This past weekend, one of the largest chocolate conventions in the world took place in a cruise-ship terminal on the southern crest of Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood.
The Northwest Chocolate Festival, which celebrated its 10th year, hosted hundreds of exhibitors from around the globe and a steady stream of hour-long chocolate education sessions that took place simultaneously on six different stages.
Classes diverse as “The Science of Chocolate Tempering,” “Sake & Chocolate Pairing: American Sake,” and “The Future of Fine Flavor Cacao from the Farmer’s Perspective” fought for the attention of the crowds of festival goers, who ranged from chocolate-industry professionals to fascinated groups of tweens. (I even saw a small child on a leash.)
By 2:50 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 10, the Taste Stage had filled up with 100 people waiting to watch the 3:00 session on “Cheese & Chocolate Pairing.” The bouncers were set to stop admission at 80 people, but they were too late; the room was already over-full by the time they got to the door.
That meant there weren’t enough plates to allow everyone in the room to get a taste of the prepared pairings, but at least there were plenty of ears to let the presenters know people were interested in their topic.
Aaron Lindstrom, the Chocolate Ambassador for Theo Chocolate, graciously allowed me to step in and speak on the subject of chocolate and cheese pairings with him after the initial cheese speaker, one of my colleagues at PCC Community Markets, had had to bow out.
Theo Chocolate is a Seattle-based bean-to-bar chocolate company. They roast their own chocolate and craft organic chocolate bars and confections that they sell in their little Fremont-neighborhood factory shop and in grocery stores around the region.
I’ve been eating their chocolate since I moved to Seattle, so it was a no-brainer for me to jump on the opportunity when Jim Burke, whose name was printed in the official schedule, offered up the seminar at the last minute.
I had prepared to say a lot more about cheese, cheesemaking, and cheese selling than I ended up telling the crowd. Nonetheless I am sure everyone in the room left feeling more empowered to experiment with cheese and chocolate.
To begin, Aaron told the crowd about Theo Chocolate and about himself as the company’s educator. I then told the crowd about my co-op employer, PCC Community Markets, and a few tidbits about myself. Everyone seemed to love the term “curd nerd” and was impressed that you can become a Certified Cheese Professional.
Then we launched into the pairings.
For the centerpiece of our “Cheese & Chocolate Pairing” seminar, Aaron had put together three pairings that each highlighted a different chocolate and a different type of cheese.
First up was Theo’s Orange 70% dark chocolate with Beecher’s New Woman. The chocolate, which has a bright, citrusy nuance from the orange essence it contains, paired beautifully with the spicy, jerk-seasoned Cheddar-style cheese. The lesson of this pairing was to put together two things from opposite ends of the spectrum: sweet and spicy.
Here I provided details about the first of the three local creameries in the pairing lineup, Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, which was founded in Seattle’s Pike Place Market and still has a spot there where cheesemongers sell Beecher’s and other local cheeses, as well as grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese, and where anyone can watch cheesemakers making 40-pound blocks of Beecher’s Flagship through windows that run along three walls of the make room.
At one point, one of the audience members remarked, “you just wouldn’t think of cheese and chocolate as two things that go together.”
Without skipping a beat, Aaron replied, “that this room is so full testifies to the fact that even if you wouldn’t think of cheese and chocolate as two things that naturally go together, there are enough of you who were interested in learning about pairing them together to show up!”
Then the crowd was invited to treat themselves to pairing Theo’s Pear Balsamic Pâte de Fruit with Mt. Townsend Creamery’s Cirrus Camembert. Aaron recommended wrapping the sliver of Camembert around the chocolate confection in order for the mouth to gain a full textural experience: first, the fudgy cheese, then the crunch of the chocolate, and then the soft, sugary fruit within—then more crunchiness and more fudginess.
After Aaron explained the pâte de fruit—a fruit-based confection that is the only thing Theo makes that’s not chocolate (although it is an ingredient in a chocolate confection)—I talked to the crowd about Mt. Townsend Creamery, located on the Olympic Peninsula’s northern shore in Port Townsend, Washington, where they make the award-winning, small-format Camembert that is mild, creamy, and all-around pleasant.
We then led the crowd into the final pairing, which I had alluded to when someone asked what my favorite cheese was. I replied, as I do just about every day in my shop, that I have a favorite cheese in each category, and those favorites can change daily—but that one of my all-time favorite blues would be our final pairing.
And it was, as Aaron had chosen to pair Theo’s Ginger 70% dark chocolate with Cascadia Creamery’s Glacier Blue, a cheese I can go on about for hours[i] and a creamery I have written about at length. For Aaron, the sweetness of the ginger in the chocolate tones down the strength of the blue mold in the cheese; for me, the candied ginger chunks in the chocolate add a pleasant contrast to the cheese’s fudgy texture, and the chocolate’s overall flavor melded perfectly with the sweet cream notes in the blue.
The attendees were in awe after Aaron disappeared and returned with an armload of plates. What did he have?
Grilled cheese sandwiches made with Beecher’s Flagship cheese and Theo’s 70% dark chocolate on Essential Baking’s brioche bread.
The sandwiches were perfectly grilled, the cheese was melted gooey, and the molten chocolate added a bitterness that toned down the inherent sweetness of the cheese. I only heard from one person who didn’t like the combination—because she felt the bread took away from the flavors of the cheese and chocolate.
While most of the session was a guided tasting with audience feedback, we did manage to impart a few guidelines for pairing cheese and chocolate at home.
- Different things go together. Just like spicy and sweet, or creamy and crunchy, opposites can sometimes make a winning combination for flavor or texture (or both).
- Work with dark chocolate, not milk. Let the milk that made the cheese play the role of the “milk” in milk chocolate, and allow the flavor notes of the chocolate to correspond with those in the cheese.
- Try, taste, and try again. Since so much of taste is subjective, I recommended people try things together that they think might work well, or that they can’t imagine might succeed, to find combinations that work. Sometimes you will eat something you hate, and sometimes you will stumble upon a winner.
Just like pairing cheese with wine, beer, or bread, pairing cheese with chocolate takes two fermented foods and puts them together on your taste buds. Fermented things tend to go well together, but not every combination works.
I admit that historically I was not a fan of cheese and chocolate pairings. The first time I tried a cheese and chocolate flight, I was disappointed and bitter (figuratively and literally, in my mouth) with the results; the pairings were all gross.
Then I attended a cheese, chocolate, and beer tasting session at the 2017 American Cheese Society Conference in Denver, in which cheese came together with Epic Brewing’s beers and Dick Taylor Chocolates’ single-origin chocolate. It was then that I finally appreciated including chocolate in the mix. (My favorite pairing from that session was Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue with Dick Taylor’s Single-Origin Guatemala and Epic Brewing’s Big Bad Baptist Imperial Stout.)
The moral of that story is that if you don’t succeed with a pairing concept, you must try, and try again.
Back to November 2018, I feel incredibly lucky to have played a role in the chocolate-and-cheese pairing session with Aaron and Theo Chocolate at the 2018 Northwest Chocolate Festival. I didn’t help plan the event, as I stepped in at the last minute, but talking about cheese with a bunch of chocolate lovers sure was fun.