by Sara Harvey, Chef de Cuisine
An important thing to consider when building a cheese plate are what liquids to serve with the cheeses, and what garnishes and accompaniments will populate your board. Let’s take a basic board as an example, starting with a hard Spanish cheese like Idiazabal. This is an unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque region. It has nutty, buttery and lightly smoky notes on the palate. A manchego would be another great and easily accessible option for a hard salty cheese that fit’s into this sort of style.
There are two good ways to choose a pairing, and it’s up to your preference. First, you can stick to the same area and tradition and find a cider that runs with the cheese; a Spanish-style cider from the Basque region would be appropriate. I really like the Txalaparta Cidre ’13 from Bordatto Etxaldea, this is a cidre made from indigenous varietals of apples and which is fermented in oak and steel tanks. The drier cidre pairs well with an aged cheese. The fermentation occurs in the bottle and is light enough it suits the hard texture of the cheese well; you don’t search for an abrasive effervescence to cleanse the palate. There are musty notes in the cidre that echo the nuttiness of the Idiazabal. You can taste the orchards under the apples and the plains of grass in the cheese. This is one of my favorite pairings.
Another way to look at pairing is to find something that runs in a contradictory direction to the flavors of the cheese you’re trying. Let’s take another hard cheese, right now I’ve got a local cheese on the menu made by Ring of Tree Farms, a manchego style with saffron, that I think pairs really well with a cider that is kind of opposite in style. The Thistly Cross Ginger Cider, a Scottish cider with a semi-sweet palate and a strong ginger flavor, is a cider that is nothing like or near the PNW Manchego Style made from raw sheep’s milk, however saffron and ginger are excellent friends, and the sweetness of the cider brings out the saltiness of the cheese.
In addition to a hard cheese, many people like to throw a soft cheese onto the board, like a Brie or a Delice, or Herve, a Belgian soft cheese that is aged in caves, or even something like Danish Port Salut, (also known as Esrom to our European friends). Softer cheeses are fattier than hard cheeses, and have a much creamier mouthfeel. These characteristics call for a cider that can cut through the texture of the cheese and offer a palate cleaning experience so the next bite can offer up its full potential. For a cheese such as Délice de Bourgogne, a pretty common and popular soft french cheese, a cider like the Pirate’s Plank from Alpenfire, that is “bone dry”, is an excellent choice. The dry flavor of the apples in the cider allow the funky notes in the cheese to explode, and the tartness of the cider is not thrown into stark relief by a cider that is too sweet. You can find the musty notes in the cheese, and the crisp clean waters of the Puget Sound in the cider. This is a pairing that has feet in both of the categories I mentioned earlier, the flavors are similar in their clean, fresh notes, while the styles are very different, allowing the crisp cider to cut through the fatty cheese.
If you’re a fan of the dessert ciders or ice ciders, blue cheese is a wonderful cheese to pair with these stronger and more potent beverages. With the much higher ABV (14-20 percent) than most drinking ciders (4-9 percent), dessert ciders are a stronger, more concentrated offering from some cideries that call for a strong, rich cheese to balance out the intensity of the flavor notes in the glass. A cheese like Fourme d’Ambert, which is one of the oldest cheeses in the French tradition, is a very nice cheese to add to a board. It is a DOC protected product, with a small production group, yielding a very consistent cheese. The strong flavors, from the Penicillium roqueforti spores, pair exceptionally well with an ice cider like Eden Iced Heirloom Blend, or the Valverán 20 Manzanas Frost Cider. Both of these ciders offer a complex and rich set of flavors on the tongue, ranging from the tart to the sweet to the late winter smokiness of a campfire. The warmth of the cider in your throat against the sourness of the blue cheese threads within the rich raw cow’s milk cheese is a wonderful way to spend an evening, and one of the best pairings I can imagine.
While Port Wine is the classic pairing at the holidays with a chunk of Stilton, you can take that basic pattern (fortified alcohol with blue cheese) and go a lot further into the exciting land of pairings. I would encourage you in the coming year to pester your local cheese monger and find something a little more exciting under the counter than the usual Double Cream Brie, Smoked Gouda, and Danish Blue that sit front and center at the grocery store cheese counter.
Cider is made from the apples that the cows and the sheep wander under in the hills of southern Europe, what better way to honor that tradition, than by pairing a raw cheese you can’t keep your hands off of, with a bottle of cider from the cellar? Enjoy.