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While perfect pairings are ripe for subjectivity, the role of the cheesemonger is vital when it comes to educating customers about the options available and guiding them through their exploratory experience. With consumer excitement to try new things at an all time high, and hospitality providers still a way away from fully fledged hosting, Speciality Food spoke to cheese industry insiders to uncover their personal favourite cheese pairings, the accompaniments bound to sell, and how they bring the restaurant experience to their cheese counters.
If the pressure to provide your customers with the ultimate cheeseboard experience makes you break a sweat, don’t panic; according to self-confessed cheese fanatic Candice Fonseca, proprietor of Delifonseca, “Classic cheeseboards are actually much easier to achieve than you’d think.” So long as you get the foundations right, and offer your customers a step above what they’d be able to find elsewhere – in supermarkets especially – you’ll be on solid footing. “For your basic cheeseboard I’d advise sticking with the staples: soft (e.g. Brie), a classic blue (e.g. Stilton), hard mature (e.g. traditional Cheddar) and a sheep or goat’s cheese. I’d recommend choosing the best artisan examples of each kind, and you can’t go wrong.”
If keeping it simple doesn’t get your taste buds tingling, there’s another option which has proven to be a successful cheeseboard-building technique at Delifonseca. “Another approach that often works is choosing a singular, knock-out cheese that is hard to come by as your centrepiece, and then to build the remainder of the cheeseboard around it to add balance,” Candice explains. “Don’t worry too much about geography, just try to achieve a balance of flavours on the board so there’s something to appeal to everyone.”
For a cheese lover like Candice, full on indulgence is the name of the game. “My favourite method [for cheeseboard creation] is to go all out! Rather than using a cheeseboard as a final course, do the amazing cheeses justice and have an extended cheeseboard as the only course. By doing this, you can really open up the experience to include a semi-firm, a bloomy rind, a firm/aged, a fresh/young and a washed rind cheese.”
Sam Wilkin, head cheesemonger at The Cheese Bar has encouraged his team to get up close and personal with the products they stock in order to be able to enthuse about them. “In general our team members spend much of their free time tasting the stock, finding pairings and forming their own opinions on what works well together,” he says. “This allows them to speak honestly and engagingly about how to make a customer’s home cheeseboard the best it can be.” With an honest, food-loving connection between staff and customer a vital aspect of the independent fine food retailer’s selling arsenal, this is a worthy investment of time.
Indeed, “I would encourage any speciality food retailer to do the same,” says Sam. “We try to keep our shelves looking well stocked and fulsome but without spreading our offer too thinly,” says Sam of The Cheese Bar’s range. Having full confidence – and understanding – of the cheese partners you’re offering is key. “We work directly with cheesemakers we know and respect and the same goes for our crackers and condiments,” he says. “We work with Rosebud Preserves who supply all our chutneys; I don’t think you can beat them for balance of flavour. We also stock a delicious dill pickle from Good Morning Neighbour and fresh Kimchi from Kim’n’chi – both are local East London makers.”
For Candice, it’s important to keep things generous when stocking for the perfect cheeseboard. “When it comes to accompaniments, make sure there’s plenty of fruit and nuts on the board along with different types of crackers to pair with each cheese.” Good options are worth paying a good price for: “The Fine Cheese Company and Millers Damsels have an amazing range of biscuits, and I feel it’s worth spending a little extra on having an amazing range of crackers,” while a little luxury goes a long way: “If you wish, you can even get carried away with extras like truffle honey.”
“If you’re really looking to up-the-ante, it’s worth taking time to consider the tastes of you and your guests or the theme of the menu already consumed,” she continues. “You could choose a region or country and build your board around options from there – it could be the North West of England or it could be Italy. I’d recommend trying to source the four staples using cheeses from that region – this method is perfect for a menu that already has a culinary theme to it. Consider the existing theme when choosing accompaniments – for example, for a Spanish themed cheeseboard I’d select quince and rosemary crackers.”
Spending time to really get to know your customers’ needs, including the preferences of who they’re creating the cheeseboard for, is the difference between a good retail experience and a great one. “Remember to know your audience – if you have guests that prefer a milder cheese or have a penchant for fruity flavours, increase the number of cheeses to allow for their tastes to be catered for without compromising the enjoyment of yourselves or other guests,” suggests Candice.
