Cheese pairings can be tricky — with all of the potential flavor options out there, creating a harmonious platter can be a daunting task. We decided to save you some time and asked the professionals: what are the Do’s and Don’ts of cheese pairing?!
Meet Liz Thorpe:
Liz Thorpe is one of the nation’s leading experts on cheese and the founder of The People’s Cheese. She is currently writing her second book, a definitive reference on cheeses of the world, to be published by Flatiron Books in Fall 2016.
Meet Francesca Penoncelli:
A seasoned chef with a contagiously positive demeanor, Chef Francesca Penoncelli spreads joy through her beautifully crafted Italian cuisine at BiCE Ristorante, located in the heart of San Diego’s downtown Gaslamp Quarter. Chef Francesca is a critical piece of the BiCE team, serving as both sous and pastry chef of the renowned Italian restaurant.
Chef Francesca’s inspiration comes from a deep-rooted passion for food, a result of an Italian upbringing filled with warm memories of family dinners, picking fruit and vegetables from her grandmother’s garden and foraging for mushrooms and berries with her grandfather.
When pairing cheeses with fruits and sauces, what are some example guidelines or “rules of thumb” you follow?
Liz: “I think about the following principles when pairing cheese:
- Balance: Classic pairings are all about balance. Blue cheese with dessert wine, for example, takes a typically salty, spicy cheese and puts it next to a sweet, viscous drink.
- Texture: A seriously underrated part of pairing is texture, and I think that’s especially true for cheese as a fat and protein-rich food. Soft, slippery, buttery cheese paired with fatty, oily foods feels greasy rather than good. Introducing some crunch preserves balance. Pairing isn’t just about flavor, it’s also about mouthfeel.
- Sugar and Spice and Everything Acidic: Let’s be real. Cheese is salty (and fatty). My strategy for balancing these qualities is to pair with something sweet: fruit or (dessert) wine or, more recently, chocolate. Acidic (and sometimes spicy) foods and drinks are another tack to “cutting” a cheese’s density. I rely on sugar and acid to balance salt, fat and protein.”
Francesca: “I think that fruit and marmalade/jam are a great compliment to cheese, but it shouldn’t over over power it. I like to offer homemade marmalade that’s not too sweet to help the palate between different cheeses.”
What flavors do you recommend experimenting with for pairings around the holidays and throughout the winter season and why?
Liz: “Whenever I recommend something seasonal it’s because the cheese or accompaniment are especially good at a given time. But that changes depending on where you are. When I lived in Brooklyn apples and pears were seasonal at holiday time and I used them a lot. Now that I live in New Orleans citrus at Christmas is seasonal. The fun of pairing is playing around with what you like, and what’s good close to you.”
Francesca: “Our customer favorite is always the tomato jam. We slowly cook the tomato with cinnamon and sugar for hours – It’s an award winning family recipe!”
Are there any holiday specific flavors that have inspired you to create new flavor combinations this year or in the past?
Liz: “There are some holiday flavors that transcend what’s growing. Gingerbread, for example. Chewy, not overly sweet and spiked with spicier aromatics like cloves and ginger, this can be an amazing foil to the thick, spreadable, tangy-rich butteriness of a triple crème Brie-type.”
Francesca: “We have a delicious balsamic and strawberry jam using an aged balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy and a jam with some spices like Star Anice. I love the acidity from the balsamic and the warmth from the anise.”
What is your signature or your favorite cheese paring?
Liz: “I am a purist believe it or not so my pairings tend be very simple. I’d like to think I’m known for my go-to food/beverage pairing: Aged Gouda (at least 18 months), with its dense, crystalline texture and butterscotch, brown butter flavors with 2 fingers of good bourbon. You wouldn’t think it, but it’s a perfect pair.”
Francesca: “Robiola La Tur with tomato jam and toasted fig bread. I also love our Piave Vecchio cheese in Chestnut tempura with Raspberry honey or Saba. Another favorite is our Blu del Moncenisio Cotton candy. The balance between the pungent cheese and the sweet and softness from the cotton candy is perfect and just melts in your mouth giving you the opportunity to discover a new set of emotions on your palette!”
When pairing cheeses, are there any items you absolutely MUST splurge on?
Liz: “Good cheese. Sounds dumb maybe but mediocre cheese will make a mediocre pairing. Half an ounce to one ounce of cheese per person when you’re serving 3-5 cheeses is sufficient so even a cheese that’s $25-$30/pound can be had for $6-$8 of you’re serving 4 people.”
With especially stinky cheeses, are there flavors you can pair with to appease the less adventurous cheese eaters?
Liz: “Stinky” cheeses are actually great for pairing. They have more pronounced salt and those beefy, meaty flavors are beautifully balanced by the sweet or aromatic as well as the acidic. Pickled fruits and veggies, floral but acidic white wines (like Riesling) and stone fruits are all great.”
Francesca: “I love rare honey with blue cheese. Buckwheat, star thistle honey and wild raspberry are always exciting for me! With blue cheese you cannot go wrong with a sweet wine like Passito di Pantelleria.”
What are your biggest DO and DON’T when cheese pairing?
Liz: “Do trust your palate. Don’t believe that you have to agree with an “expert.” Pairing food is about what works for you. People like me are around to give you ideas.”
- Don’t eat cold cheese! Cheeses supposed to be enjoyed at room temperature.
- Garlic: Unless you want to be left tasting the bits of dehydrated onion or garlic that so often sully the surface of breads and crackers, save these items for another time. Some cheeses, like stronger mountain cheeses and some funky natural rinded wheels, actually have subtle notes of spring garlic or onion.
- Stay away from the most vegetal of vegetables like broccoli, carrots, green beans, celery, and cauliflower.
- Orange segments, grapefruit, kiwi, and pineapple have their place, but not on a cheese plate.”
- Last month I discovered a new fruit, the Lotus Persimmons. These are not baby persimmons. The lotus is a small variety, seedless and when soft they taste like dates. I LOVE THEM ON MY CHEESE PLATE.
- Build your plate from mild to sharp!
- When constructing a cheese plate with a variety of different styles, ages, and flavors don’t be shy! Sometimes people are intimidated by different cheeses, don’t be!”