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The Great 28 Pairings: Cheese + Pesto


The Great 28 is featured in our Cheese+ 2017 issue. Check out 27 other pairings here.

Hailing from Genoa, Italy, in the sliver of craggy coastline known as Liguria, pesto is what happens when pristine raw ingredients—traditionally basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, cheese (often Parmigiano Reggiano or pecorino), and olive oil—are pounded into a sauce. It’s a bright, rich amalgamation that’s a distillation of all of its components and yet distinctly its own thing.

Since its smashing American debut in the 1980s (alongside sun-dried tomatoes, raspberry vinegar, arugula, and other famed foods of the era), pesto alla Genovese has been reinterpreted to highlight all sorts of produce. Herbs and greens of all kinds are now used as a base, as are tomatoes, artichokes, olives, nuts, mushrooms, or peppers. Regardless of the components, pesto remains an iconic condiment with clear, unadulterated flavors that can enhance an array of wedges and wheels.

Pesto alla Genovese

My mother’s superb pesto always began with homegrown heirloom basil, plucked at its aromatic and flavorful peak. While jarred versions may be convenient, nothing beats the sweet, herbal, slightly nutty brightness of homemade pesto, especially when pairing with cheese. A classic-for-a-reason companion is ricotta—the whipped, milky lightness of the fresh curds make them a dreamy pillow for the spread.

For an outside-the-box pairing, try Boxcarr Handmade Cheese Rosie’s Robiola, a zingy cow’s milk bloomy rind (sometimes made with a touch of goat’s milk). The wheel’s tangy backbone holds up against the rich, garlicky mélange.

Recommended Pairings

Calabro Cheese Corp. Whole Milk Ricotta + pesto alla Genovese 

Boxcarr Handmade Cheese Rosie’s Robiola + pesto alla Genovese

Lemon-Artichoke Pesto

If you’re not up for processing fresh artichokes or working with canned ones, stock up on the Connecticut-based Gracious Gourmet’s pesto: It’s mellow and creamy, with floral hints of lemon. Mild soft cheeses and young chèvres work well here, as they don’t overshadow the pesto’s delicate nature. With its own citrus notes, cakey three-milk La Tur is a close-to-perfect pairing, while Goat Lady Dairy Snow Camp—a delicate cow’s and goat’s milk wheel with soft, buttery flavors—brings out similar notes in the condiment.

Recommended Pairings

Caseificio dell’Alta Langa La Tur + The Gracious Gourmet Lemon Artichoke Pesto

Goat Lady Dairy Snow Camp + The Gracious Gourmet Lemon Artichoke Pesto

Dried Tomato Pesto

The deep, rich, concentrated flavor of dried tomatoes is the essence of Ursini Dried Tomato Pesto from Abruzzo, Italy. It’s a sturdy partner for robust cheeses such as Spain’s Malvarosa; its sheepy, butterscotchy notes really shine against the savory-sweet fruits. Though younger, maple-smoked fresh goat cheese is also a fine match. The tart curds keep things from getting too heavy, even as their campfire notes plumb the pesto’s earthy depths.

Recommended Pairings

Mitica Malvarosa + Ursini Dried Tomato Pesto

Rivers Edge Chèvre Up in Smoke + Ursini Dried Tomato Pesto

Feature Photo Credit: cglade/iStockphoto.com

Tia Keenan

Tia Keenan is a New York–based writer, cook, and cheese specialist. She’s also the author of The Art of the Cheese Plate (Rizzoli, 2016).