You’ve perfected your cheese counter selection and your chutney section is on point. Now for drinks, a big part of The Cheese Bar’s offer. “Our team at Funk is brilliant at recommending that perfect natural wine, cider or beer to really make that cheese sing,” says Sam.
Your drinks selection is important, says Sam. “Make sure your team is well versed in what pairs well; that full bodied Malbec will smash most cheeses but a nice round, perfumed Chardonnay will work well with many varieties.” A UK-made approach won’t go amiss in today’s Buy British culture. “Don’t ignore our native drinks,” he says, “cider and beer make for great matches, you can’t go wrong with a tannic West Country Cider with a Farmhouse Cheddar!”
“When you have a group of people, it can also be very enjoyable to try to pair the cheeses with drinks,” explains Candice. “Try picking three different wines (e.g. white, red, dessert) and then select a couple of cheeses to go with each, but try them with all wines – this can really highlight why some cheeses work with particular wines but can clash horribly with others!”
In the absence of full-blown dinner parties – arguably the indulgent cheeseboard’s natural habitat – there are still ways to level-up a cheeseboard selection with the perfect, high-quality beverage.
“In lockdown when you’re planning for a solo person or a couple and you can’t justify a truly sumptuous cheeseboard, there’s an opportunity to do something like focus on a particular cheese with a paired drink,” Candice says.
If you’re inspiring your customers to experiment with creating a restaurant-quality cheeseboard at home, it makes sense to stock the kit that will help them do just that. First on the list for Patricia Michelson of La Fromagerie? “Always have a good knife collection! Everyone likes a decent knife and one that is specially for cheese.” With the average customer most likely not an aficionado of cheese knives, it would be helpful to provide advice on which knife to use for certain cheeses, as well as how to cut small whole cheeses; Patricia suggests using newsletters or in-store posters to do just that.
A beautiful, potentially locally made wooden board would make for a great foundation for those new to cheeseboard-curating, as well as a special gift or upgrade for established cheese lovers. Boards, knives and bottle openers could well form a key part of your stock, but, says Sam, “don’t forget that increasingly popular category, ‘merch’. For us it all began with a heavy duty ‘bag for life’, great for the environment and gaining brand visibility. We also sell t-shirts, prints and sweaters; all carry our logo and are great for getting the word out.” With a myriad of options to help boost your cheese sales – from the classic to the innovative and left-field – the time is ripe to reconsider your cheese’s perfect partners.
We caught up with Sam Sohn-Rethel, sales executive at Mevalco, to discover his ideal cheese pairings with a Spanish spin
At Mevalco, the more unusual the cheese pairings the more excited we get. There’s the Quesos y Besos cheeses which can be paired beautifully with our Valencia almonds, fried and salted nuts and our organic orange blossom honey, but let’s look at the more unusual pairings.
Another truly winning combination. Why not try our salty Savel cheese from Galicia with Pedro Ximenez soaked raisins? Made from milk from Jersey cows, Savel is a really salty, creamy blue cheese – it’s simply stunning and it really ramps up a classic salty and sweet combination to the executive level!
We really like smoked and pickled flavours together, and an incredible example of this would be a Carpaccio of pickled artichokes with a few curls of lovely sweet caramelised peppers, some shavings of our Smoked Idiazábal, and a drizzle of some of our new harvest picual olive oil as the pièce de résistance. Our Smoked Idiazábal is rich and savoury with a firm texture; its traditional characteristic smoky flavour is a result of being stored near the fireplaces in mountain shepherd huts.
Usually this is a big no but there are a few combinations that really do work. One that is definitely worth trying is our spider crab, caught using sustainable fishing methods in the Bay of Biscay then cooked in the crystal clear Cantabrian sea water, giving a taste of the sea which is unrivalled, with Gamba Roja Bomba rice and our semi cured Manchego. This has a well balanced and complex flavour profile that includes nutty notes and a woody aroma. It also pairs well with walnuts and our organic chestnut honey.