One of the most common questions cheesemongers get from customers is a varietal of “what fruit goes with this cheese” or “what cheese goes with the [insert fruit here] that I just picked up?”
A lot of people are only imagining fruit when they ask you for a good pairing for a certain cheese. Why, because you eat fruit with cheese.
Most people don’t question the notion. Our earliest image of enjoying cheese is a still-life of a glass of wine, a slab of cheese (probably brie), and a fat cluster of grapes. I literally have stamps with that image on them.
Why do we eat fruit with our cheese?
Plenty of people think this idea comes from Europe, and the biggest culprit of all is likely France. They always eat fruit with their cheese at sidewalk cafes, right? Well, no.
My most cherished cheese memory from France is eating a molten wheel of Saint Marcellin with bread and a salad. There was no fruit on that table. And in all of the Michelin-starred restaurants I ate at in France, the cheese course consisted only of cheese served with good bread (and wine).
A few years ago, I dated a French guy who couldn’t wrap his head around why Americans were always trying to eat fruit with their cheese. If you’d asked him what he ate with cheese, he’d say “bread!”
I cannot think of a single instance in France, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, or Germany when there has been even the faintest suggestion that I have some fruit to go with my cheese. Meat? Yes. Vegetables? Sure. Bread? Of course.
Now, I’m not trying to prove that people don’t ever eat fruit and cheese together in Europe. You can’t generalize eating habits in an entire continent, much less in an individual country as a whole.
This all simply goes to show that we don’t pair fruit and cheese with each other out of any deep-seated traditions that dictate there must always be fruit when cheese is eaten.
We eat fruit with our cheese because the combination of flavors are complementary, because the fruit brings out certain notes in the cheese, or vice versa. You have sweet and juicy against salty and savory, firm versus soft, nutty with candylike, and so on and so forth.
Why is Stilton and fresh pear a classic fall-and-winter pairing? Because the salty, creamy Stilton and the sweet, juicy pear create a sublime combination with the right amount of balance, and the right ratio of sugar to fat and sugar to mold.
There is much more to eating fruit together with cheese than slapping a pile of green grapes down with a bloomy, a blue, and a cheddar. And, in fact, the act of just doing so might ruin the experience of the cheese.
One of the instructors who spoke to us when I attended the three-day intensive course at the Cheese School of San Francisco back in March was a sommelier, Naomi Smith. Part of her instructions to us on how to pair wine with cheese involved a discussion about grapes.
Because what is wine, but the product of fermented grapes?
It had been pointed out before, but she hammered the idea home again: grapes are actually really hard to pair with cheese. Why? Because of the acidity in them. Depending on where they are grown, grapes can be pretty acidic—and that acidity can bring out a fair amount of bitterness when you least expect it.
This is not to say that grapes never go with cheese, but rather that a good cheese and fruit combination needs to be more targeted.
The first thing to consider is seasonality.
Berries are only in-season for a short period of time during the summer. In the fall and winter, they are flown across the country and the world, or grown out-of-season, and frankly, aren’t very good. Similarly, citrus is at its peak in December and January. You can buy and eat oranges in August, but they won’t be great.
So what’s in season now, in November, for most of the US? Apples, pears, and persimmons. No, that’s not a huge selection. But it’s what nature gives us, so we have to run with it—unless you want to eat bad fruit with your good cheese, that is.
That makes it tough to make a cheese platter ahead of time, since slicing an apple, pear, or persimmon open earlier than you’re about to eat it inevitably means the fruit will discolor.
What to do, then, if you want to pair cheese and fruit, but have it ready to go with lots of lead time?
Dried fruit. Jams and preserves. Other seasons’ gifts to the present.
After all, we eat fig jam, cherry relish, quince paste, and the like with cheese for the same reason we eat fresh fruits with cheese: to enhance the flavors and create a perfect pairing.
Which leads to the second major point to consider when creating a fruit-and-cheese pairing: how to enhance different types of flavors.
Naomi Smith’s presentation at the Cheese School lent some excellent guidelines, which apply to fruit just as easily as they apply to wine. (In fact, the pairing through which she led the class included wine and fruit, as well as nuts, meats, and olives.
The guidelines she provided are as follows:
- Fresh loves fresh (i.e., soft, high-moisture cheeses without rinds, like Ricotta or Chèvre)
- Sugar loves mold (i.e., bloomy rind, washed rind, wrinkly rind, and blue cheeses)
- Match intensity & find complimentary flavors (especially for semi-hard cheeses)
- Find fatty flavors to soften dry texture (i.e., hard cheeses)
She also outlined guidelines for the fast track to nasty-town, in case you are dead-set on creating a bad pairing (or better, want to know how to avoid them):
- Avoid too much acid and bitter flavors (for soft, fresh cheeses)
- Avoid bitter & fresh flavors (for bloomy rind, washed rind, and wrinkly rind cheeses)
- Avoid matching flavors & textures (especially for semi-hard cheeses)
- Do not pair dry cheese with fresh produce
- Acidic wines [and fruits] make blue cheese soapy
For example, a fresh strawberry (in season during the late spring and early summer) will be phenomenal with a hard Piave Vecchio or Parmigiano Reggiano. That same strawberry will be super gross with a creamy blue, like Fourme d’Ambert, and kind of bitter, flat, or acidic with a fresh chèvre or semi-soft Epoisses. (Believe me, I have tasted it.)
But a dried or baked fig, which is basically always in season, will create a flavor pairing that is mind-blowingly fantastic with that same fresh chèvre or Epoisses, pretty darn good with the Fourme d’Ambert, and totally underwhelming with the hard cheese.
That is partially because the dried fig has a more concentrated sugar content, thanks in part to the process of drying it, whereas the strawberry still has its natural acidity and a sugar content that as not as concentrated in the fruit because of its high moisture.
I’m sorry to shatter everyone’s “oh, just throw some grapes on the plate” easy cheese-and-fruit pairing dream world. But on top of knowing what fruits are at their best, you need to have some idea of how those fruits will react with the cheeses with which you’d like to pair them.
Aside from following Naomi’s guidelines, sometimes you have to figure this out through trial and error, chance and happenstance.
If you and your eating companions are into that, then by all means—experiment away. But if you want to wow your friends and family with some winning combos, you are going to need to put in a little work (and maybe some pre-party experimentation, oh darn).