“This is cheese?”
That’s the question—always practically shouted, always with incredulity—we get 99-percent of the time when a customer notices our fig bread and date cake for the first time.
Last week, an older gentleman even picked up a wedge, looked me square in the eye, and said, “so this is what’s become of fruitcake?”
Well, not exactly.
Your good, old-fashioned fruitcake is still around—as are the Stollens and Panettones of the world. The fig bread and the date cake are based in their own traditions—which are similar to that of “fruitcake,” but not quite the same.
Our Matiz fig bread and Don Juan date and walnut cake are both from Spain. Both companies have a huge selection of pressed fruit “cakes” or “breads” made from dates, figs, apricots, and the like. If you have ever had Grace & I’s fruit presses, you can imagine that they have a similar appeal, although not all of the fruit cakes you will find in cheese shops are always pressed. (Sometimes they just rest and set, like the one in this recipe that you can make yourself.)
What you’re working with is a sticky dried fruit, chopped up and mixed with honey, maybe alcohol, and sometimes nuts, such as almonds or walnuts. These are all things that tend to go well with cheese on their own, so imagine the possibilities when they are all bound up together.
We sell these delightfully sweet breads as accompaniments for cheese. This is something that some customers have a hard time wrapping their heads around. Why? Because the cake is obviously, well, a cake. And it’s not as stable as a cracker or a slice of baguette.
You can cut the date cake into slices, but they won’t be thin and delicate. You can cube it, or you can make fat slabs.
You can put a firm cheese on it, or slather a soft cheese on it. You can dip it into fondue. You can eat it plain—in between bites of cheese, or on its own. You can even eat it with meat, if you are feeling adventurous.
What to pair it with? Well, there’s always the old adage, “what grows together goes together.”
That would suggest pairing your Pan de Higo (fig bread) with Spanish cheeses and accoutrements. You probably won’t get hyper-local in an American cheese shop—like, being able to pair cheeses from Extremadura with a cake from that region, for example—but you can imagine “local” in the same sense as “national” for all-intensive purposes.
Try the fruit breads with Manchego, Ibérico, Idiazábal, Zamorano, Roncal, Ibores, Garrotxa, Murcia al Vino or Drunken Goat, Mahón, Tronchón, Tetilla, Cana de Cabra or Cana de Oveja, Monte Enebro, Valdeón, or Cabrales. These are the Spanish cheeses from all regions that you are mostly likely to find in American cheese shops.
Of course, you don’t have to stick with the Spanish theme. You can try your date-and-walnut cake with a young Cheddar or shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano, or pair apricot-and-almond cake with Gorgonzola Dolce. And let’s not forget the easy one: fig bread with Brie or triple cream.
Going back to the title question of this post, why do cheese shops always sell fig breads and date cakes?
Because they are specialty items that go well with cheese, even if you don’t have to eat them with cheese. Just as your cheese shop also sells charcuterie, nuts, and preserves, there are also crackers, breads, cookies, and cakes.
Pairing these things with cheese is a suggestion, not a rule. So if you have questions, ask your cheesemonger for help.
And if you’re feeling frisky, start experimenting and see what kinds of great pairings you can create with breads or cakes made from dried fruit and nuts–just as you would with fresh fruits, breads, or nuts on their own.
On a final note, here’s a video of me breaking down a wheel of Matiz Fig Bread in the shop. I’m using the double-handled knife, because it’s the easiest way I’ve found to get through the dense, sticky wheel.
And actually, in all of the shops I’ve ever worked in, the double-handled knife was used primarily for cutting fig, date, and apricot breads, then sometimes to score big wheels of Emmentaler (video of that here), Gruyère, and Comté. We actually never use the knife for Gouda or Mimolette, although I know there are plenty of shops where people do.
And that’s your fun cheese-cutting fact of the day!