As tempting as it can be to sneak a wedge unadorned from the fridge, it’s worth going the extra mile to make an occasion out of good cheese. Most cheeses are improved beyond measure with the right little something on the side, to compliment their textures, heighten flavours and balance salt and acidity. Trouble is, all too often we abuse the hospitality of great cheeses by inflicting them with the most boorish or discordant partners.
Despite the claims of so many off-the shelf condiments and dry-tack, there is no such thing as “the perfect partner for cheese” any more than there is “the perfect hair cut for humans”.
Each family of cheeses have their own unique characteristics and idiosyncrasies, and so accordingly have their respective soul mates and nemeses’…
Wine and cheese
Despite what all those soirées of the 70s and 80s might have led you to believe, wine and cheese do no real favours for each other. The cheese overwhelms the palate, making the wine taste thin and boozy.
If you really must set these two up against each other, don’t waste your money on the best example of either. The rare exception to this rule is the paring of ripe blue cheese and sweet dessert wines. It’s not my scene, but I can see how it might work for some. Grappa, brandy or calvados can work very nicely indeed with a cheese platter. Actually I find they work very nicely full-stop.
Many Italian cooks find the notion of seafood and cheese appearing together as vaguely offensive. This rather odd prejudice (possibly a remnant of ancient religious prohibitions) has infected most European cuisines. It is however, a total nonsense. Imagine smoked fish mornay or even the humble fish burger without the svelte ministrations of sharp, gutsy cheddar or nutty, sweet gruyere .
Fruit- dried and fresh
Sticky, sweet dried fruit, such as figs and muscatels go exceptionally well with double cream blue cheeses (which covers pretty much all blues made in New Zealand and the vast majority of imports).
Cheddars, parmesan and other vintage hard cheeses go very nicely with crisp apples and pears, where as young, soft cheese like Brie and camembert enjoy nothing better than a few seedless green grapes and the odd strawberry. Alternatively, use thinly sliced raw mushrooms, which perfectly match the fungoid flavours of the cheeses rind.
Honey (preferably in the form of comb) is a traditional and rather fetching accompaniment for blue cheeses, but it should be approached with care. Too much honey will drown the taste buds and overwhelm good cheese. Choose lighter tasting honeys such as clover of vipers bugloss as opposed to licoricey Manuka or bush blends. Less is most assuredly more when it comes to honey and cheese.
Toasted almonds and fresh walnuts are the classic cheese platter nuts. Neither does much to enhance any cheese per se, but their savory flavours and pleasing textures are very welcome. Fresh, new season walnuts are a much overlooked delight and in many cases will outshine even the best cheeses with their sweet milkyness and mildly bitter edge. All I will say about peanuts is No!
Quince and Damson pastes are deservedly popular partners for strong, hard cheeses. I couldn’t really rate one above the other as it has so much to do with circumstance and the cheese in question. What I can tell you is that damson paste is much easier to make than quince paste, or at the very least is less likely to shoot burning hot magma at you while it cooks.
Vinegar based chutneys and relishes are nowhere near as well matched to cheeses as they like believe. Yes, you may well site the ‘traditional ‘Ploughman’s lunch, but might I remind you that this was invented by the British Cheese Council in1950s as a marketing ploy. There is really nothing traditional about it. However, I do find that certain Indian condiments particularly sticky, sweet and slightly resinous mango chutney can work very, very well with complex blues cheese and strident cheddars.
There is nothing wrong with serving crackers with cheese. Fact is, the deceptively fatty water cracker exists for little other purpose than transporting cheese from platter to mouth. But personally I prefer an oatcake. These nourishing, not quite sweet and not quite savory biscuits from the Scottish highlands are hands-down my biscuit of choice for serving and devouring with cheese. Unusually they work equally well with both hard and soft cheese. Oatcakes are more than likely direct ancestors of much sweeter digestive biscuits, both being Scots in origin and serving a similar function to one another.
My own personal bench mark in oatcake or “oaten biscuit” perfection has long been the superb version made by Duchy Originals (Prince Charles’s Duchy of Cornwall estate label). In order to reverse engineer something comparable I’ve been forced to consume a great many of these and more cheese than was altogether wise. I hope you enjoy the results.
1 cup rolled oats, blitzed in a food processor to the consistency of coarse flour
1 cup whole meal flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tbsp brown sugar OR honey
4 tbsp butter
1/2 cup (approx) hot water
Preheat oven to 180C.
In a mixing bowl, combine the ground oats, flour, salt, baking soda and sugar.
Rub the butter into the flour mixture and stir in the hot water. Mix until you have a firm (i.e. not sticky) dough
Lightly flour your work surface, and roll out the dough to about 5mm. Use a round cookie-cutter or a drinking glass to cut discs. Transfer to a very lightly buttered or non-stick baking tray.
Bake for around 35 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and cool on rack. If still soft in the centre after cooling, return to the oven for another 10 minutes+
Store in an airtight container.
Makes 8-10 Oatcakes.
Cheese is surely one of life greatest pleasures- it’s certainty one of mine. Made from the simplest of ingredients, it can – depending on the most subtle changes in technique or culture, take on myriad forms and flavours. While I could- if push came to shove- give up chocolate, coffee, wine and many more of life’s guilty pleasures, I don’t think I could get by without cheese. No day for me is complete without a bit of something ripe and fetid, something smooth and buttery and or something sharp and assertive. But there are worse addictions, right?