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Well Matched: Avoid Pairing Anxiety with Chef-Tested Cheese Partners


When I was 20 years old and went to Paris for the first time, I splurged on a “fancy” dinner. What I remember most is, toward the end of the meal, the waiter wheeling a cheese trolley over to our table. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I chose a small wedge of nearly every variety of cheese and asked for all the nut and jam accompaniments. (I swear the waiter rolled his eyes as if to say “Ah, mais oui! Another gluttonous American!”) I closed my eyes and really took in the flavor and texture of each variety and thought: “I have never really tasted cheese before.” I’ve been devouring cheese and thinking about interesting pairings ever since.

Sometimes the most unexpected flavors provide the “perfect” pairing for a cheese. I try to stay open and not just think about say, traditional French flavors paired with French cheeses or Italian ingredients with Italian cheeses. Unusual, off-beat pairings can be revelatory. Here are seven of my favorites, plus suggestions for a single bite and using the accompaniments in a cheese-centric dish.

MANGO

Sweet, juicy, and silky in texture, this tropical fruit can bring out the sweetness in cheese and provides a great flavor and texture contrast. Consider mango chutney with aged cheeses, mango purée layered with salty cheeses, mango pickles with strong aged cheeses. Mango jam pairs well with a variety of cheeses from soft Munster or creamy Emmentaler to gooey Brie or Camembert.

BITE: Pair PDO French Munster with dried mango and dessert wine.

DISH: For a sweet-savory lunch or snack, spread a toasted baguette with a dollop of Vermont’s Maplebrook Farm Hand-Dipped Ricotta and top with Mango-Citrus Jam (recipe here).

KIMCHI

This strongly flavored fermented vegetable, traditionally made with Napa cabbage, radish, ginger, and garlic, pairs well with both mild and sharp cheeses—particularly cheddars. Think of a kimchi and sharp cheddar grilled cheese sandwich. Or spice up your favorite mac and cheese recipe with a spoonful of chopped kimchi stirred in.

BITE: For a yin-yang flavor and texture bomb, try soft-ripened, über-creamy Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog with a dollop of kimchi

DISH: Combine equal parts chopped kimchi and softened unsalted butter and serve on top of a cheeseburger.

PISTACHIOS

Salty, meaty pistachios are the perfect nut to serve with cheeses, on their own or in pistachio flatbread, pistachio shortbread, pistachio brittle, or pistachio honey. The full-flavored nut can be chopped and scattered over cubes of feta, goat cheese, or mild cheeses like Gruyère. Pistachios can even hold up to a nutty aged chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano.

BITE: Place cubes of Meredith Dairy Sheep and Goat Cheese in a bowl and top with coarsely chopped pistachios.

DISH: Serve Cabot Clothbound Cheddar and Pistachio-Sharp Cheddar Shortbread (recipe here), with Earl Grey tea or white wine.

COCONUT

Most cooks think of coconut as a sweet pairing with dessert, but coconut provides a “meatiness,” fiber, and a subtle sweetness that pairs well with a variety of cheeses. Coconut jam, coconut chutney, and toasted coconut flakes go well with soft, rich gooey triple crème cheeses.

BITE: Serve Reblochon with toasted unsweetened Bob’s Red Mill Coconut Flakes (toast them on a cookie sheet in a 325 degree oven until they turn golden brown, about 6 to 8 minutes).

DISH: Spread crepes or toast with Auria’s Pandan Kaya (Malaysian coconut breakfast jam made from coconut milk and eggs) and top with paper thin slices of sharp cheddar.

OLIVES

Olives are a traditional element on cheese platters, but don’t overlook the potential of green or black tapenade, or spicy herbed olives in olive oil, to serve with soft fresh goat cheese, French cheeses like Brie and Camembert, or Italian burrata. A burrata and tapenade crostini is an excellent idea, as is tapenade dotted on a mozzarella-and-ricotta pizza.

BITE: Combine milky, mild burrata with meaty, green Divina Castelvetrano Olives.

DISH: Mix green or black olive tapenade with soft goat cheese to top a baked potato.

PUMPKIN SEEDS

These healthy seeds are earthy and chewy, and provide a great contrast to softer, gooey cheeses. Like nuts, they add fiber, color, and a great texture. You can make a pumpkin seed–bacon brittle to serve with a soft, somewhat mild cheese or a full-flavored blue cheese. The bold flavors in the brittle hold up well with the assertiveness of the blue. Beware of salted pumpkin seeds, which can overwhelm milder cheeses.

BITE: Serve chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano with pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries.

DISH: Top an arugula salad with Jasper Hill Farm Bayley Hazen Blue and Pumpkin Seed, Rosemary, and Bacon Brittle (recipe here).

HONEY

The sweet flavor of honey is a time-honored match for many cheeses, from creamy to firm, mild to pungent. Spoon a rosemary-or herb-flavored honey over salty feta cheese; fresh, creamy ricotta; or serve a small bowl of floral honey (look for wild flower honeys) alongside an aged blue cheese to counter the punch. Honey works well with a wedge of aged Parmigiano Reggiano, Comté, Manchego, or a sharp aged cheddar.

BITE: Pair Forever Cheese Golden Fleece with Saffron Threads with Mitica Coriander Honey or Mitica Chestnut Honey.

DISH: Drizzle a rosemary- or herb-flavored honey over a cheese, tomato, and prosciutto pizza.

Still hungry? Get more pairing guidance here.

Kathy Gunst

James Beard Award-winning food journalist Kathy Gunst always has cheese in her refrigerator and is constantly on the lookout for new pairing combinations. The author of 16 cookbooks, her most recent work is Rage Baking—The Transformative Power of Flour, Fury and Women’s Voices. She writes for the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Eating Well, and other publications.

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