Now as much as I love to just eat a hunk of cheese, I am also totally down with savoring it bit by bit with an accompaniment. Yes, you can always do nuts and fruit, but everyone does nuts and fruit. And you’re cooler than that. Or at least I thought you were. But then again I don’t know you that well… A lot of people have opinions on this. I talked to Max McCalman, of Artisanal Cheese, after a class at their center, and he said he is a cheese purist. He likes to enjoy the essence of the cheese by itself. And I get it – I totally do. But I also think that if an accompaniment makes the cheese a little more interesting, makes the eater form a memory with the cheese, and maybe makes them try a cheese they otherwise wouldn’t, I am all for it. As the days go on, I’ll be posting some recipes to create pairings with a few of the more common cheeses that you can easily get at Whole Foods.

One person who truly inspires me on this topic is Tia Keenan (@kasekaiserina). She was the head fromager/chef at Casellula Cheese and Wine Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen. And her cheese plates were world-renowned (Literally, there are articles about her in German…). She creates these amazing taste combinations that make you want to eat more and more cheese. Without sounding corny, having one of her cheese plates there changed the way I looked at cheese. I started to look at it as more of an experience/food memory versus just a hunk of protein. It made me be more present with what I was eating. (I had a lemongrass fudge there that is forever imprinted in my memory.)

Here are some of Tia’s combinations:

Image from Makeroom NYC

Cato Corner Farm Hooligan with Sage Bread Pudding and Mustard Whipped Meadowbrook Farm Cream

Image from Makeroom NYC

Twig Farm Square Cheese with Seed “Caviar” and Dragonfruit Chip

Image from Makeroom NYC

5 Spoke Creamery Browning Gold with Massaman Curried Sunflower Seed Brittle and Black Curry Syrup

I talked to her about this topic, and here’s what she had to say:

“I always seek to create new and unexpected flavors.  The element of surprise is something I want to have in my food.  It has to taste good — of course — but there is something really great about surprising someone.  Being a chef is a conversation between myself, the guest and the ingredients.  It’s three “people” sharing their values through the dining “experience”, through the plate.  Pairings are how I share my “opinion” or point of view.  It’s how I “show off” my knowledge of the product.  It’s how I seduce you into the “conversation”.  Who doesn’t love to talk to someone with a unique opinion or point of view?  I want you to eat my food in part because it intrigues you, make you curious.  You want to know more.

I have always been someone who hates rules.  “This cheese should be served with THAT” or “this is the perfect pairing” always irked me.  Why?  Why does a pairing (or anything for that matter), HAVE to be a certain way.  I have never been one for orthodoxy.  Cheese is steeped in tradition, and while I respect that tradition and have worked within its parameters, I always found myself asking “Why?”  or, “Why not?”.  Also, there’s something irrational about rules about how things “must” be in food.  For instance, if you pair a tomato with a lychee it’s probably not going to be very tasty, but what’s the harm?  So you learned that tomato and lychee are not a good combination…you move on.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that process and discovery are very important to me, as much as the end result or “perfect pairing”.  I think I have a good palate and a lot of knowledge of the product, but at the end of the day I think my biggest culinary asset is my curiosity and my courage to act on that curiosity.  The best thing about working with food as a medium is that it literally turns to shit the next day, so every meal is a chance to make something new, to have a new experience.  When I make cheese pairings I want to give you an experience that is delicious but also encourages you to be curious.

 There’s one other point I’d like to make about pairing:  the flavors of every cheese changes throughout the seasons, throughout its lifespan with many external factors having an influence — how it was stored, how old it is, etc.  If one understands that cheese in ALWAYS in flux, how can we definitively say what the “best” pairing is?  It seems to me that the pairing would potentially change along with the cheese.  Again, this is an approach which reveres curiosity and discovery.  I work with cheese because every time I put a piece of cheese in my mouth, no matter how many times I’ve had it before, it’s a new experience, a new flavor.  I am inspired by that inherent characteristic in the product.  I pay homage to its essential mutability with my pairings.”

Umm, yeah, so in comparison to that, the pairings I came up with don’t look so amazing. But the thought is there. The whole idea is to bring out a new dimension of the cheese.

My pairings, with recipes to follow:

  1. Humboldt Fog with Dried Cherry Almond Cookies
  2. Saint-Nectaire with Rosemary Pine Nut Brittle
  3. Gruyère with Red Onion Jam
  4. Gorgonzola with Dates, Bacon and Marcona Almonds

~ Dana