Just fondue it: Pairing Champagne & sparkling wine with cheese

Photo credit: Direct Matin

One of the cheesiest holidays of the year (both literally and sometimes, figuratively) is New Year’s Eve. Whether you choose to go big or spend a quiet night at home, however, celebrating with cheese is always a Do.

Given Haystack Mountain’s high-altitude location, we like to get all retro and break out the fondue pot or racler (a scraper used to make the dish raclette; more on that in a moment). There are few dishes that better embody the essence of an Alpine winter than these Swiss specialties, and because they’re traditionally consumed in a communal manner, they’re ideal for entertaining or a party of two. They’re also ridiculously easy to make, as long as you have a few essential pieces of kitchen equipment (if the ‘70s left you devoid of a fondue pot, use a double-boiler, instead).

Fondue is traditionally enhanced with a splash of kirsch (clear cherry brandy) or dry white wine and a cut clove of garlic, heated over an open flame in a caquelon, or pot. Depending upon the region, the cheeses vary, but it’s always a combination of Alpine styles such as Gruyère and Vacherin- we like to substitute our Sunlight and Wall Street Gold. To make fondue more of an, ahem, balanced meal, add cubes of cured meat and sliced apples or pickled vegetables to the hunks of bread used for dipping into the cheese.

Photo credit: ZSG

Raclette hails from the canton of Valais, where the cheese of the same name is produced. The dish is made by propping a half-wheel of cheese before an open fire; once its surface blisters, the molten bits scraped into a bowl filled with chunks of boiled potatoes; pickled onions, cornichons and air-dried beef are served on the side. It’s one of the most rustic, satisfying dishes I can think of, made even better when consumed after a daylong snow sesh.

If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace, you can replicate raclette at home by purchasing a special holder for the cheese, but you can also buy electric raclette makers (cheating, but who’s judging?). The most important thing are the classic accompaniments and a cheese that approximates the nutty, earthy, slightly funky profile of raclette cheese (our cheesemaker, Jackie, recently made raclette using Wall Street Gold).

Our cheesemaker, Jackie Chang, with Wall Street Gold.

To your health

When it comes to pairings, Champagne and sparkling wines are the easiest things to match with cheese, regardless of style (stinky, bloomy, Alpine, etc.). Their effervescence cleanses the palate, and won’t clash with most flavors inherent to the cheese. If however, you’d like to take your pairing to the next level, keep reading.

A few years ago, I attended a seminar at the Après Ski & Cocktail Classic on pairing bubbly with fondue and raclette. The panel was led by Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy and Jim Butchart, Culinary Director of Aspen Skiing Company. McCoy suggests pairing fondue with a heavier weight sparkling wine, in order to cut through the butterfat. Rather than something light and sweet like Prosecco, go for “small-batch “grower Champagnes” like Aubrey or Pierre Péters, or, alternatively, an Alsatian Riesling or Grüner Veltliner.”

Butchart is more of a purist, preferring to pair Champagne with fondue, “due to the fact that they’re both celebratory indulgences that most people don’t allow themselves on the daily.” He suggests a crisp, fruit-forward Champagne to “refresh the palate, readying you for another dip of fondue.” Try an affordable brut style, such as Perrier Jouet Grande Brut or Guy Charlemagne Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru Reserve.

However you choose to celebrate, all of us at Haystack Mountain wish you a happy and safe New Year’s, and all the best for the coming year. Cheers to cheese!

Making your (holiday) cheese plate great

Following a few hacks can make you a cheese plate master. Photo credit: Sam en Croute

Following a few tips can make you a cheese plate master. Photo credit: Sam en Croute

Cheese scares the bejeezus out of many people, especially when it comes to serving up a plate for dinner or party guests: The intimidation factor is similar to what plenty of folks experience when ordering or purchasing wine.

While there are indeed rules of thumb when it comes to the slicing, serving and pairing of cheese, I promise that the world will not come to an end if you or your party guests don’t follow them to the letter. The simple guidelines below will enable you to easily create a sweet or savory cheese plate that leave your guests swooning, and your bank account intact.

Less is more when it comes to serving cheese, so leave the fussy plating and overly-complex condiments in the dust and focus on the fun part: eating and socializing. You’re welcome.

Photo credit: Food Network

Photo credit: Food Network

Shopping

  • If you’re serving other food, allow one ounce of each cheese per person (16 ounces = 1 pound).
  • Limit your selection to three or four cheeses for up to 12 guests- more than that will blow out your palate.
  • There are no hard-and-fast rules- the cheese police will not arrive to cart you away. The important thing is achieving a balance of flavors and textures, as is choosing what you like. You can also use a theme to guide your purchases, like all goat’s milk, blues or aged cheeses. I recommend:
  • One creamy or mild cheese
  • One semi-soft washed rind (these are your stinky cheeses- like Red Cloud. Note that these smell more pungent than they taste) or bloomy-rind cheese (like our Haystack Peak, Camembert or Snowdrop- this style has a velvety white or grayish rind. Psst, the rind is always edible unless you’re dealing with a wax-coated or bandage-wrapped cheese).
  • One hard (aged) or blue cheese
Our Red Cloud funks up a savory cheese plate- we suggest pairing with beer.

Our Red Cloud funks up a savory cheese plate- we suggest pairing with beer.

