Fine cheese calls for handmade, crusty, ungussied-up bread. Its simple goodness makes it a perfect companion. However, some flavored breads enhance the cheese-tasting experience, when the primary flavors complement one another. For example, since I love the flavor of nuts and goat cheese together, I often serve chevre with a walnut-studded loaf of whole-wheat bread. Olive bread is particularly good with any sheep's-milk cheese. A crusty baguette or sourdough loaf is an ideal foil for unctuous, soft-ripened cheeses such as Italian Toma Carmagnola or French Gratte-Paille and for aromatic, washed-rind cheeses such as French Livarot or Spanish Mahon. The earthiness of whole-grain and multigrain breads complements English farmhouse cheeses. In general I don't approve of crackers with cheese, but if you must succumb to crunch, look for crisp, plain, flatbread-style crackers.
Choosing the proper wines to go with specific cheeses is not the mind-bending mystery you might imagine. Cheese is partnered best with wine produced near the cheese's home. For instance, serve Sancerre wines with Crottin de Chavignol, Chianti with Pecorino Toscano, or a strong Spanish Rioja with Cabrales. If you're serving a range of cheeses, you should offer a range of wines. What matters most is that neither overwhelms the other. A balance of flavor intensity is the key. It's also worth remembering that a great cheese will make an average wine seem greater than it is and an average cheese will drag down a great wine.
Cured meats are very compatible with cheese. Serve Italian prosciutto di Parma, with its soft texture and stunning flavor, or a tasty American-made prosciutto. Another good choice is paper-thin slices of subtly flavored Bundnerfleisch, a traditional air-dried beef from Switzerland. Burgundy-colored jamon serrano, the extraordinarily flavorful and sweet marbled ham of Spain, complements sheep's-milk cheeses. Like the cheese they accompany, the meats should be served at room temperature.
Fruit has long been the stereotype accompaniment for cheese, but frankly, on the whole, I find it the least inspired of all possibilities. If I do choose fruit to accompany cheese, it is going to be so seasonal, so achingly sweet, so crisp or pudding-soft, so aromatic and full of juice, so just-harvested that leaves or vines are still attached. If I'm not convinced that the fresh fruit available to me is going to provoke that kind of response, I'll look elsewhere for something worthy of being served with cheese. For example, dried fruit—the best of which are Medjool dates, Mission or Turkish figs, cranberries, cherries, raisins, prunes from Agen in southwest France, and the yellow French plums called mirabelles—are all sublime with most cheeses.
Another of my favorite accompaniments is olives, washed of their brine and dressed as is customary for their particular type and region of origin. Among the possibilities are purple Gaeta olives with lemon zest, crushed garlic, and extra-virgin olive oil or Moroccan olives with fresh rosemary, crushed garlic, and extra-virgin olive oil. Table olives come into their own when served with sheep's- and goat's-milk cheeses. And indeed, their origins are closely linked—practically all such cheeses are made with the milk of animals who graze in pastures surrounded by, or actually among, olive groves.
Though the idea may be new to many food lovers, nuts are delicious with many cheeses. Almonds, which happen to be indigenous to regions known for their sheep's-and goat's-milk cheeses, are wholly compatible with these cheeses. This is especially true if the almonds are toasted. And toasted hazelnuts and black walnuts are both great with all cheeses.
Serving chutney with cheese is one of my latest passions. The match is such a natural one that I'm a little shocked it has taken me this long to recognize it. This condiment, made with an abundance of fruit, vinegar, sugar, and spices, goes with many cheeses, though I most enjoy it with English farmhouse cheeses. Their sturdy, dry, somewhat crumbly textures and rustic, rather muted flavors are delightfully complemented by the spicy sweetness of a chutney. (Make an English Cheddar and Major Grey chutney sandwich on whole-wheat bread if you don't believe me.) Sharp American Cheddars, such as Vermont-made Grafton Village Cheddar, are another good match.
Traditional French-style chevres, too, can be served with chutney. Choose a slightly firm chevre that has been allowed to ripen for a week or so and is not too moist. Il Mongetto, a family-operated farm turned artisanal food producer in Italy's Piedmont, makes a chutney called mostarda di uva, which combines Barolo grape must, hazelnuts, quinces, apricots, and mustard seed. It is absolutely stunning served with Fontina d'Aosta or Major Farm's Vermont Shepherd Cheese.
Fruit pastes, another unusual accompaniment, are simultaneously primitive and elegant served in tandem with peasanty cheeses such as Italian Fiore Sardo, English Wensleydale, and Spanish Roncal. One to look for at specialty food stores is membrillo from Catalonia, a sweet quince specialty of ancient origin. Serve it cut into thin slices.
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