Chocolate and Cheese Pairing Class Notes

Another fun class with the incomparable Betty Koster of Fromagerie L'Amuse (IJmuiden, Netherlands)

Chocolate and cheese can go quite well together.

However, I find the approach that many people use to create pairings to be too self–limiting. There is the received wisdom (akin to red wine goes with meat and white wine goes with fish). And then there is my approach, which follows the thinking that it's not enough to think outside the box, it's necessary to completely forget what boxes are.

This is the third pairing that Betty and I have done together. The first was in October 2016 during the Origin Chocolate Event in Amsterdam with chef Kees Raat. Here the pairing included Shropshire Blue with a walnut brownie; truffled Brie with a meringue; Gjetost with chocolate mousse and coffee-infused dark chocolate cat's tongue; and Burrata with olive oil, large-flake sea salt, and chipotle bonbon, among others. Betty and I did a follow-up class at Bedford Cheese in NYC last June that was largely a recreation of the October ’16 pairing.

But for this class we wanted to do something entirely different. Rather than present pairings, our goal was to help participants better understand the pairing process. This approach works with the fact that everyone has their own sense of taste and own sense of smell as well as personal taste preferences. Rather than focusing on my taste or Betty's taste, we put the focus on the participants' tastes.

Table setting

We served seven cheeses and seven chocolates on two separate plates. These were accompanied by still water, bread, raisins soaked in Jurançon, basil–infused olive oil, and orange slices.

There were two white wines – both Sauvignon Blancs – a red (Mencilla), and a sour ale (Rodenbach Grand Cru).

Pairings One through Four

We started out using a pairing exercise I call 3 and 1, 1 and 3.

The first flight consisted of one cheese - Manchego 1605 from Finca Sierra la Solana tasted it against three chocolates, all made from beans from Peru, from different areas and different varietals. Dandelion started us off at 70% followed by Pralus at 75% and then Zotter at 82%. These three chocolates reflect the different styles of the chocolate makers. Dandelion tends to under-roast in order to emphasize a particular quality of the bean they like and don't add any cocoa butter so the melt and mouthfeel tends to be less unctuous, the Pralus is typically French with a fair amount of added cocoa butter and François tends to prefer a heavier roast, and the Zotter doesn't eat like an 85%; intense yes, but not bitter, with a lovely melt/mouthfeel that they deliver in all their bars. What we wanted to highlight was how differences in the fat content and sweetness of the chocolate were highlighted or downplayed by the fat and aromas of the cheese. Not surprising (to me) was that the three combinations are vastly different from each other.

We next went with one chocolate, the Zotter 80/20 dark milk (no added sugar, just cocoa beans and milk powder) with Harbison from Jasper Hill Farms, a truffled Mt Tam from Cowgirl Creamery, and Wilde Weide (Gouda) from Fromagerie L'Amuse. The 80/20 is a huge chocolate and eats darker than the 80% might suggest. That's not because of the roast, which is balanced, but because the only sugar in the bar comes from the lactose in the milk. When paired with the Mt Tam — which is a triple créme layered with mascarpone and shaved black truffles assembled specifically for this class — the depth of the chocolate reinforced the truffle flavor in a very long, dark, tasty finish. The Wilde Weide is an aged Gouda with lots of those yummy calcium crystals that crunched nicely with the chocolate. While many cheeseheads nominate Harbison as one of their favorites, I am not a huge fan of soft cheeses other than fresh goat milks. So my personal favorite here was the pairing with the Wilde Weide.

Intermezzo - The Wine

This is a French Sauvignon Blanc and since being introduced to it in 2016 it has become one of my two favorite white wines to pair with chocolate (the other is a style - Prosecco). This is a wine that has a lot going on, including a bright floral/fruity nose with some minerality on the finish. And it's not sweet. It goes surprisingly well with a broad range of cheeses and chocolates and often acts as a medium that melds the flavors of the cheese and chocolate together. It creates the conditions where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which is my ultimate definition of a good pairing.

There was a California (Ojai) Sauvignon Blanc that was not nearly as bright as the Mont Gravet and an inexpensive Spanish red. When we did taste the red against the darker chocolates we ran into the clashing tannins phenomenon that, to my mind, makes it harder to pair red wines with dark chocolates.

One of my favorite all-time sour ales - very versatile pairing choice

Despite the commonality in funky fermentation flavors, not everyone was a fan of the Rodenbach, which is one of my personal favorites and one I fought for over the more conventional choice of a chocolate stout or porter. The acidity of the Rodenbach makes it a tough match, but when it does ... it's amazing.

Pairings Five, Six, and Seven

These were proper pairings that Betty and I came up with.

The first of these was the Askinosie Goat's Milk White Chocolate with the Cravero Parmigiano Reggiano. The white chocolate is not all that goaty and it has a subtle sweetness that tones down the saltiness of the cheese. This is one pairing that I liked with both the Mont Gravet and the Rodenbach, as hard as that may be to imagine.

