If you’re used to thinking of cheese as the star and bread as the vehicle—merely a pleasant way to ferry curds into your mouth—think again. A new generation of bakers and chefs isn’t satisfied with neutral, aroma-free white flour and the bread it yields. They want loaves to taste like grain—sweet, floral, nutty, grassy—and of the environment. Bakers such as Chad Robertson of San Francisco–based Tartine Bakery & Café and Tara Jensen of Smoke Signals Baking in North Carolina are championing this nationwide movement, using freshly milled flour from rye, heirloom wheats, spelt, barley, buckwheat, and other whole grains, along with sourdough starter instead of dried commercial yeast.
Starter is the basis of true sourdough: It’s simply flour and water left at room temperature to attract wild bacteria and yeasts that live invisibly all around us. It infuses bread with flavor of place (terroir), as each kitchen harbors slightly different microbes. These microorganisms devour sugars in the flour, transforming simple carbohydrates into acids and carbon dioxide that give the resulting bread complex, tangy flavors and airy puff.
Along with the notes that develop in sourdough starters during fermentation, “you have the interaction with the flavors of your grain,” says Dr. Stephen Jones, director of the Bread Lab at Washington State University. Bakers these days, he says, are more interested in drawing out distinct characteristics of different grains than making a super-sour loaf. “San Francisco–style sourdough is quite strong,” and acidic, he adds. “Modern craft bakers look for more nuance.”
The lactobacilli that transform flour and water into a bubbling, living organism are relatives of the bacteria that ferment milk into cheese. In that sense, serving sourdough bread with cheese is like a family reunion: Because microbes bring tremendous complexity to both products, the interplay can be mind-blowing.
Good sourdough rye is tangy and grassy but not overwhelmingly so. (Those who think they don’t like rye in general might just be averse to the pungent caraway seeds ubiquitous in classic deli-rye loaves.) To match the earthiness of the bread, choose a cheese with heft and intensity, but not too much acidity, which can overwhelm sourdough. Try a semi-firm Alpine-style cow’s milk cheese such as Tarentaise, which has a nutty richness that blends beautifully with the bread, or a tomme such as Saint-Nectaire—its creamy, mushroom-like quality intensifies similar flavors in the loaf.
Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise + sourdough rye
Saint-Nectaire PDO + sourdough rye
Pretzels aren’t all that common on cheese boards, but they should be: Their salty pop and distinctive alkaline flavor have partnering potential. It’s particularly fun to dip a twist in a gooey washed-rind such as Jasper Hill Farm Winnimere—bold, rich bacon and sweet cream flavors play off the salty pretzels. Or double down on tartness by spreading fresh chèvre on sourdough knots—acidic goat’s milk amplifies the pretzel’s sourness, while its mild milkiness invigorates the palate when paired with salt.
Jasper Hill Farm Winnimere + sourdough pretzels
Vermont Creamery Chèvre + sourdough pretzels
This fermented flatbread is made from teff, a tiny, nutrient-dense grain with a mild, nutty flavor. Floppy with a spongy texture, it’s a staple in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The flour is fermented for a few days before cooking, lending the bread an upfront tartness. Idaho grows a lot of teff, so it’s hardly coincidental that sheep’s milk Alto Valle from the state presents a funky, rich intensity that goes hand in hand with injera. To serve, top injera with curds and bake until soft and fragrant. Or go for the goat with Humboldt Fog, which matches the bread in its initial sourness and aromatic, smooth finish.
Lark’s Meadow Farms Alto Valle + injera
Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog + injera