Remember that first cheese pairing when the combination of flavors transformed into something sublime on the palate, when a new world of textures and exotic impressions awakened the taste buds to combinations that didn’t seem plausible? In this age of “anything is possible” cheese lovers have a lot to look forward to when selecting pairings.
But first let’s start with the most traditional of pairings: cheese and wine. Historically, cheese was often served with locally-produced wines of the geographic region. Throughout ancient Europe, cheese became a fundamental part of many local villager’s diets. With the addition of bread, a filling meal could be savored along with a beverage produced from local grape vineyards or orchards. Industrious people used what they had to survive, wasting little in efforts to preserve and sustain foods during sparse times. Cheesemaking was a method of preserving milk while crushing grapes or apples for their juice. Essentially, cheese and wine were very often produced within the same regional area or farm. Families passed down their cheesemaking recipes spanning generations, creating the many varieties we enjoy today.
For example, in Italy, an Italian Chianti or Brunello wine might be offered with Asiago cheese, which originated in the same region. A sparkling red Lambrusco from the same area as Parmigiana Reggiano is an equally delicious pairing. Or in France, it might be surprising to learn that Beaujolais and Brie cheese are produced in the same vicinity. Although considered quite a tannic wine, Beaujolais has been a popular match alongside Brie cheese for centuries.
Science studies claim that fatty, creamy foods combined or paired with astringent foods create a pleasant taste sensation. These opposites “attract” so-to-speak, developing a pleasing taste profile on the palate. Some hold fast to the belief that bold and robust flavors go well together, while the same holds true for lighter flavors.
Michael Cervin, professional wine and spirits judge as well as author of “California Wine Country”, and noted wine columnist, also thinks that the more acidity in the wine, the better it works with the fat in the cheese. Years of experience has sharpened his perspective on the subject. “Most folks in the wine industry espouse the idea that white wines are better matches due to the reduced tannins and greater acidity over red wines. I could not disagree more. Sure acidity plays a crucial role depending on a cheese’s fat content, but plenty of red wines have high acidity, and most red wines are not typically overly tannic to begin with,” says Cervin.
CERVIN’S DO’S AND DON’TS TO CONSIDER FOR PAIRINGS
Do: Match the intensity of the wine with the intensity of the cheese. A bold cheese with a weak wine won’t work.
Do: Pair stinky cheeses with sweeter wines – the sweetness will always counteract the high level of funkiness in the cheese.
Don’t: Over stimulate yourself. Limit a pairing to no more than six, as too much will blow out your palate and you won’t be able to taste either the wine or cheese after that.
Don’t: Make a meal out of it. Ideally, a little less than 1 ounce of cheese with each wine is ideal. And take your time, this shouldn’t be beat the clock. The point is to savor, discover and enjoy.
He recommends matching the intensity of the wine with the intensity of the cheese, emphasizing that a bold cheese with a weak wine won’t work. “The bottom line is if you like a wine and cheese that go together, then that is all that matters. Never let anyone tell you that you’re making a mistake or that your choices aren’t viable,” Cervin advises.
Wine might be the most popular pairing with cheese as evidenced by history, but it certainly isn’t the only beverage or food paired with cheese in a more contemporary world filled with choices that now reach beyond the boundaries of our regional tried and true options for pairings. It’s all about the cheese, though, bringing out nuances of flavor and finding the perfect match for that exquisite ‘mouth-feel’. Curiosity has awakened the cheese lover who eagerly seeks out new taste combinations and pairings with cheese.
Bradley Frank, cheesemonger for SHED Restaurant in Healdsburg, CA, which sits in the middle of Sonoma County wine country, finds that people are becoming more inquisitive with their selections. “I think that the more obscure and unique pairings that are unexpected and actually taste delicious and texturally work are attractive to both the seasoned and adventurous cheese eaters as well as new, curious palates.”
Frank, who carries dozens of cheese selections produced in California, and an inexhaustible supply of unique local foods to browse over for developing pairings at the SHED, emphasizes “the challenge when creating a pairing is in ALWAYS maintaining the cheeses integrity on its own merit and not taking from the cheeses’ original flavors.”
