Holiday season is upon us with entertaining in full swing. One of the most popular items on the holiday table is a cheese tray — served either as an appetizer or offered après dinner, the French way.
So I reached out to few cheese shops, among them Fromagerie Sophie and Vivant Fine Cheese, two favorite destinations for a turophile (cheese fancier). My mission started with veteran cheese monger Sophie Boban-Doering, owner of San Luis Obispo’s popular cheese shop Fromagerie Sophie. The store is stocked with some 60 to 70 cheeses with a database of over 300, mostly imported with a small US selection from California, Washington State, Oregon and Indiana.
A visit with Boban-Doering is like a Cheese 101 lesson; it’s a total immersion and education. There are a few essentials in assembling a well-crafted cheese platter.
“Think of your cheese board as setting a table,” advises Boban-Doering, “how you want to present different colors, textures, heights and profiles of cheeses.” Let your creativity guide you in embellishing with edible flowers, dried and fresh fruits, nuts and honeycomb.
Allow your guests the opportunity to taste and explore varieties they may not be familiar with by selecting three to five options with flavors that are mild and comforting yet bold.
Any rules or guidelines about cheese and wine pairing? I ask.
While you want the wine to compliment the cheese, for Boban-Doering there are no hard rules. Yes, there are books and guidelines, she notes, “but I generally play around with what tastes good and what brings out the perfect marriage between cheese and wine.” She trusts her palate and isn’t afraid to experiment.
“I’ve done things that have been off-the-wall and they’ve worked,” she admits. For example, one of her favorite pairing is a crisp sauvignon blanc with the Spanish goat cheese, Cabra Romero, but recently she tried it with a heavy red blend from Jada Winery. “It was fabulous,” she recalls. “It was like a roasted chicken dinner moment.”
So have fun with it and you’ll know whether or not it works is her advice.
Trust your palate.
Since the shop opened five years ago, Fromagerie Sophie has been a go-to shop for Central Coast wineries for their cheese and wine pairing events. Boban-Doering recalls: “When we first started doing pairing with wineries, I wasn’t sure if people were ready for it. But we under estimated the palate that people have.”
To assemble a holiday platter, Boban-Doering advises that it’s not as crucial to present different regions as it is to include a range of cheeses — one from each of sheep, cow, buffalo and goat milk. “They all bring different profiles and textures,” she notes, plus the sheep and goat cheeses are easier on people with lactose intolerance.
Next, incorporate color with such orange-tinted cheeses as Gouda from Holland, Mimolette from France or the classic British Sparkenhoe Red Leicester. Boban-Doering offers me a taste of Midnight Moon, a good match with syrah. The goat Gouda, made in Holland exclusively for California’s Cypress Grove cheese company, is a nutty creamy cheese with a delicious caramel finish.
Include soft creamy cheeses such as the Italian Robiolo di Capra, a cow and goat milk blend wrapped in leak leaves from Piedmont; or Époisses de Bourgogne, the odiferous, soft, washed rind, cow cheese from Burgundy (an acquired taste, this cheese happens to be among my favorites).
The cheese monger hands me a sliver of the Burgundian Soumaintrain, a creamy cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, a good match with albariño or a steely chardonnay, notes Boban-Doering.
Blue cheeses wrapped in grape or fig leaves, soaked in brandy or whiskey, are also a must on the cheese board. “They’re all different with their own personalities, some have a bite and others have a creamy mouth feel,” Boban-Doering comments.
For the four library wines I proposed to Boban-Doering, she came up with the following pairings.
To pair with a 2011 Monopole Windward Vineyards pinot noir, she suggested Tallegio, a sweet and tangy unpasteurized cow’s milk from Italy’s Lombardy region. For the 2013 Ecluse petite sirah, her pick was Shakerag Blue from Sequatchie, TN, a crumbly dense cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and wrapped in Chattanooga Whiskey-soaked fig leaves.
For the 2000 Clos Du Val Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, Boban Doering had two choices — a creamy textured truffle oil-rubbed Sottocenere di Tartufo from Italy’s Veneto region or the robust firm and creamy Tomme de Rabelais, named after the Renaissance satirist Francoise Rabelais.
As for Rava Winery’s sparkling, the choice was L’Edel de Cleron, a soft and creamy cheese wrapped in a tree bark from France’s Jura region.
At Vivant Fine Cheese in downtown Paso, I found an overwhelming selection. The store stocks over 250 varieties, mostly imported and a small selection from California, Oregon and Wisconsin. There were such offerings as the Derby sage cheddar from Holland, an Alpine cheese coated with herbs and flowers, the truffle-laced Moliterno from Sardinia and an Irish cheddar infused with Porter beer.
As for pairing, cheese monger Danika Gordon’s mantra is “Brie and bubbles” for holiday sparking wines. For white Rhône blends, she suggests the scented Honey Bee, an aged goat Gouda from Holland, and for an oaky Chardonnay, the creamy Brie style sheep cheese Ewenique from Central Coast Creamery.
Dessert wines like Port and Madeira are a match made in heaven with salty blue cheeses, such as Oregon’s Rogue River soaked in pear brandy and wrapped in grape leaves, a seasonal cow’s milk cheese aged for 15 months and released during fall season.
Nearby, Di Raimondos Italian Market and Cheese Shop offers a selection of some 50 varieties. For holiday entertaining, cheese monger Cameron Hutton suggests the cave-aged Mimolette; an earthy Spanish blue Valdeon; Dreamweaver, a beer-washed soft goat cheese; and Old Quebec, the classic three-year aged Canadian cheddar.
Over in Templeton, the popular 15 Degrees C Wine Shop & Bar’s owner Ali Carscaden also advises to add depth and dimension, colors and textures to the cheese board. The general rule, she notes, is to select wines high in acidity that will cut through the creaminess of the cheese. Humboldt Fog goat cheese, Cambria-based Stepladder Creamery’s olive oil-marinated Chévre and Central Coast Creamery’s semi-hard cow’s milk Bishop’s Peak are some of the local cheeses in this shop.
For a cheese and dessert combo, try a wedge of the luscious triple cream Brillat Savarin seductively tucked into brandy-poached pears, a decadent finish to your holiday party.