Sharp ideas about cheese

Going from bland to grand in pairings

October 20, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As temperatures drop and autumn's enter- taining moves indoors, get ready to juggle that glass of merlot in one hand while you reach with the other for a bore d'oeuvre.

Zzzzzzzzzzz. You know the kind. Cubes of bland cheddar and pallid Swiss, all tossed into a jumbled pile like loose Legos or - even worse - lined up in neat rows, each chunk stabbed with a toothpick that waves a sad little fringe of colored cellophane.

"It's your classic, cheap catering tray" is how Mick Kipp, owner of the Whiskey Island Pirate Shop on 36th Street, derides this cheesy old standby.

Must it be so?

Thankfully, no. Some of Maryland's leading gourmets and fromagers are, of late, serving tasty alternatives to resuscitate that tray of canapes, or even an after-dinner cheese course. The newest trend is to accessorize cheese with condiments like wine and pepper jellies, spicy fruit chutneys and compotes, and dipping sauces ranging from Modena balsamic vinegar to apple butter.

"Recently, I notice more and more people pairing cheeses with different tastes to enhance both their flavors," says Pablo Solanet, head of marketing and sales for FireFly Farms, a cheesemaker in Bittinger that won medals in the 2004 World Cheese Awards. "Cheese and mustard, of course, is a traditional combination, but it's just not very exciting anymore."

Indeed not. Barry Rumsey, the chef/owner of the Bicycle Restaurant on Light Street, recently served a cheese platter with nary a drop of mustard in sight. Instead, he accessorized with Pumpkin Seed Brickle (made with cayenne pepper and caramel), tangerine-flavored honey and aged fig balsamic vinegar.

"It was big," Rumsey says. "People loved it."

Admittedly, at first glance the idea of a cheese condiment is a bit of a puzzler, especially because people tend to think of cheese as a kind of garnish - something to slice onto a burger, toss with salad or grate over pasta. Yet, when the accessory is accessorized, the flavorful fun really begins.

"I make an olive spread with onions, peppers, capers and red wine that is really good with a cheese that has a big mouth feel, such as smoked cheddar or smoked brie," says Kipp.

"We spend a lot of time doing recipes for cheese accompaniments. Something like a caramelized onion topping goes really well with a goat cheese," says Mike Koch, president of FireFly Farms. "It's like pairing wine with food," he said. "Certain combinations just make things go over the top."

Julie Parker, cheese manager at Eddie's of Roland Park, agrees. "When you put certain flavors together, it's synergistic. The total is much greater than the sum of its parts."

Parker says one of her most popular product samplings at Eddie's is a combination of Fondo di Toscana Fig Puree, made with figs grown in Calabria, Italy, and an aged Canadian goat cheddar called chevre noir.

"The cheese has a classic sharpness and saltiness," she says. "Paired with this sweet fig puree, which has the consistency of maple syrup, it is extremely elegant and tastes just fabulous."

If your appetite is whetted, but you don't know where to start, here are some rules for beginners.

First, try pairing a condiment with a cheese made in the same part of the world. This idea is summed up by the French concept of terroir, meaning that the air, soil and climate of a particular region impart a unique taste to local food products. When grazing cows eat grass, flowers and weeds, the aromatic chemical compounds from this diet end up in their milk and, so, in the cheese. Complimentary flavors are found in fruit and vegetables grown in this region's soil.

A good example of a terroir pairing is to serve membrillo, which is a delicately sweet, jellied paste made in Spain from quince (a yellow-skinned fruit that looks and tastes like a cross between a pear and an apple), with manchego, a Spanish sheep's milk cheese that is rich and buttery, but with a slightly nutty aftertaste.

Another is drizzling a few drops of Modena balsamic vinegar on top of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a cow's milk cheese, both of which come from Emilia Romagna, a region in northern Italy, often called the "food valley," where the Po River is sheltered by the Apennine Mountains.

"After balsamic vinegar is aged a minimum of 12 to 25 years, it looks like molasses, is naturally sweet and a perfect complement to Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is quite mild in flavor," says Kim Sayid, a spokeswoman for Academia Barilla, one of the most esteemed makers of this vinegar.

Another general guideline is that the more delicately flavored a cheese, the more subtle its condiment, and vice versa, meaning bold cheeses can stand up to a piquant pairing. For something like a subtle pecorino, then, which is a sheep's milk cheese, a good pairing might be honey - perhaps even a raspberry or blueberry-blended honey, which is made locally by Lord Byron's Apiary in Thurmont.

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