Selecting and pairing cheese, charcuterie and wine

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By Jill Erber

What is it about cheese, wine and charcuterie that keeps us enthralled year after year?

Simply put, folks love good food that is simply prepared, easy to savor and fun to explore. We love curation, education and experimentation — eating as we learn and learning as we eat.

With cheese and wine, this practice is brought to the forefront, as almost no other foods carry with them the same blend of history, locality, craftsmanship, science and art. The breadth and diversity of options create almost endless opportunities to experiment.

In this back-to-school season, let’s take a moment to educate ourselves on the wonders of cheese, wine and charcuterie, while learning how to best select and pair them.

Simultaneously simple and astoundingly complex, cheese and wine are humble liquids transformed, becoming things that excite, elevate and sustain. What starts as fresh milk or grape juice becomes something else entirely, as subtle deviations in climate, recipe, technique or mood can take the finished products in countless different directions. The magic is in the transformation, one that is rooted in thousands of years of the human drive to enhance and embellish what we are given.

Historically, cheesemaking was born of necessity. The ability for farmers to convert highly-perishable milk into something that could feed their families during winter made the difference between life and death. Wine, though not necessarily as critical, was once a safer alternative to dirty drinking water, which could carry illness.

As modern technology has made natural preservation less necessary, wine and cheese have become objects of art and sources of local pride, their production and sales keeping entire communities alive. Not surprisingly, these ancient products of the land grew up together and their common reflections of locality keep them closely united.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the third leg in this tripod of purposeful preservation: charcuterie. Like cheese, cooked or cured meats transform a highly perishable raw material into food that can be kept for months — or even years — without spoiling.

In the days before refrigeration, freshly butchered meat would become inedible almost immediately. The brave soul who one ancient day decided to salt, dehydrate, cure and then eat it, will never be known. But that legacy lives on in the thousands of salamis, pâtés and hams that are eaten every day around the world. Even beef jerky has these same illustrious roots.

Now that we’ve learned a little about them, it’s time to focus on how to select and serve cheese, wine and charcuterie like a pro. Let’s go back to school … in the tastiest way.

Tips for selecting cheese

Cheese should be cut and eaten the same day.

We can’t always achieve this, but we can try. Instead of purchasing cheese that has been pre-cut and wrapped in advance, visit a cheese counter where the cheesemonger slices items to order. Small pieces of cheese, once removed from the larger wheel and wrapped in plastic, will begin to degrade in quality almost immediately. You owe it to yourself – and the cheese – to eat it at its prime.

When selecting multiple cheeses, variety is key. With a little help, you can create the perfect blend of milks, textures and styles. That way, everyone finds something that they love. So, don’t hesitate to ask a lot of questions at the cheese counter.

Tips for selecting wine

Experiment with alternatives to well-known and often expensive wines. Sometimes it’s as simple as stepping slightly outside a certified production zone. Other times, hop halfway around the world for the same grape prepared in a similar style.

Some will say there’s nothing like the real thing, but these options can get you pretty darn close and at a fraction of the cost. In my world, wine is to be enjoyed freely without asking, “Is today really worth opening this bottle?”

Here are some specific alternative recommendations:

Swap Champagne for Spanish cava. This wine is fermented in the bottle just like Champagne, giving it similar characteristics and unique bubbliness.

Instead of barolo, go for Langhe rosso. Langhe rosso is a younger version from the same Nebbiolo grape. Plus, drinking Langhe rosso from a great barolo producer is a sure bet.

Instead of California cab, try Chilean cabernet sauvignon. Chilean cab has all the richness of the Californian grape, prepared in the same bold, oak-kissed format.

Swap red Bordeaux for Côtes de Bourg. This wine is Bordeaux-made, but more under the radar than higher-profile appellations and makes for delicious drinking right now.

Tips for selecting charcuterie

There are three main types of charcuterie: salt-cured whole cuts like ham, cured sausages like salami and cooked styles like pâté.

I tend to think of sliced ham as more elegant and sliced salami as more rustic, while pâté can fall in either category depending on preparation.

Regardless of style, sliced charcuterie oxidizes quickly, resulting in a taste that can be flat at best and funky at worst. If you plan on eating your charcuterie that day, choose items that are freshly sliced for you. If you’re waiting until the next day or longer, go for an individual salami that you can cut yourself.

For serving the day of, I recommend sliced jamón serrano, beef bresaola, mousse-style pâté or large-format salami.

If you’re saving it for later, try a country-style pâté or any salami “chub,” which refers to the small, individually cured format.

Pairing tip #1

Select neighboring products and you will never go wrong. There’s no need to grasp the subtleties of the grape, milk or meat unless you want to. Remember: Wine, cheese and charcuterie are all products of the Earth and, in most cases, capture a common culinary spirit that makes them natural partners. Let region be your guide.

My specific pairing recommendations are: prosciutto di parma, parmigiano reggiano and barbera; jamón serrano, manchego and La Mancha tempranillo; and garlic saucisson, fresh chèvre and Sancerre.

Pairing tip #2

Match intensity to enjoy complimentary, not clashing, flavors. Enjoying a delicate fresh chèvre? Skip the big red. Instead, choose a bright, acidic sauvignon blanc. Serving a hard-aged savory Gouda? Grab a full-flavored cabernet sauvignon to stand up to that flavor powerhouse.

Pairing tip #3

Fat loves acid. When pairing rich foods like cheese and charcuterie, select wine that is high in acid, whether red or white. The acid will help to cleanse your palate, making each new bite taste like the first. Examples of high-acid wines are whites like sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio and reds like sangiovese and syrah.

Making great selections and pairings is about sticking to a few basic guidelines and asking for help from your friendly local shopkeeper. There are almost no bad choices, so most importantly, relax and enjoy the bounty before you, remembering the wise words of famed chef Ferran Andrià: “Just to eat is a gift.”

The writer is owner and “Cheese Lady” of Cheesetique. This month, Cheesetique celebrates its 15th anniversary.

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