I often think about the courage our ancestors showed the first time they dared dabble in clotted milk. Who confronts a sour-smelling semi-solid and wonders if it’s edible? Who risks poisoning for sustenance? A Very Hungry Human, that’s who.
Research shows that hunger is possibly the most powerful motivator for animals, more insistent than thirst, fear, or socialization. The iconic food writer M.F.K. Fisher was right to tip her hat to the innate courage of hunger with a quote from satirist Jonathan Swift in the opening of her groundbreaking cookbook Consider the Oyster (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1941), “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” Indeed.
The human diet has progressed and stabilized beyond the food roulette of our earliest ancestors. But the courage imbued in our hunger remains, transformed into curiosity: a form of intellectual and spiritual hunger less powerful than a rumbling belly, but still mightily motivating. Where once we sought solely to quell our hunger, now those of us holding the modern privilege of eating-for-pleasure carry curiosity like a pang.
So what does this have to do with cheese? I’ll tell you: There are countless books—including a few written by me—that offer roadmaps to the “perfect pairing,” most with insights worth exploring. But I believe the ingredient crucial to any pairing (besides delicious cheese, of course) is curiosity with a capital C. When paired with a few foundational concepts to help us understand how flavors in and around cheese interact, it’s by far our most valuable renewable resource.
With curiosity established as central to successful pairing, let’s dig into the foundational work of cheese and culinary professionals who’ve contributed to the canon. Liz Thorpe’s The Book of Cheese (Flatiron Books, 2017) is a good place to start. In it, Thorpe—a cheese expert and former monger who’s helped shape how Americans buy, eat, and think about cheese—introduces the concept of “Gateway Cheeses,” 10 categories of familiar “greatest hits” we all know and love: Mozzarella, Brie, Havarti, Taleggio, Manchego, Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, Blue, and “Misfits” (a catch-all category for cheeses that defy easy categorization). “Each gateway cheese is a jumping-off point. It’s a cheese with specific flavor and texture associations, and it leads you to a group of cheeses that share these qualities,” writes Thorpe, who notes that within any grouping there exists a spectrum of flavor.
Learning to think about cheeses in broad categories defined by user experience, followed by their more unique twists and turns, enables us to do the same for pairings. Suddenly individual cheeses and individual accompaniments aren’t one-of-a-kind puzzles to solve, but standardized tropes to be nudged and responded to as needed. Of course The Book of Cheese has something to say about pairings as well, but “keep it simple” is the general idea. I agree.
Applying the Gateway model to cheeses in this issue is good practice for getting comfortable with the approach. Here’s a few to get you started: Ram Hall Farm Berkswell belongs in the Manchego Gateway, 5 Spoke Creamery Tumbleweed belongs in the Cheddar Gateway, Von Trapp Farmstead / Cellars at Jasper Hill Oma belongs in the Taleggio Gateway, and so on.
Frameworks of Flavor
Another useful text for understanding pairing is Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky’s The Elements of Taste (Little, Brown and Company, 2001). The authors describe “elements” that are frameworks for understanding tastes: some elements push (like salty and sweet), or pull (tangy and onion-y), or punctuate (funky and spiced). Others are simply platforms (vegetable, meat, fish, starch) for different tastes. These concepts are useful—so let’s distill them by applying them to cheese pairings.
In a pairing, cheese is the platform—a canvas that isn’t blank. If we tease out the flavors in the cheese, we can then use the tastes outlined in different “elements” to create what I believe are the two main styles of pairings: supportive and contrasting.
A supportive pairing reinforces the latent flavors and/or textures in a cheese, relying on mimicry to highlight its existing notes. Rolf Beeler Hoch Ybrig with nut toffee, works because cheeses in Thorpe’s Swiss Gateway are firm and often nutty, and the sweet and salty flavors of nut toffee, with its hard, crunchy texture, mimic, support, and “push” the flavors and textures of Hoch Ybrig. This pairing could work for any number of cheeses in the Swiss Gateway, and with any accompaniment that is nutty, sweet, salty, and crunchy.
On the other hand, a contrasting pairing tempers or alters the latent flavors or textures in a cheese. Bone Char Square alongside chicory coffee works because the bitter beverage “pulls” the earthy, mineral-y, bloomy cheese (hello, Brie Gateway) in a slightly different direction. Aided by tannic qualities of both elements, this match is boosted by the contrast in texture—a dense and creamy cheese plus a liquid, which further “punctuates” the flavors of the cheese.
I’d feel remiss if I didn’t give a special shout out here to the magic of acidity, in both supportive and contrasting pairings. Acidity cuts through cheese, invigorating our senses and combatting palate fatigue by keeping our palates perky through all the butterfat. It brightens dull flavors, pushes shyer notes forward, and suppresses more riotous ones. Citrus, vinegar, and wine are acidic tastes that work well across a broad range of cheese because butterfat begs for acidity. Listen.
Texture and Weight Impact Flavor
You’ve probably noticed that I mention texture and flavor in the same breath. This is intentional. Texture cannot be separated from our experience of flavor, despite the habit of assessing the two independently. Here’s a thought experiment to help you: Imagine eating a dry, crumbly cheese with all the flavor of a funky, washed rind one. That soft-cheese funk would be intolerable were it delivered via a firm, granular paste. Similarly, a hard, aged cheese with the gentleness of a ricotta would be an experiential letdown. Our palate would be utterly confused by a formidable texture that didn’t have a flavor to match.
Balance between the weight of the cheese and its pairing is another important consideration, one that requires some nuanced thinking. Fresh and young cheeses tend to be moist, light, fluffy and/or creamy, while aged cheeses tend to be drier, dense, and compact. Use accompaniments to match. Generally, pairings of similar weight are more successful. Capriole Goat Cheese O’Banon with plain pound cake is a good example of compatible weight: both the cheese and the accompaniment have a congruent density which reinforces the match as a good one—a similar crumb, so to speak.
The Perfect Pairing Is the One You Like
As we consider what a perfect pairing is and what it means to us, a slightly deeper dive into how curiosity functions is worth consideration. Yes, curiosity is an extrapolation of hunger, and for that alone it should be valued; but it’s also the springboard of play, an activity by which humans (and all mammals) learn. Unfortunately many of us abandon play for more “serious” modes of study when we slog into adulthood. This is truly unfortunate; curiosity and play are intrinsic to our humanity. The pursuit of the perfect pairing is a small but worthy opportunity to re-introduce play into our lives. Take it where you can get it.
A pairing approach that centers playful curiosity as an essential component concludes that even a failed pairing isn’t truly a failure. A “bad” pairing brings us that much closer to finding the perfect one, even if it initially misses the mark. Best of all, curiosity is free and in unlimited supply. Our most powerful tool for exploring the complexities of cheese also happens to offset its cost.
No expert or set of rules can invalidate our own unique experiences of pleasure. Trusting our ability to assess, evaluate, and own our experiences is the starting point for finding sustenance, expanding knowledge, and enjoying ourselves. By all means, be skeptical of a “perfect pairing” that doesn’t move you! Trust your innate curiosity. Our ancestors trusted theirs, and we’ve got the cheese plates to prove it.