When I was a kid, my family always set out very simple cheese during holiday parties. There was never anything more adventurous than a Cracker Barrel Cheddar and Monterey Jack. That was how things started, at least. It took a few years, but eventually my parents realized the firm, sharp cheeses would be more enjoyable with some juicy table grapes. And I’m telling you, after I popped that green grape into my mouth with a slice of cheddar, my love affair with cheese was sealed forever. I realized that cheese was something with infinite possibilities once you began pairing it with complementary partners.
Many years later, my passion for the versatility of cheese brought me here, to culture: the word on cheese as an intern. I’m on a mission to provide the rest of you with the same cheese epiphany I had years ago. Throughout this blog series, I will be writing about a multitude of cheese pairing possibilities. I’ll include easy tips and tricks too, so that everyone from pairing beginners to seasoned experts will feel confident and armed with new knowledge for the next holiday party.
Last year, culture published its inaugural Cheese+ issue detailing 193 delicious cheese pairings. If you want to get a head start and read up on some of those ideas, you can purchase that Spring 2014–Spring 2015 Special Issue here. We’ve also got some brand new pairing ideas coming out in this year’s new Cheese+ issue, which will be available for purchase by April 21. There’s a whole world of cheese possibilities out there—let’s explore them together!
Wait a minute… What’s the point of a cheese pairing?
Okay, maybe I moved into this too quickly. I understand how some of you may feel. You might think that I don’t appreciate the taste of a stand-alone cheese, but I can promise you there’s photographic proof of me eating ricotta out of the container to prove you wrong. Cheese is strong and independent and doesn’t need a pairing to be powerful, we all know that. However, placing a cheese alongside a specific jam, fruit, or nut can help the product shine.
Rory Stamp, a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass., spoke with me about cheese pairings. “Cheese pairings really enhance the experience,” he said. “The individual components, without each other, are not as much as the sum of their parts.”
What he’s saying is that the taste of these combinations creates something completely unique that could not be obtained if the two were divided. “With cheese pairings, we’re creating a contrasting or complementary element, which is bringing out some nuanced flavors… that you can’t really taste with just one,” said Rory.
When do I even serve cheese pairings?
Our expert cheesemonger Rory says “any time,” and I’m inclined to agree, but he does mention some specifics. Cheese pairings are normally served “on a cheese plate before or after a meal, as a kind of stand-alone item,” said Rory.
On a cheese plate, how exactly?
“Present the components separately, so you have a choice to taste them individually, taste them together, taste them in different sequences—to really get a sense of what each part is bringing to the table,” said Rory.
This means you may want to refrain from plopping a pile of jam or drizzling some honey directly onto a wheel of cheese. Separate all of the ingredients in order to get the full experience.
Can I pair a bunch of things with my cheese?
You certainly could, but Rory recommends taking it easy: “If you add more elements, you’re bringing in more flavors, so it’s going to be a less precise experience on the palate.”
Just don’t overwhelm your taste buds or risk masking any flavors.
How much cheese should I be setting out for my pairings?
It depends how formal you want to be. If you want to play more by suit-and-tie guidelines, Rory says, “we generally think if you’re tasting four cheeses, maybe an ounce of cheese per person, or eight cheeses would be more like a half to two/thirds of an ounce” if you’re plating them individually.
But for casual events, feel free to place the cheese out family style and just put large hunks of cheese on display alongside their pairing partners. The goal is to make cheese pairing fun and approachable.
How many options are there really for this?
So many. Throughout this series, I will discuss cheese + fruit, dessert, nuts, meat, veggies, and much more! Over time, you’ll become a more daring pairer and your life (at least in regards to cheese) will be enlightened.
Feature Photo Credit: Ratatouille, 2007