by Whitney Babash, Dame de la Chaîne
From their homes up and down the East Coast, members, family, and guests of the Bailliage of Greater Washington gathered on-line the evening of June 19, 2020 for an interactive class and lively discussion on cheeses and beverage pairings. The day before the event, participants received four French cheeses, each with a sweet or savory accompaniment, selected by Murray’s Cheese in New York, NY, the world-renowned cheese and specialty food destination founded in 1940. Participants also received two wines to pair with the cheeses, chosen through a collaboration between Murray’s cheese experts and the bailliage’s Vice Échanson, Ellen Kirsh.
Just before the session began, members prepared their cheese boards according to the instructions provided by Murray’s. Once everyone connected via Zoom, Michaela Weitzer, Murray’s Certified Cheese Professional, began the class. She encouraged attendees to ask questions – which they eagerly did – and many shared previous experiences with tasting cheeses around the world.
Ms. Weitzer’s first noted that tasting cheese resembles tasting wine—studying the color, smelling a freshly cut or broken off piece, and finally tasting. She emphasized the importance of preparing a cheese board well before it is needed, to allow the cheeses to reach room temperature. Often, this means a cheese will “sweat,” leading some to think the cheese has been out too long and is no longer safe to eat. On the contrary! Those sweat beads are butterfat, indicating that the cheese is at the right temperature, ready to be savored.
Ms. Weitzer noted that all cheeses consist of the same four ingredients: milk, coagulant, salt, and cultures. It is the type or blend of milk, fodder, and other additions such as herbs that lead to the myriad variations. Like wine, cheese reflects its terroir – specifically, what the animals have eaten. For example, Tomme de Savoie has grassy overtones when it is made in the summer that it loses in the winter when the cows eat hay.
Addressing a common question and concern, she explained that while “all rinds are edible, not all rinds are palatable.” The rind is simply aged and dried cheese, like a bread crust. Ms. Weitzer encouraged attendees to taste the rinds of all the evening’s cheeses, noting that everything on a cheese is food-safe, even the wax found on Gouda. (Yes, she has eaten that wax from time to time). Indeed, for some cheeses, especially milder buttery ones, the rind’s concentrated flavor is integral to enjoying them fully.
Another of Ms. Weitzer’s insightful and practical points was that cheese is alive, continuously ripening and aging, releasing gasses as it does. Storing cheese in plastic wrap impedes this process, forcing the cheese to reabsorb the gasses it has released and affecting the flavor. The best way to store cheese, therefore, is wrapped in waxed paper so it can breathe.
As the assembly prepared to taste, Ms. Weitzer explained that when pairing cheese with wine — or any other beverage — the two elements should balance each other. For the cheese, one should consider the terroir, the age of the cheese, and the type of milk. For example, goat’s milk is the most acidic, so a fresh goat cheese would clash with the acid in a bright white wine. A cheese with a higher butterfat content, such as the Fromager d’Affinois in this tasting, is a more satisfying match with such a wine. Another useful concept is “what grows together, goes together,” though this is not written in stone, as evidenced by the California pinot noir for this class, which paired beautifully with the two stronger cheeses. In response to a question about serving something other than red wine with the Ossau Iraty and the Bleu d’Auvergne, Ms. Weitzer suggested something dark and rich, such as bourbon. The discussion also touched on non-alcoholic beverages to serve with cheese, for which she suggested something sparkling with citrus or herbs that would cleanse the palate, enhancing the appreciation of the cheese.
The bailliage sampled four French cheeses, each with an accompaniment. The first two cheeses were paired with a Loire Valley Vouvray, the second two with a Sonoma Coast pinot noir. With each cheese Ms. Weitzer had the tasters share their impressions of the aromas and flavors they detected beginning with the cheese alone, then with the accompaniment, and finally with the wine.
Fromager d’Affinois (France) with Blenheim Apricots. This cheese is 100% cow’s milk with 67% butterfat. This member of the brie family is a double crème cheese, which means that the maker added additional cream to the milk. The rind is a key element of this and similar cheeses. Attendees noted that it smelled like butter and milk with a pleasant saltiness and distinct nuttiness in addition to the classic dairy flavors. Eating it with the dried apricots, they softened each other’s flavors, with the tartness and firm texture of the apricots serving as welcome counterpoints to the luxuriously creamy cheese. The nice acidity and fruit of the Vouvray similarly balanced and highlighted the cheese.
