identity for fresh Asiago establishes a 45 percent maximum moisture level and a 50 percent minimum milkfat level. Asiago that is aged for no less than six months is defined as medium aged and has a maximum moisture level of 45 percent and minimum milkfat level of 50 percent. Old Asiago, or cheese aged for a minimum of one year, has a minimum moisture level of 35 percent and maximum milkfat level of 43 percent.

Auricchio says aged Asiago is more popular in the United States because it has a stronger flavor profile that sets it apart from all of the mild, fresh cheeses on the market. But Auricchio says neither the fresco or mezzano variety is better than the other, just different.

“In the end it’s what you’re used to,” says Auricchio. “The American consumer likes a flavorful cheese and is used to a cheese with age and flavor.”

Asiago was introduced in the United States in the 1920s, says Auricchio, and quickly became popular among Italian immigrants. He says it has only been the last seven or eight years that Asiago has transcended the ethnic market and gone mainstream.

“Asiago has become more known to the American public,” says Auricchio. “It is much more widely accepted because it has appeared in many recipes.

“People are attracted to the name and then conquered by the flavor,” he adds.

Barbara Gannon, vice president, corporate sales and marketing, Sargento Foods Inc., Plymouth, Wis., says Asiago continues to become more popular because it has been featured by a number of foodservice outlets such as Panera Bread, Einstein’s Bros. Bagels and Subway.

“Its one of those flavors that people are becoming more comfortable and familiar with,” says Gannon. “They can go into a Subway shop and get Asiago cheese. The foodservice applications allow consumers to try something and they’ll say, ‘I’d like to be able to use this cheese at home,’ and they go to the grocery store and look for it.”

Sargento has offered shredded Asiago in its Italian blend since approximately 1993. Recently, the company introduced a Mozzarella and Asiago blend with roasted garlic as a part of its Bistro Blends line of shredded cheeses.

“People really like a mixture, much like a great chef will combine herbs and spices to have a great recipe,” Gannon says.

Six months ago, Sargento introduced a line of fresh, sliced Asiago cheese, which is available nationwide in Wal-Mart stores. Gannon says it is too early to tell if the product will be expanded to other retail outlets, but says it is likely if demand continues to be high.

Chad Thompson is senior director of menu development for the New World Restaurant Group, owner of the Einstein Bros., Noah’s New York Bagels, Manhattan Bagel, Chesapeake Bagel Bakery and New World Coffee brands. Thompson says the company’s Asiago cheese bagel is one of its core products and among its top three sellers. The Asiago bagel has been on New World Restaurant Group brand menus since the company began franchising in 1997.

“It has a nice sharp and distinct flavor that is able to translate well for a bagel,” Thompson says.

He adds that he always is looking for cheeses that can bring a new flavor profile to the menu. Asiago was a good choice, he says, because it is becoming more mainstream and customers are familiar with the name — if not the flavor of the cheese.

“We don’t mind pushing it a little bit, but you don’t want to have to educate consumers too much,” Thompson says.

In addition to the Asiago cheese bagel, New World Restaurant Group puts Asiago in its six cheese bagel that is a part of the company’s Top Shelf line of indulgent bagels. Asiago also is served along with Parmesan and Romano cheese on the company’s Caesar salad.

Linda Hook, DCI Cheese Co., Richfield, Wis., says Information Research Inc. data show that sales have increased tremendously at the supermarket level. From 2000 to 2004, scan data show sales jumped 242 percent from 340,000 pounds to 1.2 million pounds.

“I think the popularity just skyrocketed based on the play it was getting on the foodservice level,” says Hook. “As it becomes popular in the restaurant, people look for it in the store.”

Hook says four years ago, 90 percent of the Asiago sold was shredded. Now the cheese is available not only in regular and fine shreds, but sliced and cubed. Asiago is being used in spreads as well. Also new to the market are super-aged Asiago cheeses, which Hook says is a very small, emerging part of the high-end cheese sector.

Woodworth of Antigo Cheese says Asiago is his company’s fastest growing cheese category. He predicts the cheese has not yet reached the peak of its sales performance.

“I think we’re going to see nothing but growth on the baking side,” says Woodworth. “A lot more cheese is being used in low-carb type applications to get unique flavors.”

USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service combines Asiago production data into the “other hard Italian cheeses” category, so national production data is not available. In Wisconsin, however, production is up 9.5 percent for the five-year period of 1999 through 2004. In 2004, production stood at 20.7 million pounds.

“It’s a strong product,” says Stocker. “As long as we maintain product quality and continue to give consumers value for the product, they’ll buy it.”

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