I’ll never forget the woman who was a customer in a French/Italian Bistro I managed in the early ‘90’s. She asked me why she couldn’t find a Cæser salad on the menu. I explained that we didn’t have one. She said “Isn’t this supposed to be a Mediterranean restaurant?” “Yes,” I replied. Before I got the chance to explain further, she cut me off with the most arrogant tone you could possibly imagine, “young man! If we were in Europe, you would be laughed off the continent!” As awesomely funny as that image was, I just had to help her squeeze one of her overpriced pedicures into that gaping black hole of a mouth for her. “Ma’am, it’s a common misconception, I believe because of the name, that the Cæser salad is Italian or possibly French. The recipe is in fact, Mexican, Tiajuana, to be specific. There is a restaurant there called Cæsar’s that is quite famous for the salad invented by it’s namesake, Cæsar Cardini, an Italian-American immigrant, in the 1920’s. As a matter of fact, it is quite rare to find this salad on any European menus, and if you do, it’s most likely due to American influences and tastes. So, Cæser salad is not European, and by the way, we don’t serve French Fries either.”😀 Okay, it didn’t quite happen like that but my recollection isn’t really that far off and the “laughed off the continent” line really happened like that as far as I can remember.
This story came to mind because it is a good example of how people get an idea in their heads about how something is supposed to be, when the truth is generally quite different, and usually more interesting and fun anyway. I get similar reactions when customers insist on having monstrous, dry, red wines with their cheeses. I think this is yet another example of a little knowledge getting us in trouble. We have heard that the Western Europeans like to drink wine with cheese. This is mostly true with some regional exceptions (Asturians and cider, Belgians and beer come to mind). So, we think that’s what you’re expected to do, right? You pick your favorite wine, which around here is normally a big California Cab type thingy, and grab some cheese. Now you’re very continental, right? Wrong. Old world wines are generally much lower in alcohol than ours, and when the French have the cheese before a meal, it’s almost always a very light or sparkling wine. If they are having a heavy meal and the cheese afterwards, they will have a heavier style red wine with it, and just finish off the bottle with the cheese course for convenience. Remember, their idea of a heavy red is much leaner than ours, and their after dinner cheese selections will tend toward the very fatty and powerful, like blue cheese or triple-cremes.
To keep things simple for y’all, I’ll give you my general order of presence of beverages (with alcohol) to pair with cheese:
2) Hard, sparkling cider
3) Sparkling Wine
4) Dry, light, white wine
5) Dessert Wine
6) Light, dry, red wine
7) Full bodied, dry red wine
There are certainly many subcategories, overlaps, and exceptions, but that’s pretty much my inner dialogue I use to guide people. Three things should be jumping out at you right now. First, it’s no accident that categories one, two, & three feature bubbles. Contrary to popular belief, bubbles go with just about everything, especially cheese! Second, look at the last item, way at the bottom. Pairing bold reds with cheese (unless the wine is fortified), is a nachtmare. Tannin with most cheese clashes like crazy, and the most interesting thing about these wines is usually the power (when they’re too young, as is painfully the norm) and it’s no match for all the salt in cheese. Yes, there are some individual cheeses (triple-cremes, Cheddars) that can soften out the tannin like adding cream to your coffee, but those are the exceptions and good luck trying to taste anything else afterwards. Now, what do you think is the most common beverage we are asked to pair cheese with? Yup, “I have a beautiful bottle of 2015 Chateau no-fruit-too-young-overly-oaked-gravel-lighter-fluid-bomb that I paid $150 for. What cheeses do you recommend with it?” Every day I get that. You want to see me wag my tail like a puppy? Tell me you have a great Belgian Witbier with Brettanomyces or a Champagne. How about a Sancerre? Now we’re talkin’! You will have much more trouble finding a cheese that doesn’t go with these.
That brings me to my fave cheese pairing, beer. That doesn’t mean it’s always an easy pair (you want easy, Champagne, Champagne, Champagne), but the bubbles and the yeasty feel from the fermentation (ditto for good Champagne) work magic with cheese. The ancient, German monks called their beers “liquid bread” because of the wheat and yeast. What could possibly go better with a nice piece of cheese atop a freshly baked baguette? Also, the alcohol content is usually much lower than wine, so you don’t get that hot nostril burn that wreaks havoc with most cheese. Remember, there are way more styles of beer than wine. Another plus is that great beer is way cheaper than great wine. We have a Belgian ale/champagne hybrid thing called Deus which is an extremely expensive bottle of beer, one of the best in the world, and flat out amaze-balls with just about any cheese you can throw at it. I bring Deus very often when I’m invited to someone’s house for dinner and it’s a huge hit. Even the non-beer drinkers flip out over Deus. A 750 ml bottle of one of these greatest beers in the world sells for $34! We also sell a bottle of Araujo Cab, Eisele Vineyard, and it’s one of the best wines I have tasted in my life, for $465 but I wouldn’t want to eat cheese with it.
This is not to say that every beer goes with every cheese. They don’t. But if you tell us what kind of beer you like, we can easily point you in the right cheese direction, and vice-versa. Besides, getting a world class product for usually under $20 makes it easier to experiment and have a little fun.
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