The next was the Comté Reserve from Marcel Petite with the Zotter Typically Austria, which marries grey poppy cream with smooth walnut praliné and a touch of cinnamon. Walnuts are common on cheese plates and the cinnamon with the walnuts and poppy cream were a good match for the nutty sweetness of the Comté - generally recognized as one of the best you can find.

The final pairing was Jasper Hill Farms' Bayley Hazen Blue with another Zotter selection, the Gölles Apple Balsamico bar. Quince paste is often found on cheese plates but I don't know of a chocolate that has quince paste in it, so the apple balsamic gelée seemed like a good choice, especially because balsamic vinegars are often found on cheese plates. The Bayley Hazen Blue is sometimes referred to as a gateway blue cheese because it's not very assertive or salty. The acidity of the balsamic gelée was a nice foil for the funk of the mold and the walnut layer of the bar provided a nice, nutty, counterpoint.

The Process

Betty proposed the cheeses and I proposed the chocolates and we made our selections back in December. Many of Betty's choices were based on personal liking and what was going to be possible to get. I based my choices on style and origin, without any conscious reference to the cheeses. I did, however, think about flavors that are commonly found on cheese plates. We made the actual pairings about an hour before the start of the class. Fortunately we found things that basically worked, but we weren't completely worried about it as you learn the most from failed pairings – and if you don't have a failure you're not trying hard enough.

During the class, Betty described the cheeses and I described the chocolates. We walked people through the combinations and talked about our perceptions of them, and encouraged everyone to share theirs, especially when they disagreed. We also encouraged people to stray outside the combinations we came up with to experiment with their own, adding the olive oil or raisins or wines into the mix.

And, of course, a class like this could not have taken place without the help of everyone at the Cheese School of San Francisco as well as encouragement from Steph and Lassa Skinner of Culture Magazine.

Serious props to Clay and the team -- this was an excellent event and struck the right balance between very informative and very enjoyable.

When I told people I was going to a chocolate/cheese class they looked at me like I had two heads, often saying, "yuck!" Their loss, believe me.

I like cheese, I like chocolate. How to best combine them was a mystery. I learned it's kind of that way for the experts, too, but also that there can be more than one "right" pairing.

When we did the "1 & 3" tasting, the biggest surprise was that I liked truffled cheese. I've always LOATHED truffles, but here they worked well and the Zotter 80/20 was perfect. Makes sense that having only lactose to sweeten both the bar and the cheese would provide common ground. It worked with the gouda also, and while the Harbison was good with the Zotter, it was my least favorite of the three. That cheese was more on its own trip, but others disagreed.

When I heard Betty say that the Mont Gravet was her favorite go-to wine because it went with everything I thought, "Yeah, OK". She was right.

She also let us know WHY the AOP designation can dictate minimum standards, but not necessarily the highest standards. Some cows are fed hay that's only from the region, some eat only 50% of their hay from the region, and taste is impacted. I felt like a cheese virgin after listening to her. Of course, she admitted that most of her cheeses are exported, as they're expensive and not everywhere can people pay 60€/kg. Her Wilde Weide Gouda was probably the best I've ever tasted and was so perfect with the Zotter 80/20.

Mouth feel in a chocolate/cheese pairing is as important as taste, IMHO. So the heavier cocoa butter content of the Pralus stood up to some of the cheeses well. Order of tasting and some rest in between were also important -- taste buds required a bit of recovery time after some tastings.

Perhaps what was most appreciated was that we were made to feel entitled to our own preferences. Nothing was "dictated" to us about the "right" pairing or the "right" taste combinations. Instead, it was about investigating and broadening our knowledge and thoughts and being open to finding additional likes -- and maybe even dislikes. Hey, not everything works, and Clay noted that that's OK, too -- you don't try, you never learn. He said something that should be applied throughout life: "If you never fail, you're not learning anything." Touche.

Red wine with the chocolates? Honestly, my least favorite thing. Too tannic, too competitive with the subtleties of chocolate. With certain cheese, OK. With chocolate, I preferred the Mont Gravet, but also, at least for one of the pairings, the Rodenbach sour ale. I LOATHE beer. Haven't had a beer in years. This was good, and very good with the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the sweetness of the goat milk white chocolate was ideal for cutting the saltiness of the cheese.

Zotter chocolate was the star, with 3 samples on our plate. The Zotter "Typically Austria" was tasted with the Comté and the hazelnuts in the bar were good with the sweet nutty flavor of the cheese (this was an incredible Comté).

That bar didn't compare however with the Zotter Apple Balsamico bar paired with the Hayley Blue. Neither the chocolate nor the cheese were too acidic, allowing the apple flavor to meet the not-to-astringent Blue for a good ride on the tongue.

If you get the chance to take this class sometime, do it. You'll wish you'd done it earlier.

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One addition: We tasted a piece of the goat's milk white with the Dandelion 70% Piura Blanco from Peru. First with the white on the bottom, dark on top, then the reverse. What a difference! The chocolate on the bottom coats your tongue first, and influences the taste of the chocolate on the top. Very different tastes, even though both are technically in the mouth at the same time. Great exercise.

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