Tasting chocolate is a life-long journey. Every taste of chocolate brings a new challenge to my abilities to evaluate and describe the flavors I experience. As a taster, I’m always interested in stretching and growing my palate.
I’ve recently taken my palate in new directions by pairing chocolate with different foods and beverages. One pairing that has been high on my list is cheese and chocolate.
A friend and fellow foodie offered to introduce me to cheese expert, Alison Leber. The former proprietor of the Seattle institution, Brie & Bordeaux, Alison has over 30 years of experience in food with a particular focus on wine and cheese. She has worked as a sommelier and an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional. Through her career, she has worked in many aspects of the cheese, wine and sustainable agriculture business. Among her many current pursuits, Alison leads cheese tasting and making classes, and she operates a Roving Cheese Shop at various locations throughout the Puget Sound region.
I got together last week with Alison and my Assistant Chocophile, Elyse Whitney, to pair cheeses with chocolate. While I’ve heard that cheese and chocolate go well together, I hadn’t tried to pair them before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Alison walked us through a cheese tasting, which was similar to the protocol for tasting chocolate. We evaluated the look of the cheese and we bent/broke it in half to evaluate the “friability” of the cheese. If it was pliable and it didn’t break in half right away it was a younger cheese. Older cheeses and cheeses made by certain methods might break more easily and crumble upon breaking. We smelled the aroma along the edge of the cheese where we had broken it in half. Then we tasted it. Closing my eyes and letting it melt in my mouth like chocolate was an amazing experience. Like any focused tasting, I began to notice flavor complexities that I had never tasted in cheese before.
We tasted our way through the first flight of cheese, and as the flavor profile of each cheese developed, I picked chocolates to taste with the cheeses on our second tasting through the same flight. The chocolates I chose were just ideas as I tried to think about what would go well with the flavor profile of a particular cheese. I’ve learned that even my best guesses are just that, guesses. You don’t really know until you try the two together.
Tasting is a very personal experience, so while we had consensus on a number of pairings we didn’t have consensus on all of them. We did have consensus, however, when a chocolate and a cheese were a bad match. You could tell by the looks on our faces. We tried cow, goat and sheep milk cheeses. We were unsuccessful in finding a sheep milk cheese that worked with the chocolates we were tasting. That will be our challenge for a future tasting.
Lauren’s Favorite Pairings
Below is a list of the pairings that I liked. Some of these cheeses are only available through Alison’s Roving Cheese Shop, so I recommend paying Alison a visit.
Cherry Valley Herbed Rose Butter with Valrhona Araguani 72%
This was the pairing I was least excited about, but it turned out to be my favorite pairing of the tasting. I’d serve this for dessert any day!
Jasper Hill Vault 5 Cheddar with Cacao Hunters Arauca 70% or Valrhona Caramelia 36% Milk Chocolate with Crunchy Pearls
Either of these pairings is excellent. Choose based on how sweet you want to go.
Laura Chenel Fresh Chevre with The Smooth Chocolator Tanzania 70%
I thought the bubble gum note of this chocolate was a wonderful combination with the fresh chevre. While my colleagues didn’t dislike it, they were less enthusiastic. Alison thought it “wanted to be a dessert”.
Midnight Moon by Cypress Grove with Amedei Red 70%
The Amedei Red is a 70% dark chocolate bar spiked with freeze-dried raspberries, cherries and strawberries. The intense red fruit and chocolate flavors paired well with this cheese. We also tried this cheese with Areté Brasil 70%. While the flavors were pleasant, I felt like the cheese stepped on the chocolate flavor.
Summer Milk Comte with Areté Brasil 70%
This pairing left me with a lovely citrus/lemon finish that I did not notice when tasting the cheese on its own.
Mull of Kintyre Scottish Cheddar with Patric Red Coconut Curry 64% or Valrhona Caramelia 36% Milk Chocolate with Crunchy Pearls
This cheese reminded me of the unique flavor of fondue that comes from from the combination of cheese, garlic and Kirschwasser. Elyse tasted notes of caramelized onions. We were all surprised at how well this very savory cheese paired with the Patric Red Coconut Curry 64%. We had consensus on this one. The very sweet, buttered-popcorn-like taste of the Valrhona Caramelia was also surprise winner.
Ocelli Chestnut with Valrhona Bahibe 46% Milk, Valrhona Ivoire 35% White Chocolate or Valrhona Dulcey 32% Toasted White Chocolate
This cheese had a very bright fruit note that stepped on a lot of the dark chocolates. We liked it with the sweeter chocolates.
Cheeseland Natural Hickory Smoked Gouda NOT with Valrhona Manjari 64%
This was a very interesting cheese, and one we had trouble pairing with chocolate. Alison is not a fan of many of the smoked Goudas on the market because they add liquid smoke. This cheese, on the other hand, is naturally smoked over hickory wood. If she had not told me this cheese was smoked, I would not have known. We tasted it first without chocolate, and it was a wonderful gouda with excellent complexity and not a hint of smoke. I’m not usually a fan of smoky things in any of my foods, so I was surprised that I liked this one. Then we paired it with the Valrhona Manjari. It transformed the cheese into a completely different beast. Suddenly the smoke was very apparent, overpowering our palates with notes of bacon and the flavors of the more traditional smoked Goudas on the market. While we did not like the combination, it was fascinating to taste how much a chocolate could influence the flavors of a cheese.
Terre de Volcans Bleu d’Auvergne 100% Cow with Valrhona Caramelia 36% Milk Chocolate with Crunchy Pearls
Alison really liked Valrhona Caramelia with this one. I wasn’t sold.
Laura Chenel’s Fig & Grapefruit Chevre with Soma Madagascar 70%
This was one of my favorite pairings. Where this chocolate normally offers the strong red fruit notes of Madagascar with perhaps a hint of citrus, this pairing brought out the orange notes in the Madagascar chocolate. Instead of a cherry bomb, it was an orange bomb.