I thought I was ready for back-to-school; Felix had the backpack, new shoes and the photo-ready outfit. But it had slipped my mind that he would also need snacks – his previous school had provided them, but this year it was up to me, and I was off to a slow start with ideas. Hoping to expand my go-to repertoire of Balderson cheddar, Jarlsberg and Beemster, I asked three Canadian cheesemongers – Allison Spurrell (Les Amis du Fromage, Vancouver), Tania Hrebicek (Everything Cheese, Edmonton) and Julie Austin (Chasing the Cheese, Peterborough, Ont.) – for savvy strategies to make cheese a kid-friendly, but never boring snack that would survive the bumps and thumps of the lunch box.
The tried and true
"We get kids and their parents coming back again and again for a cheese called Frère Jacques. I think part of the appeal is the name, but it's also a mild yet flavourful cheese," says Hrebicek. "It's made by Benedictine Monks at the Abbaye De St-Benôit-Du-Lac in Quebec and it tastes something like a mix between Baby Swiss and havarti. Another go-to option is Manchego. Since it's made with sheep's milk, it has a natural sweetness and it's not too firm, so it slices nicely into wedges or cubes."
Spurrell suggests mild or medium Goudas, which are "safe but still tasty," and havarti, which is rich but not too strong in flavour. "Emmental might be more for older kids but it tends to work well as the slight sweetness and the lack of earthy aftertaste seems to be a good bet," says Spurrell. She's also found success with two local cheeses, Monterey Jill from Little Qualicum and organic, nutty Nostrala from Kootenay Meadows.
For an easy to pack and eat option, Austin (who has three school-age children of her own) says that curds are always a hit, as is Black River's maple cheddar. For her six-year-old son, she makes a little ploughman's lunch of boiled egg, olives, salami, crackers and "whatever yummy cheesy chunks I have brought home – Beemster, Paillot de chèvre, Gruyère, aged farmhouse cheddar."
Best for packing
It's evident that the firm cheeses (including those mentioned above) will pack better than a ripe brie, but if you have a picky eater Spurrell points out that very rich cheeses like cheddar and havarti will get a little greasy on the surface if they are out at room temperature for too long – but Gouda, Jarlsberg and Edam last well. In terms of storage she adds, "I think most cheeses are fine in the lunch bag until the noon bell rings. From the time kids leave home, that is only a few hours out of the fridge. That's how long I regularly leave cheese out before I would serve it.
At Everything Cheese, Hrebicek often recommends alpine-style cheeses or firm pecorinos as good travellers. Le Maréchal (an herbal and savoury alpine cheese from Switzerland) isn't quite as strong as cave-aged Gruyère and its milder taste appeals to kids. She also suggests trying the Albertan pecorino made by the Cheesiry, which pairs nicely with local all-natural salamis or pepperoni sticks.
Beyond the cheese string
For kids, blue cheeses always fall into the "scary" category, but while camping this summer I pulled out some Bleu D'Elizabeth and watched in amazement as my nine-year-old niece polished off the wedge. Hrebicek has seen the same success with Bleu de Bresse (a brie style blue) and Bleu d'Auvergne from France. These blues are milder and creamy, though still full flavoured and they finish with a buttery sweetness (the younger they are the mellower they will taste).
Spurrell finds a cheese's texture will often be a deal breaker when venturing into new territory, with the firmer cheese going over better than soft ones. She admits to being a little amazed that lots of the younger kids like fresh chèvre, "I think it might be a correlation to yogurt, that tangy, tart taste," but adds that many kids like goat cheese of all types. Hrebicek recommends chèvre noir as its rich, caramel taste often wins over a crowd.
Bringing your kids to the cheese counter seems most fun way to expose them to what's out there, but be careful what you wish for, cautions Austin. "My customers have confessed to me, somewhat sadly, that their children expect the good stuff now."