Cheese is good by itself. Let’s face it: cheese is great by itself.
I don’t even use a cracker or other edible cheese vehicle half the time; I just eat naked, tasty cheese. That’s the best way to really taste a cheese and isolate its notes from those of anything created by pairing the cheese with anything else. Naked cheese is salty, sweet, gamey, buttery, sharp, grassy, fruity, the list goes on and on (and gets way more in-depth, trust me–a note might not just be floral, but actually dandelion floral).
But while cheese is really good on a hot piece of bread or a crisp apple or pear slice, there is always the possibility for something greater.
There is a way to create a pairing that elevates each item so that you taste them together—and as they are individually—all at once.
You put that bite into your mouth, and you let it linger on your tongue. A theater of flavors plays out: there are highs, lows, a balance, a finish. And if you do it right, no one flavor overpowers the other.
The easiest way to achieve these taste-bud theatrics is by topping your cheese and cracker/bread/fruit combo with a spread of some kind. I’ve got quite a few ideas as to what “a spread” could be in this case—or seven broad ideas, for the sake of brevity.
- Fig spread. The most popular fig spread I know is the Croatian brand Dalmatia, which comes in a cute little jar with an orange top. They make a fig and orange spread, too (which has a white top, counter-intuitively). Fig spread goes well on pretty much everything: bloomy rind cheeses, manchegos, cheddars, blues, goats, goudas. It’s like the Duct-tape of cheese pairings. At my shop, we also just got in this Italian fig marsala jam that is dynamite on blue cheeses like Gorgonzola Dolce.
2. Cherry preserves. For whatever reason, cherries just lend themselves to pairings with cheese. When we aren’t pushing fig spread at people, we are busy enticing them with sour cherry relish or syrupy-sweet Amarena cherries. Both go well on bloomy rind cheeses, blues, and goat’s milk cheeses.
3. Honey. Honey, in all of its many decadent varietals, is another one of cheese’s soul mates. Plain honeys go well on just about any cheese (but especially on blues!), but then there are things like truffle honey, which impart just the right amount of sweet and savory. And then there is the most amazing invention on the planet, chili honey. My co-monger Alicia and I might have to apply to be the international ambassadors for Mike’s Hot Honey of Brooklyn, because we spent the entire summer proclaiming its glories to anyone who would listen. Hot honey is delicious, and it makes everything it touches that much more amazing.
4. Olive tapenades. When your life is already sweet enough, you should savor it—and choose a savory spread for your cheeses. Olive tapenades are great for this, especially with fresh cheeses, mozzarella, cheddars, and goat cheeses. We sell a Kalamata olive tapenade for your smearing pleasure, as well as a chopped olive tapenade that is as good on a ham sandwich as it is on Burrata.
5. Bruschetta. The spread part of the bruschetta—the chopped tomato and basil goodness—and the bread part need to be married to each other with your cheese. Especially hard sheep’s milk cheeses and fresh cow’s milk cheeses.
6. Jams and jellies. The world of fruit preserves is ridiculously large, and all of its members are fantastic cheese partners. I love Ossau Iraty with a good tomato jam, either my own homemade from black Russian tomatoes, or Girl Meets Dirt’s delicious version. But really, any fruit jam—berries, apricots, orange marmalades, whatever—is a good candidate for just about any kind of cheese you can you think to try it with. The last time we had Salt Spring Island’s chili chevre in stock, we paired it with a combination of fresh raspberries muddled in with a red raspberry jam. Divine!
7. Lemon curd. The curd is the word, especially when you want to spread its lemony goodness on top of a fresh chevre and top it with blueberries when they are in season. Year-round, lemon curd is tops when it’s a topping for soft goat and cow’s milk cheeses.
If experimentation doesn’t scare you, try them all. Or be cautious and ask your cheesemonger for a recommendation.
That’s how I know that Mike’s Hot Honey does NOT go with Cranberry Wensleydale, but it is surprisingly decent on Sommerdale’s Tintern or Harlech. As your cheesemonger, I am a human garbage can willing to put almost anything in my mouth at the risk of finding the next great pairing. (And sometimes I find exactly the opposite.)
So get some spreads and give them a taste. Then up the ante and layer in some cured meats if you eat them. Flavor is a great unknown always calling new explorers.