The ultimate guide to cheese pairing

28 January 2024, 07:00 AM
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The ultimate guide to cheese pairing

Take a piece of excellent quality farmhouse Cheddar. It will be firm but supple. Its texture, sometimes punctuated by calcium lactate crystals, may have a gentle crumble about it. There could be notes of toasted nuts…or even fruit. It is a joyous, delicious expression of the milk from which it was made. Now pair that same cheese with a sliver of cool, freshly cut apple. Perhaps with a nip of gently sparkling keeved cider. Or maybe a pint of British ale. That very same Cheddar will be transformed. Remaining very much itself, but with bells and whistles on. Does it get any better than that?

We’ve been pairing cheese with beer, wine, spirits and (later on) various other fruit pastes, chutneys, pickles and the like, since the Middle Ages. Back then, the pairings just ‘made sense’, marrying together products drawn and created from ingredients cultivated on the same land. 

Of course, today, pairing is more about deriving even more pleasure from our cheese – and impressing guests!

Grazing, cheese and charcuterie boards continue to grow in popularity as a casual at-home entertaining option, and cheesemongers and fine food retailers with the knowledge to guide customers towards ‘just the right thing’ to elevate their selections from the counter, will be well placed to capitalise on upselling other stock – from crackers and pickles, to chocolate.

Why are cheese pairings important?

“Offering a couple of nice cheeses isn’t enough these days,” says Edward Hancock of The Cheese Geek. “We’ve found we can build out the taste profile of cheeses with well-chosen condiments or a glass of something that goes well with it. That’s an effective way to create a moment to remember. It changes cheese into something moreish and something even better, opening up a whole new range of directions, and is a great way of getting people to see cheese in a different way.”

Tastings are, though, says George Hammond of Georgonzola, very personal and down to customer preference. While they are a great way to sell other things in your store alongside cheese, good, personal service comes first, and retailers should investigate customer likes and dislikes before pointing them in the direction of a particular product. “There’s no point trying to pair cheese with something they don’t like. They have to like the cheese and the pairing. You can’t force it. That will spoil both things.”

What to pair with cheese

It’s beneficial, says George, to perhaps start with classic, recognisable cheeses if your customer isn’t well versed in the more unusual, newer varieties. From here, suggest pairings that are time-honoured, and which you know have worked well in the past…throwing in a few curveballs for those who say they want to push the boundaries a bit.

An example, he explains, is matching farmhouse Cheddar with lime pickle. “Which is quite unusual, but farmhouse Cheddar has quite a lot going on, and needs something bold to go with it.”

Blue cheese, he says, is “fabulous” with honey. And strong, washed-rind cheeses are nirvana with sour beer. “I love putting sour beer with things like Renegade Monk and Rebel Nun from Feltham’s Farm. They cut through the funk. Those cheeses need something strong to power through them.”

George likes to suggest fresh strawberries, or tart, slightly sweet black garlic vinegar with soft cheeses, such as Finn or Bix. “And a still cider is great with things like Baron Bigod. Something semi-dry to go with the mushroomy flavour of the cheese. Or take away the cracker and use a slice of apple instead.”

Edward’s match for Baron Bigod and other brie-style cheeses is something a bit less known – wild cloudberry jam, which he describes as a kind of orange-scented blackberry. “It’s native to Scandinavia and you get it in northern Scotland too. It works incredibly well.”

Surprisingly, Edward says he’s not a huge fan of most chutney with cheese. “The problem is it can be too sweet or acidic. But this wild cloudberry, it kind of tricks your brain into thinking it’s going to be sweet, and provides that fruitiness to match the creaminess and richness of the cheese. It works very well with dairy.”

That said, if customers (which probably applies to most) DO want chutney, most tend to like a red onion or caramelised onion variety, so it pays to try a few, seek out the very best, and make it your ‘star player’. “It’s accessible,” Edward says. “People know it, and know what to expect. It works across all the cheeses too.”

A pear chutney (he stocks a brandy and pear variety) can bring that extra je ne sais quoi to a blue cheese, he adds. “Pear has that extra bit of fruity sweetness that cuts through the saltiness of the blue so effectively. I generally encourage people to use chutney and condiments sparingly to let the cheese sing.”

More unusual cheese pairings

Like Edward, George isn’t a big fan of chutney with cheese. “It’s very controversial, I know,” he laughs, stressing that he does still sell it, of course, as customers expect him to have it. “I prefer to match cheese with other things I’d eat on their own – and I wouldn’t eat chutney on its own. I don’t think it brings anything to the table, which is quite a rogue thing for a cheesemonger to say, isn’t it?”

George loves steering his customers towards chocolate, beer and cider. “They are often buying cheeseboards for guests, and they like getting funky alternatives. For me, more and more people are buying unusual additions rather than safe bets.”

