Cheese is a Social Animal: Its Circle of Friends

Sage honey

Sage honey

Sure, cheese will go to movies alone, taking pleasure in having the box of Reeses Pieces to itself. It’s happy to sit solo at a lunch counter with a slice of bread and revel in the simplicity. But at the end of the day, it likes conversation, an exchange of ideas and flavors, and maybe a drink or two. It craves company.

Cheese is a social animal.

Of course, people debate cheese’s social nature. Many have mixed feelings about whether cheese should be served with friends at all (or in other words, with accompaniments).

A great cheese is perfect on its own. Plus, a  jam or sweet thing slathered on without consideration to pairing or flavor can muddle an experience. If you’re serving cheese with wine, a too tart or too sweet accouterment can knock the pairing out of balance.

My preference? If the point is wine and cheese pairing, go light on the sides or serve none at all. Wine can get anxious when forced to mingle with cheese’s more vibrant friends.

But when the point of tasting cheese is to have a layered, rich experience, don’t limit yourself. If the wine or drink you’re serving with the cheese clashes with the cheese’s buddies, mix it up. Alternate between tasting the beverage and the accoutrements. And relax, the party doesn’t need to happen on your tongue all at once.

Though I like many  types of cheese accompaniments, this week I’m focusing on two: honey and preserved walnuts.

Marcelli Family chestnut honey

Marcelli Family chestnut honey

Honey is basic. But so is bacon and no one ever complains that it’s not enough.

Although delicious enough to serve with nearly everything, honey likes certain flavors best: salty and funky. Think of it as the yin to your yang, the peanut butter to your chocolate.

Not surprisingly, I love a little dab of honey with blue cheese. Blue cheese’s salty, tangy, meaty, and sometimes sharp flavors can benefit from a little subtle sugar.

I also like honey with funky cheese, like a super sheepy cheese or a fierce washed-rind. One of my favorite pairings is the Marcelli Family Pecorino Parco with chestnut honey from the same area in Abruzzo. The pecorino is meaty, nutty, and sheepy as hell. The honey highlights the chestnuts flavors in the cheese and coaxes out a little more of the wheel’s sweetness.

Pairing with preserved walnuts is not so different. Preserved walnuts are an Armenian delicacy that requires the nut be picked when very young, then cooked in a spiced sugar syrup, shell intact. The first time I tried one was at a class I taught at the San Francisco Cheese School, and I fell in love.

Armenian preserved walnuts

Armenian preserved walnuts

Like honey, preserved walnuts like to shake it up a bit. They would be fine with a nutty cheese like Comté, but they like it a bit funky.

preservedwalnut2

Harvest Song walnuts

Last month I paired preserved walnuts to Montagne de Jura, a washed-rind mountain cheese from western France. I had two different wheels of the cheese. The youngest was fresh and funky, and the older was a little sweeter and nuttier. Both were amazing with slices of the preserved nut. I also tried nut slices with Point Reyes blue, Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen and Roquefort. Score again and again.

What do you like to pair with stronger cheeses? Do you like to make your own accompaniments?