Serving

  • Cheese is ideally plated clockwise, from mild to most intense- this prevents a strong cheese from overpowering the palate/other cheeses. Since policing your guests is a Party Fail, however, I suggest instead placing cheese cards on your selections so people know what they’re eating.
  • Simplicity is key: The cheese should be the star of the show, so don’t clutter the plate. Two or three seasonal condiments are ideal, not counting bread and/or crackers (the latter shouldn’t have strong flavors, either, to avoid the aforementioned overpowering issue).
  • This is time to bust out that antique serving platter, slab of marble or handcrafted wooden board. Don’t crowd cheeses and accompaniments; my preference is to serve anything drippy or gloppy in separate bowls, with miniature serving utensils (try caviar or salt cellar spoons or jam spreaders). Garnishes should be minimal, such as a sprig of herbs or edible flowers, or place the cheeses atop clean, dry (non-toxic) leaves.
  • No cheese knives? No problem. While each style serves a specific purpose, you can generally get away with using whatever you already own, such as a sharp paring knife and a butter knife (tip: stock up on vintage pieces at flea markets and antique stores).
  • How you cut cheese depends upon its shape and style.
Clutter just makes for confusion. Photo credit: That Cheese Plate

Clutter just makes for confusion. Photo credit: That Cheese Plate

Sweet or Savory?

A cheese plate should be one or the other (savory just means, “not sweet.”). If you’re planning to serve cheese before dinner or for a cocktail party or après ski, accompaniments like salami, pâté, ham or other cured meats are ideal. Provide small dishes of grainy mustard, marinated olives or pickled vegetables on the side, as well as slices of a hearty bread like rye or pumpernickel.

I also love toasted nuts and dried or fresh seasonal fruit (think sliced apples, pears, persimmon) in lieu of the mustard and pickles, for a more refined plate. Serve with hunks of baguette or a country-style levain.

Going for a dessert or pre-brunch plate? Sweet accompaniments like preserves, honeycomb and fresh seasonal or dried fruit are lovely with cheese- particularly soft styles or mild, creamy blues. Serve with rustic walnut levain or plain crackers.

A sweet cheese board, simply rendered. Photo credit: The Kitchn

A sweet cheese board, simply rendered. Photo credit: The Kitchn

Holiday cheese pairing tips: Beer rules!

Photo credit: Drunk Sunshine

Photo credit: Drunk Sunshine

Perhaps one of the most intimidating aspects of cheese is how and what to pair it with. Allow us to reassure you of two important points:

  • Cheese is easier to pair with beer than wine. The tannins, acids, and oak (when used for aging) in wine can be problematic when pairing with cheese, whereas beer and cheese have similar production methods (they’re both grain-based, fermented products, and tend to have similar flavor profiles).
  • While there are some key tips to follow with regard to pairing, there are  exceptions to every rule. The bottom line, in our opinion, is to eat and drink what you enjoy, and dissenters and haters be damned!

Still, we think it’s helpful to provide pairing rules of thumb, because a good match is, in the words of a cheesemonger we know, like a good marriage. Both parties should have their own, distinct, positive qualities, but when combined, magic happens.

Plays well with others. Photo credit: Healthy Recipe Ecstasy

Plays well with others. Photo credit: Healthy Recipe Ecstasy

Read on for what we feel are the most crucial points to remember in pairing cheese, be it with wine, beer, spirits, or “dry” or other specialty sodas.

  • Match intensities. For example, a big, bold, young Cabernet Sauvignon or chocolatey Stout will completely overpower many cheeses. Conversely, a soft, delicate varietal will be lost when paired with a super funky or sharp cheese.
  • Bear in mind terroir. Don’t just assume “this grape varietal will go with this cheese,” because variations in climate, geography, vintage, and production method vary greatly. The same is true of cheese. Ultimately, tasting before you buy or serve is the best way to determine if you have a match; barring that, talk to your cheesemonger, or refer to this handy post!
  • Aim for similarties or contrasts. A rich, buttery cheese such as a triple crème or brie will go well with a wine or beer with similar qualities. That said, too much butteriness is overkill. You want your palate to be refreshed and cleansed by the beverage. Strive for balance, and when in doubt, bubbles go with every style of cheese.
  • Think about what you’re trying to achieve. If you have a super bomb, special cheese, talk to your local wine shop about what to serve with it.  Conversely, if you have a rare, 1959 Chateau Lafite, you want to make sure you find a cheese that does it justice.

Some of our favorite pairings for Haystack cheeses follow. Use them as a guideline for pairing similar styles:

Camembert or othery earthy, mushroomy bloomy-rinds: Beaujolais or other soft, fruity-driven red wines.

Snowdrop or other floral, grassy bloomy rinds: Sauvignon Blanc, Lambic, or Belgian Ales.

Haystack Peak or other grassy, slighty salty/ash-coated bloomy-rinds: Fruit-driven white wines like Pinots Gris, lambics, or Pilsner.

Queso de Mano or other nutty cheeses: Hefeweizen or light-to-full-bodied red wines.

Sunlight or Red Cloud or other stinky/washed rind cheeses: Bring on the beer, baby! Belgians, ales, hard cider, lambic, or floral IPA’s. Wine? Try fruit-driven whites like a dry Riesling.

From pilsners to porters, all beers pair well with cheese. Photo credit: Vine Pair

From pilsners to porters, all beers pair well with cheese. Photo credit: Vine Pair