Bradley Franks shares some of his favorite pairings and accompaniments created from local Northern California producers of specialty foods and cheeses.
- Cowgirl Creamery’s, Inverness with Sonoma honeycomb and a bee pollen. This marriage simply tastes and looks beautiful.
- Cheesemaker Soyoung Scanlan’s Andante’s Pianoforte drizzled with Pinecone Bud Syrup. The herbaceous sweet syrup goes really well with the mushroomy lactic flavors in this St. Marcellin-style cheese. For an extra special treat, warm the cheese (in the crock it comes in) in the oven briefly and add some sugar to the syrup to give it a little brûlée finish.
- Audrey Ramini’s Buffalo Mozzarella with fresh strawberries, almonds and our HomeFarm Olive Oil. The combinations of sweet, creamy, crunchy and nutty are a delicious treat to close out spring with. It pairs well with tomatoes come summer!
- Valley Ford’s Grazin Girl with spicy pickles and SHED’s pickled carrots. The sweet creamy Gorgonzola dolce-inspired Blue is well complemented by crunchy spicy pickled treats. Serve it with a thick toasted slice of country loaf from our pantry.
- And my all time favorite: Bellwether Farms Basket Sheep Ricotta drizzled with SHED Sonoma wildflower honey and HomeFarm Olive Oil. Also served with country loaf. The floral honey makes this an any time of day meal, snack or treat.
A welcoming attitude towards trying more varieties of cheeses has swept its way across the country. Cheesemongers are sourcing more local speciality products for curious cheese lovers seeking to pair some of their favorite foods or beverages with cheese. From the East to West Coasts and in-between, more and more people seek cheese pairings to complement favored local beverages and foods.
In Colorado where craft breweries can be found in every county, locals request suggestions with their favorite brew. In Longmont, CO, The Cheese Importers, a specialty cheese and foods store that carries anywhere from 250 to 400 cheeses, has been the “go-to” cheese destination and resource for the Denver Metro and Boulder County community for 30 years. Co-owner, Samm White and staff cater to evolving customer desires. Customers that frequent the shop can pick up educational cheese pairing handouts developed by the staff to take home. “We have seen the idea of pairing cheeses expand greatly over the last decade or so. It used to be that once upon a time there were only wine and cheese pairing questions that our customers would be seeking help on, now we get inquiries and provide help on beer and craft brew pairings and more questions from guests looking to match a cheese board with a particular type of meal or ingredients that they are working with,” says White. “We often have guests who visit prior to or after their trip to one of the many local breweries here in Longmont and are wanting some help finding a great match to the fresh brew they just discovered.”
Both Cervin and White notice some “out of the box” trends evolving over the past several years. More and more customers are interested in cheese and cacao (chocolate) pairings. “There is a great focus on chocolate craftsmanship and quality over the last few years, and it can go hand in hand with where the cheesemakers are headed, as well. It is a ton of fun to play with flavors and see for yourself what they do to each other when mixed,” explains White.
Cervin believes the days of a “cube of cheese and a glass of wine are long gone.” There’s much more to entice the palate with creative food options. He goes on to explain that layering of flavors and textural components makes any pairing more fun and possibly a bit complicated.
For an example of more unique pairings, Cervin explains that, “many pairings these days are all about small bites, such as taking cheese but adding a protein component for a pairing. An example of this is Tawny Port with crispy salted crouton, anchovy and Parmesan.”
CERVIN AND WHITE SHARE THEIR FAVORITE PAIRINGS
Michal Cervin: For me, I’m pretty old-school – give me a good Napa Cabernet or cool-climate Syrah and a hearty Wisconsin Cheddar, or Oregon Tillamook, and I am perfectly happy. Fancy is always fun, but comfort is king.
Samm White: Haystack Mountain Dairy Camembert drizzled with cherry fig mostarda from local jam/spread maker Deliciousness (the accompaniment category of mostarda can scare some people as they think mustard. The mustard seed is used, but lends a nice vibrant, tangy spiciness to the ingredients). Enjoy them whenever you can with different cheeses! The fresh, light airy creaminess of the Camembert with the sweetness and bite of the mostarda makes me swoon…