He thinks balsamic onions, such as those from Silver & Green, are a good choice. But, taking a more leftfield turn, adds he’s successfully pairing Stilton with dark chocolate. “I did a tasting event with Bullion Chocolate a year ago. Their 70% chocolate with Colston Bassett Stilton – the whole sweet and savoury thing – it merges so well, but people never think about doing anything like that.”

Another professed unusual pairing he loves to show off is Crooked Pickle’s Sweet and Sour Pineapple. “That’s just fabulous. People get really confused when I put it on, but it goes with some harder cheeses, like Old Winchester, or White Lake Pecorino.”

And George is a big fan of using nduja on cheese boards, saying “it goes with anything”. He sources a British variety made from high welfare pigs. “It’s just incredible. At room temperature it melts perfectly. Because it’s fermented and has a bit of tang and heat, it is lovely with most hard cheeses.”

Edward’s go-to for indulgent double or triple cream cheeses is very simple indeed, and requires no mucking about – but does mean you need to have a well-stocked bakery section. “I think those cheeses are brilliant spread liberally on nice, freshly baked French baguette. That yeastiness works so well with the very rich cheese. Tell customers to serve it slightly warm, and the bread starts to break down the cheese, making it a bit more velvety on the palate. The problem with that sort of cheese is it’s otherwise very difficult to pair. The flavours can start to get in each other’s way.”

His personal favourite, and a pairing he gives to every person joining The Cheese Geek, is Tunworth with truffle honey and a sourdough cracker. Although it’s beginning to ‘break through’, honey with cheese remains a mystery to many customers, presenting a real opportunity for retailers, especially when it comes to sampling in store. “Using truffle honey with Tunworth is one of the things that opened my mind,” Edward explains. “Previously I felt pairings were unnecessary. But this was a ‘eureka’ moment. Tunworth is a very creamy and rich cheese. The rind carries that earthy, mushroom flavour, but with a hint of cabbage bitterness. The truffle in the honey brings out that mushroom flavour, and the sweetness slices through the bitterness.”

How to pair vegan cheese

There’s very little messaging around pairing plant-based cheeses, despite this being a growing category. Emily Kelly of London-based vegan cheese shop, deli and restaurant, La Fauxmagerie, says there is a lot of interest from customers in pairings, adding that, like those who eat dairy, they too are trying to find special, but easy, ways of entertaining at home.

“When you go on to a vegan diet some there can be that feeling like you’re missing out,” she explains. “The whole idea of a vegan cheeseboard is it’s a nice thing to show off to friends, and a lot of the time to show non-vegan friends how good plant-based cheese can be. It makes that transition a bit easier, without a doubt.”

Many vegan cheese pairings echo those of dairy cheese, she says, but as the texture of certain cheeses can be different, making recommendations in store helps to build more of a tailored experience for customers – which they certainly wouldn’t encounter in a supermarket. “People go into a supermarket or big shop, pick up their vegan cheese not really knowing what it goes with, and there’s no advice available there,” she says.

“I’ll ask them what they like and enjoy, what they dislike, and I go from there. For us, we’re looking at specific flavour profiles. So white truffle cheese pairs nicely with sparkling wines like Moscato. We have a truffle brie and camembert and they both go well with this or with Champagne or vegan honey. Those are nice options.”

Vegan blues, which are similarly tangy, are a match made in heaven with a Pinot Noir, Emily says, adding that pickled pears also work a treat, with the combination of sweetness and acidity offsetting the piquant flavour. 

“My favourite pairing is a cheese called Minerthreat from I Am Nut OK. That’s a smoky cheese with activated charcoal on the outside. It’s umami and tangy and has a nice complexity to it. A lot of non-vegans got for it because it has that almost barbecue smokiness. We pair it with dried figs, or fresh figs if they’re in season, and some rye bread.”

Choosing the perfect cracker

An often forgotten about part of the cheeseboard is the cracker. After the thrill of choosing cheese and ladening their basket with relishes and accompaniments, often customers will just throw in any old biscuit. Be mindful of this, and prepare to offer your recommendations before they skip out the door. Edward Hancock says, in his opinion, sourdough crackers are one of the finest vehicles for any cheese, as they have the perfect texture and don’t impinge of the flavour of most. Naturally, Jean-Baptiste Robert, managing director of Peter’s Yard, agrees. “With their thin, crisp texture, distinctive crunch and delicate flavours, our sourdough crackers are made with premium ingredients which deliver extraordinary pairings.”

The cracker specialist has launched a pairing wheel alongside the Academy of Cheese, which can be found on the Peter’s Yard website as a guide for cheesemongers and customers. Suggestions include matching blue cheese with fig and spelt crackers, crumbly cheeses such as Lancashire with rye and charcoal crackers, and soft bloomy cheeses with pink peppercorn crackers.

Looking for drinks to pair with cheeses? Discover expert ideas here.

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