Tomme de Savoie (France) with Jambon de Bayonne (France). This raw cow’s milk cheese, with a 20-45% butterfat content, is aged for 2 to 4 months. The term “tomme” means smallish, roundish cheese and is usually combined with the region or town of origin, as in this Tomme de Savoie. The aromas included grass and toasted nuts, which carry through to the flavors. Some tasters detected notes of mushrooms. Despite being made from skim milk, the cheese has a buttery lusciousness. Tomme de Savoie’s flavor is highly feed‑dependent—summer grass or winter hay—so Ms. Weitzer encouraged participants to try it throughout the year to experience the variations. These cheeses will not hold across the months, so to compare the seasonal differences, she suggested keeping a log of tasting notes throughout the year. Jambon de Bayonne is a less salty and more acorn- and mineral-forward ham than its Italian and Spanish counterparts, making it an excellent foil for the nuttiness of the cheese. The Vouvray continued to shine as a partner to the tomme and jambon.
Champalou Vouvray 2018, Loire Valley, France. The minerality and high acid of this 100% chenin blanc wine cleansed the palate of butterfat, nicely elevating the first two cheeses. Catherine and Didier Champalou started the domaine in 1983, owning 21 hectares of vineyards on clay, limestone, and siliceous soils. The grapes for this wine are harvested early in the morning and immediately pressed. It ferments in stainless steel cuves, followed by 11 months on fine lees, creating rich and nuanced flavors, including layered notes of honeyed fruit that were superb with the milder cheeses.
Ossau Iraty (France) with Spiced Cherry Preserves. This 100% sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque region is a traditional Old World cheese, said to be one of the oldest made. The sheep pasture on the mountains eating the herbage that includes marigolds and other flowers. The cheesemakers craft the cheese in situ, cooking the curds in vats over a fire. The cheese ages for 9 months, enough for it to develop its complex flavor. After slicing, it is best eaten at room temperature, when the butterfat sweat beads appear. Tasters noted aromas of ammonia and fish oil as well as nutty flavors. It pairs well with warm spices and the gently spiced cherry preserves brought out the wonderful herb flavors of this delicious selection. The pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast of California, with its low tannins, paired wonderfully with this and the next cheese.
Bleu d’Auvergne (France) with Pralus Chocolatier Barre Infernal Lait Praliné et Noisettes (France). Contrary to a common misconception, blue cheeses are not injected with mold to give them their distinctive appearance and flavor. In fact, cheesemakers pierce the cheeses with needles to expose the inside to oxygen, which encourages the growth of the mold. Bleu d’Auvergne is 100% cow’s milk, in contrast to the sharper, spicier 100% sheep’s milk Roquefort. Against the sweetness of the milk chocolate, this 45% butterfat cheese revealed its complex salty notes, resulting in an intriguing variation of the classic fusion of sweet and salty. Even the most skeptical bleu cheese taster found the pairing delicious. The praline and hazelnuts in the chocolate added a wonderful textural element to the combination. Attendees noted that this intensely flavorful cheese would work well with dates, and Ms. Weitzer suggested fresh fruit as well. The discussion encompassed pairing such a cheese with port and sauternes, where the sweetness of those wines would harmonize with the strong, meaty flavor of the bleu.
Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2018, California, USA. The Schug family has produced pinot noir wines for over 100 years. A medium-bodied and fruity wine comprising grapes from four vineyards on California’s Sonoma coast, it is aged in stainless steel and older French oak barrels, which restrains overt oak flavors. Pinot noir’s lower tannin and the bright flavors of red cherries, raspberries, and spice level of this particular wine made it an excellent choice to pair with the evening’s two more intense cheeses.
This second on-line event for the bailliage was a fascinating and delicious journey into the world of fine French cheese and their pairing with wine. Michaela Weitzer’s expertise and engaging, entertaining style ensured that the session was both educational and fun. And while members of the bailliage certainly miss the camaraderie of in-person events, meeting via Zoom had the advantage of enabling members who were out of the area to join in and to include family members from afar. In addition to members in the DC area, the session included confrères and family in Williamsburg and Richmond, Virginia, and locations in Florida. Until we can gather again, the bailliage looks forward to additional on-line events at which we can sustain the Chaîne’s tradition of fine food, wine, and friendship.