Have you ever been paralyzed by a cheese choice? Staring at the bin, stacked with gloriously creamy pucks of goodness, while trying to compile the perfect cheese situation for your gathering, have you ever wondered how it will all work together? This is particularly challenging during the entertaining/feast season, what with all the pressure to win. You are not alone, even the pros go through it. But there's a little schooling you can pick up that will not only help you become more cheese savvy, but also help you prepare a better board for your dairy lovin' guests.
Every Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the tucked away back seating area of the cheese shop of France 44, school is in session. And yes, it's the kind of class we all wish we could attend every day, because the curriculum is awesome: cheese and drinks.
At the same time every week, cheesemonger Peter Cusic gathers with Andrew Nino and Karina Roe to match a beer or wine with a selection of cheese, thus creating that week's Cheesemonger's Choice board. "It all really started because Andrew, who is one of our most seasoned mongers, wanted to widen his knowledge of beer and wine pairings, and Karina is working on her wine certification, so this was a great way to gather and explore," Cusic said. They're kind of like a Cheese Team.
They pick out a beverage, be it an interesting wine or a craft beer from the liquor store shelves, and Cusic and Nino pick six cheeses that may or may not work with that beverage. "At first we were picking blindly, just random choices that we thought might go with an IPA or a pinot grigio." See? We are all babes in the woods when faced with so much choice. "But over the last 52 weeks, we've learned things, and can compare notes with what we chose for one hoppy beer and how it might lead our choices for a different hoppy beer. But it's so interesting that just because a gouda might go well with one Pinot Noir, doesn't mean that it will match with all Pinot Noirs."
I sat in last Wednesday and we went through the paces. It was tough work. Not. For our beverage, Roe chose Mark Ryan's The Vincent Red, a blend of Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. We sipped the wine while Roe gave us the profile: it was bold with lots of deep berry flavors and warm spice. Just the kind of wine I'm looking for on these blustery, wet days. We knew we'd need cheeses that could stand up to the intensity, "no wimpy Alpine cheeses" so sayeth Cusic.
The board held six portions and we were tasked with sipping and sampling, then sipping again. The back and forth reveals nuances, just don't double dip in mixed company. Here's what we thought:
Marcel Petite Comte ... Just a gorgeous cheese that mellowed out the juiciness of the red. "This cheese meshes really well with the wine, there's not too much salt." ... "The wine makes it taste more mature than when you first bite it."
Abbaye de Belloc ... A French sheep-milk cheese that had loads of rich flavor. "After the wine sip, there's a sharpness on the finish." ... "It's a good fatty cheese, but there's something not right paired with this wine."
Mini Valencay ... A soft French goat cheese with a light greyish rind. "This is fresh tasting, almost yogurt like in texture, but it kind of disappears under the wine." ... "It just can't stand up to the big flavors of this red."
Montenebro ... A creamy Spanish goat cheese with a beautifully cascading rind. "The cheese totally tones down the fruit of the wine." ... "But with the rind, you get a lot of earthiness from the wine." ... "And yet, when you eat just the center creamy part with it, you get a whole different lovely complexity."
Gorgonzola Dolce ... A young and mild blue from Italy. "It's not terribly blue, there's a sweetness to it that could work with the wine." ... "I don't know, there's something seafoody about this cheese with this wine." ... "There's too much milk in this cheese to be successful with this much fruit in a wine."
Northern Lights Blue ... A local blue cheese with a happy following. "The creaminess of the cheese and the texture of the wine are well-matched."... "Big flavors all around, but they don't fight each other." ... "Those blue streaks really bring out the dark berry flavors in the wine."
So, the Cheesemonger's Choice board ended up with the Comte, Montenebro, and Northern Lights Blue, and I can solidly say that sipping The Vincent alongside those three cheeses will be a real journey of flavors. You can order this specific board today, for one more day, until they sit down this afternoon and noodle out a new board with a new drink: next week it's Badger Hill's Cherry Double Dunkel as the bevvie.
But now that you have the deep intel provided here for you, here's what I would do if I were you (and maybe I will do as me, anyway):
>> Pick up a bottle of The Vincent in the wine shop, and then grab a few hunks of those vetted cheeses listed above and make a night of it at your own home with friends, or just the couch. It's a proven and tested grouping.
>> If you go next week to do this, why not take a moment for yourself and order that day's Cheesemonger's Choice board, slip into the side seating area and experience another curated pairing. Now you've got two beverages and six cheeses under your belt, which might be the perfect way to head into the Thanksgiving week.
>> Start planning a cheese happy hour on Wednesdays at 3 p.m., during which you grab a sandwich or snacks and cop a squat in the back room by the Cheese Team and listen in on the discussion. Ask them to speak loudly.
>> If you already have a beverage in mind for your gathering, and want to build a board around it, bring it to the Cheese Team and they will help you find your happiness.
Happy Hour in the cheese shop runs 3pm-6pm every day but Sunday, and there are 2-4-1 beer and wine deals. The Cheesemonger's Choice board will run you $12 for 3 cheeses, fruit, nuts, and bread. Glasses of the recommended beverages will run you $5 for beer and around $7 for wine (which includes Prosecco on tap, ladies).