How to be Sweet on Citrus with Cheese

Ah, the dead of winter. That means different things to different people, to be sure.

In general, we associate this time with darkness, cold, and snow. For much the northern US, Europe, and Asia, that is the reality of January and February life.

When I lived in Arizona for my first 23 years, winter was the year’s sole, brief respite from skin-melting heat and general misery. Starting at the end of October (maybe, if we were lucky) and stretching until February—aside from the freak sunny week in January that inevitably has everyone outside sweating and tanning while the rest of the world shivered—“winter” was my favorite of the two seasons.

For the record, those seasons are “summer” and “slightly less summer, but deadly freezing at night.” Take your pick: nine months of 80-120 degrees 24/7, or three months of 75 degrees during the day and 18 degrees at night. (Arizona really is a hellscape.)

Seasonal climate variations aside, one thing that can make winter sweeter no matter where you live is delicious, juicy, in-season fruit. Generally speaking, the same fruits are in season whether you live in northern Michigan or in New Mexico—although they most likely aren’t being grown in Michigan.

What’s in season during winter? Citrus!

While apples and pears are still really good, the bulk of their growing season is already over—a late-fall bonanza. We are still munching our way through that bounty, but the next crops of tree fruits have peaked in flavor: oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, lemons, limes, mandarins, oh boy!

I have always found citrus to be the most challenging category of fruits to pair with cheese. Why? Because citrus is very acidic and can sometimes be more bitter than sweet.

Although one adage for creating a good pairing is to pair “fats and acids,” that doesn’t always work for all things—citrus being premier among them.

If you take a rich, triple-cream Brie and try to eat it with grapefruit, your mouth will recoil at the bitterness you have created. (Shut up, grapefruit-haters; it’s not the fruit’s fault.)

So how can you possibly pair citrus fruits with cheese without having to live in fear of tasting something really icky?

Here are a few tricks I’ve come up with as a result of studied, often-painful trial and error. You can take these tips with you to the grocery store.

  1. Flavored Cheeses are A-OK.

When it comes to quick and natural pairings, the easiest way to pair citrus fruit with cheese is to go for a cheese that already has citrus in it.

A lot of purists scoff at flavored cheeses. But they do have their place in the world, and this is one way in which they make our lives better.

For example, bitter lemons don’t fight back when they are incorporated into your white Stilton. And Laura Chenel’s Grapefruit and Fig Chèvre Medallion tastes more like a creamy dessert than a goat cheese.

Soft, fresh goat cheeses are the most likely to have citrus incorporated into them–either in the form of chunks or blended-in bits. Often, honey is part of the equation (honey and orange Chèvre, for example). Crumbly white Stiltons and Wensleydales are another common variety of cheese that will come flavored with chunks of citrus.

Just add bread or a cracker, and you’re ready to roll!

  1. Go for Goats and Alpines.

When it comes to un-flavored cheeses, the most likely companions I have found for citrus are soft goat cheeses and Alpine-style cheeses—although I have also had good success with medium-level Cheddar-style cheeses.

The soft goats are easy: plain Chèvre + sweet slice of citrus fruit (tangerine, mandarin, navel orange, etc.) = done.  The relatively mild, but tart flavor of the cheese allows the fruit’s natural sweetness to play out in exciting ways.

Harder cheeses get a little more complicated. I recommend choosing cheeses that are nutty, sweet, and milky in flavor, rather than those with earthy, sharp, or strong flavors. I tried pairing Bellavitano Gold, Pecorino Romano, and Mt. Townsend Campfire Jack with both a Cara Cara orange and a navel orange. All combinations produced ick-reflexes.

But an aged Gouda with a navel orange? Yum. Comté and Gruyère with a Cara Cara orange? Great!

Much to my surprise, Farmer’s Five Cheddar was also fabulous with the Cara Cara orange; I just threw that one together, and wasn’t even planning to try any Cheddar-style cheeses with citrus. But man, am I glad I did!

My favorite pairings from this experiment were Mifroma Swiss king-cut Gruyère with a navel orange (somehow, the pairing produced notes of cocoa nibs, and it was fantastic), and the Farmer’s Five with the Cara Cara (it tasted like a baked Ricotta torta and was utterly sublime).

  1. Sugar is King.

A lot of the pairings I tried to make work would have been better with a third ingredient: sugar. This is why we often find cheese pairings with preserved citrus fruits—like candied orange peels or sweet orange and lemon marmalades—or citrus and cheese baked together in desserts like cheesecakes or baked Ricotta tortas.

A drizzle of honey will often do the trick to calm the bitterness between a cheese and its citrus partner—and the honey will also act as a “glue” to keep them together in your mouth or on the cracker or bread.

A sweet citrus preserve will also do the trick, with or without a fresh citrus accompaniment.

Naturally, a sweeter wedge of citrus fruit will pair better with your cheese than a bitter or tarter wedge. If you wind up with a tart fruit, just add honey, agave syrup, or even maple syrup, depending on what you’re working with. There’s nothing stopping you from straight-up sprinkling sugar on top, either.

Whether your putting together a romantic appetizer or dessert, trying to clear out a crisper-drawer full of January’s grocery-store deal on oranges, or looking for something new to try with your pals, give citrus and cheese a chance. If you follow my three pairing tips, your tongue will be pleasantly surprised!

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