Hooked on Cheese: Accompaniments 101
Being a cheese expert by trade, I’m constantly asked for my opinion on the best accompaniments for cheese. This is a seemingly simple question that can have a pretty complex answer. Choosing your accompaniments depends on how, when, and in what context you’re planning on serving your cheese. For example: are you offering a formal cheese service? Having a single cheese course during a meal? What will you be drinking (or not drinking) with your cheese? Who will you be eating it with?
While these variables naturally affect accompaniment choices, I’m going to offer some basic suggestions here for types of accompaniments that will work for many occasions. The most important thing to remember is that when selecting an accompaniment, your aim should be to draw equal attention to the cheese and the paired item by accentuating the distinctive flavors in each. As long as you're trying to highlight rather than overpower/overwhelm, you’re on the right track.
Here are the main categories of accompaniments I always suggest:
Breads & Crackers
I love bread! A lot. There’s nothing that compares to tearing into a loaf of warm, crusty bread and topping it with a wedge – or spoonful – of cheese. I personally prefer a simple, dark rustic bread; the toasted wheat flavors add depth to cheese. Always pop your loaf into the oven to warm it and freshen the texture before serving. When you can’t get great bread, go with crackers. I advocate simple, plain crackers, such as high-quality water crackers, so as not to distract from the flavor profile of your cheese. You can certainly use flavored crackers if you know how the flavors pair with specific cheeses (we’ll expand on that topic next time!).
Olives are fantastic for pairing with cheese. Their unique salty quality brings out the flavors in a lot of cheeses, particularly double- and triple-creams. Along those lines, cornichons (or other pickled vegetables) are a good option as well. Then there are savory chutneys and jams, such as tomato jam, a classic Portuguese accompaniment for cheese (I love serving it with full-flavored sheep’s milk cheeses).
Fresh Fruit & Nuts
Any fruit or nut can be paired with cheese, from tree fruit (like apples and pears) to stone fruit (such as peaches), to berries and figs; from pine nuts to pecans to pistachios. Ripe figs with washed rind cheeses are spectacular. Blueberries served with walnuts and a triple-cream cheese are better than desert in my opinion. There are so many combinations you can try out with fruit and nuts; since they come straight from the ground (and therefore don’t have any unnatural flavors) don’t be afraid to experiment.
Honeys, Oils, & Jams
For the purposes of this article, I might have to rename this section “Straight from Katz.” That’s because Napa, California-based Albert Katz and his family are true accompaniment artisans. For starters, they make some of the best olive oil I’ve ever had; olive oil is perfect for drizzling on hard cheeses like Manchego. They’ve also got the honey department covered – their nectar-tracked varietals, such as Citrus Blossom, are marvelous served with firm cow’s milk cheeses like cheddar or Tomme de Savoie. However, my favorite of all of the Katz accompaniments are their award-winning preserves. Jellies and jams have long been standard cheese pairings, but Katz takes them to a new level. For example, their Blenheim Apricot preserves are sublime when served with white bloomy-rinded cheeses; each brings out the contrasting flavors in the other.
If you’re wondering why I’m singing the praises of Katz so highly, remember the aforementioned end-goal of pairings: to have each item heighten the flavors of the other. When you’re using the highest-quality accompaniments possible, you’re bound to bring out the best in each cheese. I can’t emphasize that enough!
So there you have it: the bare-bones basics of cheese accompaniment selection. There are countless creative combinations possible – but I think I’ll delve into those another time.